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Out of the ashes: is Yemen's Saleh trying to make a comeback?

Observers see a hand of former Yemeni president Saleh in backing Houthi rebels, against al-Islah party, Yemen's Muslim Brotherhood
Yemen's former president Ali Abdullah Saleh hands power to president Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi (L) in the Yemeni capital Sana'a in 2012 (AFP)
Par Tom Finn

On a bright morning in early 2012, Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped out of a limousine and strode through a set of doors into the main hall of his presidential palace. Seated before him in plush, gold-crested armchairs were an assembly of party officials, tribal leaders, generals, and foreign journalists. Saleh looked tired. Dressed in a black suit and a purple tie, his hands, perched delicately on a rostrum in front of him, were concealed behind a pair of yellow velvet gloves, protecting the burns he sustained when a bomb ripped through his presidential mosque the year before.

"We call on all the sons of the nation to stand together alongside the political leadership to rebuild the legacy of this crisis," Saleh said, as a chaperone turned the pages of his speech for him. "I now hand over the banner of the revolution, the republic, freedom, and security ... to safe hands." Turning to his right Saleh passed a carefully-folded tricolor flag to the man next to him. "We support the new president who is in favour of security and stability. The responsibilities are great, but we hope that he will tackle the repercussions of the crisis... I would like to assure you President Hadi that we stand by you in good times and bad times." The hall boomed with applause.

It was meant to be a historic occasion. After 33 years in office, Saleh was stepping aside, handing power to his long-time deputy Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi. Civil war had been averted; the demand of the pro-democracy protesters had been met. It was the first peaceful transfer of power in unified Yemen’s history.

But a photo from the ceremony that appeared in newspapers the next day told a more complex and troubling story. In the picture, Saleh and Hadi stand side by side, smiling. Hadi, 66, looks focused, his eyes are on the flag in his hands. Saleh, whose suit is trimmer and darker than Hadi’s, stares through tinted spectacles into the distance, his back squarely turned on the newly anointed leader.

What happened in the palace on 27 February 2012 was not a neat affair, a clean transfer of power as the Yemeni authorities would have had it. Instead an intense, and deeply personal, rivalry was born, one that, two years and half years on, confounds Yemen’s efforts toward democracy and threatens to pull the country apart. Today’s Yemen is a tale of two men: a wily, ousted dictator, begrudged, and still at large, and his deputy, a political lightweight, determined to step out of his predecessor’s shadow, yet terrified of him to the point of paranoia, former aides say.

Yemen’s politics are deteriorating. Despite dialogue, reform, and promises of elections, the country has failed to heal its many political fractures - a southern secessionist movement, a violent al-Qaeda branch, rising prices and a young, frustrated, populace. The transition, captured in a photo, is unravelling.

For over a month, thousands of supporters of the Houthis, a Shiite rebel group based in the northern region of Saada, have been laying siege to the capital Sanaa. Pitching tents, staging rallies and cutting off major roads, the Houthis say they are taking a stand against rising fuel prices and government corruption. Critics accuse the Houthis of trying to grab power and carve out a semi-independent state for themselves in the north - something they deny.

The government is on the back foot. The capital is paralysed. The Houthis are refusing to back down. Yemen, according to a recent International Crisis Group report, is “at a crossroads more dangerous than any since 2011.”

Most accounts hold that there are two sides in this fight: the Houthis, an expansionist and increasingly belligerent force, who are seizing the chance to secure land and a future stake in power while tapping into the frustrations felt by Yemenis who have seen little change since the revolution. On the other side is the government, headed by Hadi, struggling to fold the Houthis and Yemen’s many other disparate groups into a new social contract.   

This narrative not only oversimplifies, it overlooks a far more perilous scenario unfolding on the ground. Missing from the picture are two actors: the first is al-Islah, Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood, a wealthy, well-organized and predominantly Sunni group who joined the 2011 protests and occupy half the seats in the transitional government. Islah have long distrusted the Houthis, who they accuse of trying to establish an Iran-style Shiite kingdom in the north. Much of the fighting going on in and around Sanaa does not involve Yemen’s military but Islah-allied militias, security officials say, who are battling Houthi fighters encroaching on their strongholds.

The second actor is Ali Abdullah Saleh. After handing the reigns to Hadi in 2012, Saleh vacated the palace but he did not retire as a politician. Instead, as part of an agreement drawn up by the UN and backed by the US, he was granted immunity from prosecution and allowed to hold on to his title as head of the ruling party. Today, Saleh lives in a heavily-guarded compound off a busy street in the capital where he hosts daily meetings with foreign dignitaries and tribal sheikhs. Many in the military are still loyal to him.

Saleh’s supporters maintain he is minding his own business and blame the impasse on president Hadi who they say is concentrating power and ruling by individuals rather than by institutions. But diplomats, members of the opposition, and analysts who spoke to Middle East Eye, offer a different explanation. Saleh, they claim, far from being a neutral party, has his hands in the current conflict. They accuse Saleh of backing the Houthis, a group he fought for years when in office, both tacitly and directly, to weaken Hadi and chart a path for a return to power.

“The Houthis did not reach Sanaa without help from Saleh who told his supporters to welcome them and sign deals with them,” said a diplomat involved in the mediation efforts between the Houthis and the government. The diplomat did not wish to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.

“Saleh’s strategy is to get the government bogged down with the Houthis, to prove that Hadi is a failed president; that the situation is out of control,” said the diplomat. “The situation is really dangerous. The conditions are ripe for Saleh to make a comeback, to do a coup and take over.”

A former media advisor to Saleh now working as a journalist who spoke to Middle East Eye on the condition of anonymity spoke of the highly personal nature of Saleh’s behaviour.

“Saleh is very bitter. If you call what happened in 2011 a revolution, he gets furious. He says it was a coup, that he was ousted by his opponents,” the journalist said.

“He looks at Syria’s Assad who has turned a corner, at Egypt where the army turned back the clock. He thinks why can’t this happen in Yemen too?”

A media mogul

Though Saleh is absent from discussions in the West about Yemen, inside the country he remains in the public eye. Posters of the deposed leader, a proud scowl stamped on his face, dot the capital bearing the slogan “Afash is better than what we have now” (Afash is one of Saleh’s surnames). TV channels and newspapers affiliated with Saleh, including Yemen Today, report daily on his coming and goings, meetings with tribesmen, as well as his frequent criticisms of President Hadi.

“Saleh has more media visibility than Hadi. You see him on posters on the way to work and on television when you get home at night. You can’t buy a poster of Hadi in the street but you can buy a poster of Saleh or his son Ahmed or both… That says a lot,” Abdulghani Al-Iryani, a Yemeni political analyst said.

“He’s printed millions of those posters at a substantial cost, you don’t do that if you have no political ambitions,” Iryani said.

Few accuse Saleh of planning to return to power himself. Instead, many critics say he hopes to clear a path for his family. In the years before his ouster, Saleh appeared to be grooming his son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, much like former leader of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, prepared his son Gamal for a succession. Hadi has done his best to isolate Ahmed Ali, removing him from the leadership of the Republican Guard, but neither Ahmed Ali nor any other of Saleh’s relatives have been prosecuted.

Analysts say it is hard to know whether the darker accusations against Saleh are true.

“Saleh is probably glad to see the government weakened and pleased by anything that makes Hadi look weak. It's one step too far to know for certain what role he’s playing… what is clear is that he is not helping,” said April Alley, Gulf analyst at the International Crisis Group.

"But the rivalry and distrust between Hadi and Saleh has been one of the most destructive dynamics of this transition. One of the main faults of the original agreement was that it did not ban Saleh and several other controversial old regime actors from political activity. The focus on Saleh has stolen energy that could have otherwise been used to run a more effective government."

Many Yemenis, dismayed by the deteriorating security situation and a revolution they believe was hijacked by political elites, point the finger at both men.

“This is the start of his end. Look at Hadi’s entourage, his boys are running the show. He reinvented the policies of Saleh, money, political posts, cars, land,” said Ali Jamal, a teacher at an English language institute in Sanaa. “I accuse them both. Saleh for stirring up trouble, Hadi for not fulfilling responsibilities, which of them has done Yemen worse? It’s hard to say.”

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