Like a cat who lived through several of his nine lives, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh survived a nearly successful assassination, miraculously recovered in a Saudi military hospital despite extensive injuries, and returned under mysterious circumstances when his absence from the country might have sealed the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) negotiated transition plan. Back in Sana’a, the wily Saleh embarked on incomprehensible delay tactics, which raises a multitude of questions. What does Saleh actually want?
Among the many answers one may fathom, three stand out: Seal his succession, prevent an eventual prosecution at the International Criminal Court, and ensure the 1990 unity of the country.
Eight months into substantial anti-Saleh protests, Yemenis continue to brave tear gas, snipers, and heavy weapons assaults, the likes of which the hapless population has not witnessed for decades. Scores have been killed and unspeakable damage inflicted in Sana’a, Taiz and several other cities. Throughout these months, protesters remain true to their demands, calling for genuine democratic reforms.
For their part, Saleh’s sons and nephews have held on to their relatively strong power bases, insisting on their rights to rule after the current president. Simultaneously, the sons of Abdullah Al Ahmar, the former leader of the Hashid tribal confederation, along with General Ali Mohsin, a half-brother of the president as well as the head of Yemen’s first armoured division, form the core of the opposition.
To be sure, Saleh devoted the bulk of the past decade to consolidate power within his family and, towards that end, entrusted the elite (used here as reference purposes not to impugn any qualities attributed to the) Republican Guards to his son
The putative successor, Ahmad, was long viewed as Saleh’s designated heir even if Yemen is a republic, not a monarchy. Ahmad Bin Ali Abdullah Saleh was seconded by the president’s nephew, Yahya, who heads the so-called riot police. Both men are key actors anxious to hold on to their immensely profitable business activities. Still another nephew, Tarek, is the head of Saleh’s personal bodyguards, but again, what interests all three are vast financial empires above all else.
Needless to say that Saleh’s foes, all blood relations, are equally immersed in extensive financial enterprises too. Hamid Al Ahmar, for example, is one of the most powerful businessmen in the country and owns scores of companies. At one point, Hamid was considered a potential successor to Saleh, although that was before their early 2011 fallout. One of Hamid’s full brothers, Himyar, is the deputy speaker of parliament, while another, Hussain, is a leader of the Hashid, all of whom were heavily invested in a variety of lucrative activities as well.
Whoever succeeds Saleh will, therefore, be in a unique position to make inroads into opposing financial fiefdoms. It is this particular aspect of the crisis that prompted Saleh to return from his Riyadh hospital in haste. Simply stated, the president wants his son Ahmad to save the family business, and any potential deal that does not meet this requirement is dead on arrival.
Equally important is Saleh’s legitimate fear of prosecution at the International Criminal Court. Because Yemeni troops used nerve gas against protesters in Sana’a, a fact that was carefully documented by UN observers, there is a distinct possibility that Saleh may be tried for crimes against humanity. In fact, the UN human rights office recommended that any power transfer deal should not include an amnesty for the president. GCC states, for their part, have offered immunity to Saleh and those serving under him if he were to step down.
Unfortunately, this offer was rejected, probably because Saleh did not believe his interlocutors. His greatest fear is to be subjected to arrest warrants — like Omar Al Bashir, the President of Sudan — or dragged to The Hague for trial like Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Serbia. In the event, Saleh is playing a dangerous game, and chances are good that he will eventually be called to answer various criminal charges.
The Nobel-winning Amnesty International, probably the only recent recipient that deserved the prize, concluded that Saleh should not be immune from prosecution. Clearly, there is enough evidence to try Saleh for extrajudicial executions, torture and enforced disappearances and he certainly would like exemptions from any such charges. It is logical to assume that Saleh will insist that any transition agreement contain specific clauses that he would not be brought to justice.
Finally, Saleh says he is ready to step down but wants to ensure that control of the country is put in “safe hands”, which would presumably preserve the country’s unity and avoid internal clashes similar to the ones that occurred in 1994 and periodically ever since. While there is an element of truth in the ‘stabilisation’ argument, Saleh ought to recognise that opposition towards his regime has become so violent that every delay further immerses Yemen in an all-out civil war that, ironically, will further divide the country. In fact, the greatest danger facing Sana’a today is a full-fledged split between North and South, which would render null and void every unification scheme painstakingly agreed upon.
Tough choices for the besieged leader though the writing on the wall is clear: Yemenis are itching to turn the Saleh page. The sooner, the better.
Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is a commentator and author of several books on Gulf affairs.