Yemen Rebel Surge Shows Former Leader Saleh Never Went Away

The Crisis in Yemen Explained

During his three decades as president of all or part of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh often compared ruling the fractious country to “dancing on the heads of snakes.”

More than three years after he was deposed, Saleh is still at it, staging a comeback in Yemeni politics after providing former enemies, the Shiite Muslim Houthi rebels, with crucial support to take over large parts of the country.

“He’s still a snake charmer,” said Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani, chairman of Khobara Center, a research institute in Yemen. “He surrendered the formal institutions, but he did not surrender the real power of informal instruments.”

As a Saudi-led coalition of Sunni countries seeks to roll back Houthi advances in the Gulf nation, Saleh’s reemergence is another failure for the Arab spring of uprisings that sought to replace autocrats with democracy.

Now 73, he was the only deposed Arab head of state to walk away peacefully. While the Libyan leader was killed, the Tunisian fled, the Egyptian was jailed and the Syrian lost half of his country, Saleh negotiated his own terms, receiving immunity that protected him from prosecution. A little over a year after his resignation, he was opening a museum in the capital Sana’a dedicated to his time in power.

‘Dark Spot’

“The experiment in Yemen and the developments over the last few months make it very clear that in no place where the Arab spring started there has been an orderly transition with the exception of Tunisia,” Ayham Kamel, Middle East and North Africa director at Eurasia Group, said from London. “This adds one more dark spot to the wave of uprisings that clearly set a path toward civil wars across the region.”

Yemen is the poorest Arab country and the home of Osama bin Laden’s ancestors, cementing it as a base for al-Qaeda. Saleh ceded his powers as president in November 2011 to his deputy, Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi, after months of protests and pressure from the U.S., Gulf neighbors and the United Nations.

He continued to act presidentially, traveling around the country making speeches and receiving influential tribal leaders. In a March 9 speech from Taiz in the Yemeni highlands, Saleh warned “those thinking of invading Yemen” that “this great nation will be the graveyard of the invaders,” according to Yemen Today Television, which he controls. The TV channel refers to him as “zaeem,” or “leader.”

Military Support

Then there’s the military. Most of the army is composed of Zaidis, the Shiite sect that he and the Houthi rebels belong to, and U.S.-trained units that are under the command of Saleh’s relatives or allies, according to Riad Kahwaji, director of the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai.

“That’s why a lot of these units didn’t fight the Houthis and allied with them or Saleh,” Kahwaji said by phone.

Those units helped the rebels move quickly from their northern stronghold of Saada to take over large parts of Yemen, including Sana’a, and advance toward the port of Aden in the south, according to Iryani at Khobara Center.

Saleh’s General People’s Congress, or GPC, slammed the Saudi-led offensive on Yemen on Thursday, saying the conflict was an internal affair. The party said it had nothing to do with the violence, adding that what’s happening in Yemen is a power struggle between some other parties.

The party announced a plan on Friday to end the conflict, calling on all sides to stop fighting, end their efforts to take control of state and military institutions, and resume United Nations-brokered talks on a political settlement.

No Chaos

While Saleh has leveraged his power to facilitate the Houthi expansion, his objective “is not particularly to create chaos in Yemen, but to create enough instability where he and his family are perceived to be the only viable candidates,” said Kamel at Eurasia Group.

Kahwaji said he expected the Saudi operation to weaken Saleh. It could cause cracks within his forces, tribes might be swayed by money to shift allegiances, and base commanders who could defect or desert, he said.

Moreover, the goals of the Houthis and Saleh are not aligned. The two sides were bitter enemies when Saleh was president and clashed often as the rebels sought autonomy.

Saleh was elected president of the Yemen Arab Republic, or north Yemen, and appointed general commander of the armed forces on July 17, 1978, less than a month after the assassination of President Ahmad al-Ghashmi.

Tension Escalates

At the time, the southern part of Yemen was a separate entity called the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, which maintained close relations with the communist countries of the Soviet Union, China and Cuba.

Tensions between the two Yemens led to several rounds of fighting before unification in 1990. Saleh became president and Ali Salim al-Bidh, south Yemen’s leader, became vice president. A power struggle then turned into civil war in 1994.

Southerners declared secession and the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Yemen, a new entity not recognized by the international community. It quickly collapsed and thousands of southern leaders and military went into exile. Saleh was elected president of a united Yemen on Oct. 1, 1994.

He kept power for more than three decades by playing on social divisions, doling out handouts to the generals and tribes and placing family members at the head of military units, ensuring that establishment’s loyalty.

A day before the Feb. 21, 2012, elections that brought Hadi to power, Saleh sounded resigned to the fact he was no longer president, urging Yemenis to leave the past behind and rebuild what the political and economic crisis had destroyed. He spoke from the U.S., where he was seeking medical treatment following an explosion at a mosque in his presidential palace.

After his return to Yemen, though, Saleh used the informal networks of patronage he built to stage his return.

“He stayed in power even after Hadi became president,” said Iryani. He never really gave up “his old tricks.”

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