USIP’s Steve Heydemann writes about what led to Yemeni President Saleh’s departure – and the potential end to his rule.

June 6, 2011

On Sunday June 5, two planes carrying Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh and some two dozen members of his family landed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Two days earlier, Saleh and a number of senior Yemeni officials were wounded in an attack on a mosque in Sana’a’s massive presidential compound. Yemen’s prime minister and deputy prime minister, the governor of Sana’a province, the Speaker of Parliament and the head of the Shura Council were also wounded. Official reports initially downplayed the extent of Saleh’s injuries, yet Saudi sources later indicated that he had extensive second-degree burns and shrapnel wounds that were potentially life-threatening.

In Saleh’s absence, power was transferred to Vice President Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi. Yemeni officials insisted that the transfer was temporary, “until the president returns.” Yet the departure of Saleh and his family has been widely interpreted as a “soft exit” for the leader whose political career spanned almost five decades. Saleh began his political life as a young army officer who participated actively in Yemen’s civil war of the 1960s, rose to power as president of North Yemen in 1978, and, in 1990, became the head of unified Yemen. As president, Saleh acquired a reputation as a ruthless, corrupt, yet also shrewd and effective politician. Governing one of the world’s poorest countries, balancing an historically weak state and the often competing demands of Yemen’s powerful tribes, Saleh thrived by using his control of state resources to dominate and manipulate Yemen’s complex networks of local and regional elites.

In recent years, however, Saleh had come under increasing pressure to embrace significant political reforms. An active insurgency in northwest Saada province, a growing and increasingly militant secessionist movement in the south, an expanding al-Qaida presence, and continuing economic, social, and environmental crises weighed heavily on Saleh’s regime. As pressures mounted, Saleh’s capacity to sustain his ruling coalition eroded. Nonetheless, and despite two years of “National Dialogue” on political reforms with an opposition coalition, the Joint Meeting Parties, Saleh had recently accelerated efforts to ensure either his own continuation in power or the installation of his son, Ahmad Abdullah Saleh, as his successor. In late 2010, and without regard for the National Dialogue process, Saleh pushed constitutional amendments overturning term limits on the presidency through a tame parliament dominated by his ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC).

In the end, however, Saleh may become known as the third Arab autocrat to be overthrown in the wave of popular uprisings that are transforming politics across the Middle East and North Africa. As in Egypt and Tunisia, peaceful demands for political reform gradually gained momentum across Yemen in early 2011. Saleh’s regime responded with violence, killing dozens in a failed effort to bring protests to an end. The regime’s repression backfired, however, galvanizing protesters and provoking the defection of key regime allies, including GPC parliamentarians and a leading general, Ali Mohsin. As his coalition teetered, Saleh entered negotiations for an orderly transition of power. Several times, he signaled his willingness to leave office. Yet no fewer than three times he reneged on his commitment to step down and refused to sign a transition agreement that had been secured through the mediation of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Saleh’s third and final rejection of a negotiated transition in late May transformed what had been a tense political standoff into open warfare between loyalist forces and opposition tribal militias affiliated with Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, the head of one of Yemen’s largest tribal federations, the Hashid. By the time Saleh was wounded, Yemen’s capital had become a battle zone, and the country was sliding rapidly into full-scale civil war.

What Next?
Will the descent into civil war end with Saleh’s departure? Will Saleh return to the presidency? In the city of Taiz, news of Saleh’s departure was greeted with fireworks and public celebrations. Many Yemenis now assume that Saleh has gone for good. Yet Yemeni officials insist that the president will return. Saudi authorities reported that he had successfully been treated for his wounds, and was recovering from surgery in Riyadh. More ominously, loyalist forces including elite units under the control of the president’s son continue to patrol Sana’a and other major cities. Al-Ahmar’s tribal militias are also poised to resume fighting.

Yemen’s future would now seem, literally, to be in Saudi hands. Saudi Arabia has long been the leading external power broker in Yemen, and a major supporter of Saleh. The Kingdom has also been active regionally in support of existing regimes, making ample use of its financial resources to shore up its authoritarian counterparts and undermine popular movements for political reform. These suggest that Saudi Arabia might not stand in the way of Saleh’s return, even if this would almost inevitably trigger a new round of fighting. Yet Saudi intentions are not so straightforward. There are indications that Saudi Arabia cares more about stability in Yemen than they do about Saleh himself. Saudi officials were also involved in Gulf Cooperation Council efforts to secure Saleh’s departure from office. It is entirely plausible, therefore, to speculate that the Saudis are now actively engaged in behind the scenes efforts to restructure Yemen’s ruling coalition and usher in a post-Saleh political order.

But, such efforts may not succeed. For one, it seems highly unlikely that Saudi Arabia will accept an outcome that includes Yemen’s transition to democracy. The al-Ahmar themselves are motivated more by opposition to Saleh than by a commitment to democratic reform. Thus, even at the moment they seem brightest, the prospects of Yemen’s opposition may be far less promising than many assume. Yemenis may well find themselves confronted by a set of unpleasant alternatives: a Saudi-brokered return of President Saleh—perhaps having wrested from him a commitment to leave office under some, as yet unknown, conditions; the imposition of a Saudi-brokered ruling coalition that is likely, at least in the near term, to be undemocratic, if perhaps more inclusive of tribes that had been excluded by President Saleh; or, potentially, if less likely, the unfettered return of President Saleh without his commitment to reform, and the near inevitable resumption of violence between his forces and those of the Hashid tribes. None of these options offer much basis for celebration.

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