Saleh Wins Again

Yemen’s wily leader has once again outwitted the world -- and he’s not going away.


When Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh signed the Gulf agreement in Riyadh over Thanksgiving weekend, mandating that he step down from power, the protesters camped out in Change Plaza at first didn’t know whether to celebrate or explode in anger, so they did both.

Their ambivalence is understandable. The agreement does formally end Saleh’s presidency, but it also grants him amnesty from prosecution and, more significantly, leaves him and his family free to participate in politics in the future. Most importantly, his relatives still command the military and security apparatus. Forces loyal to Saleh continue to kill civilians in Taiz, the relatively cosmopolitan city in the middle of the country. Many wonder whether there has been any change in Yemen at all.

According to the agreement, Vice President Mansour Hadi is now acting president. He has called for early presidential elections to be held on Feb. 28, 2012, and announced the formation of a military committee to oversee the withdrawal of troops from the cities, the resolution of Yemen’s multiple armed conflicts, and the rebuilding of the armed forces. His announcement paved the way for the new prime minister from the opposition, Mohamed Salem Basindwah, to form a new government made up of opposition members and Saleh’s ruling party members — half each. The new government will preside over the presidential elections in February, followed by a two-year interim period in which a new constitution will be written. Another set of parliamentary and presidential elections will follow the adoption of the new constitution in two years’ time.

While on the surface it looks as though the Arab Spring, or the Arab Awakening as it is called locally in Yemen, has toppled another ruler, the details of the agreement appear more like a victory for Saleh.

What a difference a few months can make. As of last spring, Saleh’s top military commander, Ali Muhsin, had defected and the most powerful tribal confederation, the Hashid, had broken with him and was involved in a fierce military conflict with government forces in the capital. Saudi Arabia, the United States, and the European Union were calling for his immediate resignation and were actively seeking his ouster. In June, Saleh and most of his top officials were seriously wounded in an attack on the president’s compound and he was flown to Riyadh for extensive medical treatment. Most thought the president was finished.

But Saleh’s relatives managed to scuttle American and European attempts to form a new government without him during the summer, and upon his return to Sanaa in September, he resumed his duties as president. Thus Saleh signed the Gulf agreement from a position of power rather than fearing for his life, and the terms of his departure largely reflect his dictates.

The Gulf agreement is flawed for other reasons. It is a deal between Saleh’s ruling party and the group of opposition parties known as the Joint Meeting Party, perhaps better translated as Common Ground. Left out of the agreement are the protesters in the street, the al-Huthi rebels who now control much of the north of the country, and the southern movement demanding secession and the formation of a new state. Incredibly, the agreement stipulates that Hadi is the only acceptable candidate for president in the next elections, meaning that Saleh’s vice president will oversee the writing of a new constitution and will supervise the elections for a new government in two years. The deal, which supersedes the Yemeni constitution, also gives Hadi the final word in any dispute between the parties to the agreement. (Let’s not forget that it was Hadi who was formally in charge during the summer, when Saleh’s clan remained firmly entrenched against all efforts to dislodge them.)

The agreement does call for a military committee to supervise the redeployment of troops and the demilitarization of the cities. It calls for a national conference for political dialogue, at which the Huthis and the southern secessionist movement are supposed to be represented. It also stipulates the creation of a constitutional committee to rewrite the constitution. But all of these efforts at reconciliation and reform in Yemen will be administered by a government over which Saleh retains considerable sway, while his clan remains entrenched in key security and military institutions. The Gulf agreement is more like a countercoup than a revolution of any sort.

If recent days are any indication, the Gulf deal has only compounded Yemen’s problems. Upon his return from Riyadh, having effectively resigned from the presidency according to the agreement, Saleh announced an amnesty for all of those who committed "dumb" acts during the current crisis, meaning his henchmen who murdered civilian protesters. He made an exception to his amnesty for those accused of attacking his compound in June and for common criminals. Then, the official news agency Saba reported that Saleh had authorized his vice president to appoint a new prime minister and form a new government — never mind that technically he had no legal authority to do so. Saleh seems to be confused about who is supposed to be in charge, or more likely it is the rest of us who are confused, as he intended.

In the meantime, the bloodshed continues. Early December saw the armed forces loyal to Saleh push into the city in Taiz, killing dozens of civilians. In the north, the Huthis have aggressively expanded the region under their control and are moving to strike a final blow at their Salafist enemies in Dammaj. In the south, al Qaeda killed five soldiers in the military base defending Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province. Battles between Saleh loyalists and supporters of the opposition have also raged in Arhab, north of the capital.

As for the revolutionaries in Change Plaza, they now reject the agreement entirely. In their eyes, the Yemen opposition parties that signed the agreement have betrayed the revolution and played into Saleh’s hands. They have a strong argument: Saleh remains in the country, retains his position as head of the ruling party, and is immune from prosecution. His sons and nephews control the military and can run for president in the future, his ruling party is firmly entrenched in the new government, and his vice president will be president for two more years during which the country’s constitution will be rewritten. The opposition, meanwhile, is participating in the new government, allowing Saleh to claim to the world that change has occurred in Yemen.

What will happen to the protesters — who have vowed to continue their sit-ins, marches, and vigils — is unclear. The new prime minister said that he understands their unhappiness and does not oppose their peaceful demonstrations. Saleh called on all of the protests to stop.

Few in Yemen are fooled by all of this. As if to punctuate the pessimism, Somali refugees in Yemen are now returning to Somalia in larger numbers. Perhaps they know something that the international community doesn’t.

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