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PV Vivekanand: Saleh up to his tricks
March 18, 2012
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Former Yemeni strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh should be commended for his audacity and tenacity. Having been forced to step down in the face of a popular revolt against his repressive rule, he is now waging an all-out campaign to undermine his successor and show his people and the US-led West that without him Yemen will remain unstable and a consistent source of security threat.

Most people thought that the “transfer of power deal” – that saw Saleh’s deputy Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi becoming president last month –was the beginning of an end to the internal Yemeni conflict. However, Saleh’s actions and pronouncements since he formally stepped down in February indicate that this was not the case. It is a ploy for him to remain in Yemen and somehow regain power.

According to a political expert, Abdul Bari Taher, the former president wants to show Yemenis and the US that without him, the government will fail and security will spiral out of control.

“This is his attempt to tell the opposition that he is still present and send a message to the United States that they lost an ally who could secure the country,” Taher was quoted as saying by the Associated Press this month.

When Saleh left the country in February – after having signed the “transfer of power” deal in November – for medical treatment in the US, it was hoped that he could opt to live in self-imposed exile. Yemeni Prime Minister Mohammed Basindwa had even warned Washington that Saleh’s return will lead to “another war.”

However, the Obama administration could not afford to let Saleh stay and allow itself to be accused of sheltering a dictator who ordered the killing of his people. And Saleh returned. As far as he is concerned, it is now business as usual, with him involved in politics as an “opposition leader.”

Saleh never gave up his efforts to undermine the “transfer of power” agreement that he reluctantly signed under pressure from the US and Arab and other countries. The deal offered him an amnesty from prosecution for the crimes he committed against his people during his three decades of misrule – including ordering his security forces to open fire on those who rebelled.

He is now using the clout of family members and relatives who occupy important positions to stonewall the Hadi government’s efforts to stabilise Yemen and herald a new democratic era based on political, diplomatic, military and economic reforms.

“Two months have passed since this creation of this weak government, which doesn’t know the ABCs of politics,” Saleh said in a recent speech. “It won’t be able to build a thing or put one brick on top of another.”

The presence of senior figures from his National Congress Party in the Hadi government helps him complicate moves for political reform ahead of the next presidential elections.

Saleh’s son and nephew, who head the country’s most powerful fighting units, are his best tools in trying to undermine Hadi’s efforts to carry out reforms within the ranks of the military. Two other nephews, Yahya and Ammar, head the Central Security forces and the intelligence department respectively.

Saleh supporters in the government departments stonewall efforts for effective governance and impede planning. Saleh claims that his new demand for “elements of the Yemeni crisis” to be expelled “for the sake of stability and security” of the country was agreed upon during a meeting that took place in March 2011 in Hadi’s house, during which Saleh proposed that he and the rest of his opponents leave the country. But this was not part of the formal agreements he and the opposition parties signed later that year, including “the transfer of power” deal initiated by the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC).

Among those Saleh wanted “out” are General Ali Mohsen Al Ahmar, who defected to the rebels early in the revolt, Islamists and sons of Sheikh Sadeq Al Ahmar, leader of the Hashid tribe whose members fought the regime’s forces during the revolt.

Al Qaeda card: Saleh used to claim his continued presence at the helm of the country was vital to fighting off the militant Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to secure the support of the US. He played the card to perpetuate his position as a key partner in the US-led “war on terror.”

Allowing Al Qaeda-linked militants to take control of some areas of the country was part of Saleh’s strategy. Yemeni analyst Abdul Ghani Al Iryani is quoted as saying in an article carried by thenation.com that “Saleh himself actually handed over Zinjibar” – a key town in southern Yemen – to the militants, who call themselves Ansar Al Sharia, last year. “He ordered his police force to evacuate the city and turn it over to the militants because he wanted to send a signal to the world that, without me, Yemen will fall into the hands of the terrorists.”

And Washington obliged by continuing funding to Yemen and supplying weapons. Concerns over the fight against militants prompted the US not to support calls for Saleh’s removal from power until it became clear that the Yemeni rebels would not have it any other way.

An attack this month on an army camp in the south is seen as an example of how Saleh is undermining the new government.

In mid-March, Ansar Al Sharia fighters attacked a military base in Zinjibar and killed 185 Yemeni soldiers. The attack came hours before the top military commander in charge of the area – a staunch Saleh loyalist – was to step down under pressure because he was accused of corruption and misuse of office and impeding the fight against the militants.

He and some of his loyalists reportedly helped the militants by not engaging them. Others who fought the militants were mercilessly mowed down.

According to Yemeni officials, soldiers from the Republican Guard commanded by Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali, did not respond to orders to help fight the militants. When the military ordered the air force to fly out the wounded in the attack, Mohammed Saleh Al Ahmar – the air force chief and Saleh’s half brother – refused.

Notwithstanding his claim to be an “opposition leader” challenging the government as in democratic societies, Saleh is definitely not playing the game by the rules. He has introduced his own rules and intends to enforce them through whatever means it takes. At this point in time, Saleh has the muscles to paralyse the system and discredit the new government, but, as history shows, he is bound to make a wrong turn sooner than later. When that happens, it would be time for a final showdown in Yemen.

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