Saleh's return

Fernando Carvajal, PhD candidate at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter. The author has visited Yemen for over eleven years and witnessed the initial five months of the popular uprising in Sana’a. His most recent visit to Yemen was during the past month of August. I am one of those who hates blurb and sound-bite articles so as soon as I heard the news of Saleh’s return this past Friday morning I decided to sit and write about conversations I had in Sana’a during Ramadan.  Everyone I met with from the ruling party assured me the president would return and that even though some in the Saudi ruling family preferred him not to, Saleh would return, as long as his health permitted.  The original version of this piece was written before I had a chance to catch up with news of the clashes and dozens of deaths. This is an updated version based on information from Sana’a and my own analysis.  The article changed direction from the idea of ‘Saleh’s major opportunity to rescue any legitimacy he had remaining’ to ‘the major opportunity he failed to capitalize on’.  Much still remains unclear about the events of September 23rd, but we can be assured that even with the support of Saudi Arabia, the US and UK, he is now the one with his back against the wall instead of the opposition elements. It’s a bit long, but this was the plan agreed by members of the GPC to address the crisis.

As Yemen’s president Ali Abdullah Saleh abruptly returned to Sana’a under the cover of dawn on “the Friday of Confidence in God’s Victory” protesters and outside observers brace for prophetic escalation into civil war.  The immediate reaction from Yemenis at the protests sites and observers outside the country was one of surprise to Saleh’s apparent ‘defiance’ of the US and UK stance and the Gulf Cooperation Council’s brokered plan for peaceful transition of power.  A second reaction raised prospects once again of a devastating civil war as consequence of Saleh’s expected revenge against the opposition for the June 3rd attack inside the Presidential Palace.  Saleh’s close advisors and members of the ruling party dismiss such views back in August and for a month spoke of a deal that would work to de-escalate the crisis and present a more realistic plan for the peaceful transition of power from Saleh to his Vice President, Abdo Rabo al-Hadi.  Essentially, Saleh’s last opportunity to prove he is able to be part of the solution.  The events of September 23rd shocked everyone, even those    predicting  Saleh’s savage revenge, which seemed to be released upon unarmed protesters at the perimeter and center of Change Square in Sana’a.

Most important to president Saleh’s return to Sana’a has been his health.  After spending nearly “112 days” convalescing in Riyadh, as Mohammed al-Basha of the Yemeni Embassy in Washington DC indicated, Saleh’s return indicates his health is in good condition.  His spokesman in Sana’a, Abdo al-Janadi, had often reported on Saleh’s imminent return since late July, as if teasing people each week.  Another sign of why his return indicates Saleh is now in good health is the lessons learned over past two months as his close allies injured along with him began returning to Yemen.  One such official was mentioned during my last visit to Sana’a in August, who upon his return from Riyadh in early Ramadan passed away as result of complications from his burns and the poor medical care available in Sana’a.  No doubt Saleh arrived with what should be substantial medical assistance.

While most people in opposition to Saleh and many observers in the West began writing Saleh’s political obituary following the attempted assassination, his relatives, along with political and tribal allies have worked for nearly four months to hold the fort until his return. As many have speculated, the timing of his return is no coincidence, as the crisis once again escalated following deadly clashes on Sunday September 18 leaving over 60 peaceful protesters dead in Sana’a. We can deduce from his unannounced arrival that President Saleh perceived this to be the right time to re-engage the opposition in dialogue to prevent further escalation and show regional and international allies he indeed represented the only solution to the crisis.  His return followed a private meeting with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on September 19 and renewed efforts to implement existing transition plans brokered by the US, UK and the GCC.  Until the morning of his return we knew this was completely rejected by independent youth protesting in Sana’a, Taiz and the port of Aden, and further complicated the opposition’s efforts to negotiate a transition directly with the Vice President.

Most observers and opposition personalities now see no solution to the crisis beyond a protracted and devastating civil war as result of the savagery this past Friday.  Yet members of the ruling party continue to see things different and the membership remains confident President Saleh’s own initiative from August still provides the best way forward.  This is evident by the lack of defections from Saleh’s camp following the clashes this past Friday.  I can only assume that the plan drafted under the umbrella of a committee established by Saleh in late July to address amendments to the GCC Initiative introduced in April remains en force.  The ruling party assumes that even after the violence of the past week the president holds enough political capital to force the opposition to sit at the negotiating table.  The committee stands firm with the arguments they original resented against the transfer of power to the Vice President as unconstitutional, and second, arguing the provisions in the GCC Initiative to hold presidential elections within 90 days after Saleh stepped down remain unrealistic. The latter view gained unsolicited support from a report produced by IFES on June 7th, titled transitions in Yemen: An Overview of Constitutional and Electoral Provisions, where it argued much had to be done before any legitimate elections could be held in Yemen.  The committee agreed to a number of changes to the GCC plan under the guidance of President Saleh.

While Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, head of the 1st Armored Division, strongly condemned the acts of September 23rd and blamed Saleh for the savagery against unarmed civilians, the ruling party believes the opposition is has more to lose and will still be forced to accept negotiations along with the Joint Meeting Party (JMP) and tribal leaders and allies of the al-Ahmar family.  It is understood that the independent youth will never accept anything short of a full transfer of power beyond the hands of the president and his relatives, which has been the case from day one.  Yet, the more ‘realistic’ plan to be offered to the opposition, and diplomatic actors, was drafted to include seven steps: 1) an initial plan for de-escalation; 2) following the ceasefire we could expect direct dialogue; 3) an extensive agreement for de-militarization of the Capital; 4) the formation of a military council to oversee de-militarization and address the security vacuum; 5) a committee to pave the way for Parliamentary elections in six to eight months; 6) the new Parliament would address reforms and presidential elections would still be held in September 2013, and 7) President Saleh would delegate most of his authority to the Vice President until 2013.

None of this could actually move forward of course until the president announces a comprehensive amnesty retroactive to February, and seeing that Shaykh Sadeq al-Ahmar signaled a willingness to negotiate on Saturday September 25th we assume there is no talk of amnesty for the president.  In order to de-escalate the crisis it is understood the youth would have to abandon their positions across the country, now made even more difficult following the events of this past week. The opposition will not be able to guarantee demobilization on its own and if Saleh is to be taken seriously as the only ‘light of hope’ it cannot be achieved by force, as it is rumored to occur in the coming days.  Persons within the government and the ruling party mentioned in August that the amnesty would be a guarantee for all youth participating in protests across the country and that no one would be arrested or prosecuted.  No one mentioned the mechanisms guaranteeing such safety, and I am sure the youth and activists would live under constant fear of random arrests.  Without a legitimate body to serve as guarantor and capable of investigating violations of the amnesty the youth would not receive this as a credible offer.

President Saleh’s plan has plenty of support among ruling party members and allies, who also believe the GCC plan is completely unrealistic.  The ten main points contained in the GCC plan, from elections in 90 days to a new constitution before parliamentary elections, would be unachievable under a working government, never mind under a fractured coalition where the opposition has not presented to the people of Yemen or international mediators the ability to manage such transition.  Prior to leaving Riyadh President Saleh should have clearly expressed his views to King Abdullah and GCC officials denying his defiance of the Initiative but rather ‘considering the reality of the situation.’  His defiance is more directed at demands from the people on the street, who continue to be firm in their demand for Saleh to step down and be prosecuted along with his son Ahmed and nephews Yahya and Ammar Mohammed Saleh.

Up until this past Friday the opposition had their backs against the wall, they either escalate to full direct military conflict or acquiesce to sit at the same table with Saleh.  At this point, the president’s plan would not grant the opposition the same offer as in early February of a shared government until Parliament elections are held.  He will insist on the current care-taker government, under Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Mujawar, to oversee his conflict resolution plan.  As we await President Saleh’s first address to the people of Yemen, tentatively scheduled for Sunday September 25th (a day before celebrations of the 1962 Revolution) we already witnessed the usual moves by Saleh of offering a cease-fire while continuing to engage with force on the day of his arrival.  His first step was to address the cease-fire between the opposition’s military forces and government security forces led by his son Ahmed and nephews Yahya and Ammar, which in reality led to a violent strike against protesters and al-Firqa in order to attempt to regain lost territory around the streets of Sana’a.  We now expect Saleh to speak on Sunday and an olive branch once again in order to gain the support of diplomats once again.  Who would sit with Saleh at this point is beyond reason.  Saleh will naturally aim for direct negotiations with his former confidant Gen. Ali Muhsin, and while the JMP would be tempted to have either Mr. Mohammed BaSundwa, president of the National Transition Council and former head of the National Dialogue Committee, or someone like Abdul Wahab al-Ansi, Secretary General of the Islamist party al-Islah (less likely a candidate since he always remains in the background) they will risk political suicide in the eyes of the youth.  In any case Saleh will instantly oppose Mr. BaSundwa, even tough he served as Ambassador to the United Nations and was Foreign Minister under Saleh in the 1990s.  General Ali Muhsin has already indirectly expressed his objections to engaging Saleh as consequence of Friday’s clashes and especially after a blatant attempted assassination following his defection in late March of this year.  But since Saleh will never sit with any member of the al-Ahmar family after all the animosity from Shaykh Hamid al-Ahmar and his eldest brother Shaykh Sadeq al-Ahmar, Ali Muhsin appears as the only logical actor to sit with Saleh, which may ultimately have to include Shaykh Sadeq keeping with Yemeni political tradition.  This meeting will undoubtedly have to take place at the house of Vice President Abdo Rabo, which now lies within the perimeter secured by forces loyal to Ali Muhsin following last Sunday’s clashes.

Having overcome the most difficult steps, which may likely be aided by US and UK diplomats who often meet with Gen. Ali Muhsin, the second most difficult step would come when the committee is formed to oversee de-militarization of the capital.  The most difficult step will remain asking the youth to accept such rapprochement. Mistrust on both sides will be the most difficult obstacle to overcome once the decision is made, considering the regime’s atrocities against unarmed civilians since March and the fact that al-Firqa maintains nearly 40,000 soldiers and militia within Sana’a’s borders.  To this we add the protesters’ heightened mistrust of the regime, and if Ali Muhsin were to ever agree to de-militarization it would leave protesters absolutely vulnerable if they remain within protests squares around the country.  The opposition will lose further credibility in the eyes of the youth who already believe they will only protect their own interests.  The response to Saleh’s overture will depend on whether the opposition wants still wants to risk civil war or prevent further atrocities, which it can later claim as their virtue for saving hundreds of lives.  Ali Muhsin, the JMP and the al-Ahmar family will only save face if they become the primary mechanism to guarantee full amnesty and prevent violations until final solutions are in place.

It is believed that once the primary confidence building measures are in place the remainder of Saleh’s plan will allow for a “peaceful” process toward holding elections.  A remaining obstacle will be opposition from the youth to the fourth point in Saleh’s plan, a military council, which would include direct participation by Saleh’s son and nephews.  This point is in no doubt in response to US concerns over control of the armed forces and assurances the regime will not allow subversive elements to gain safe-haven anywhere in Yemen.  How this military council will incorporate officials who defected still remains unclear. Ali Muhsin has already expressed his assurance to Western diplomats he will remove himself from all military service once transition begins, yet we still don’t know at what exact point he will do so and what his role would be in a post-transition Yemen.

The most important issue for the youth is reform, and it appears as the major task.  Yemen has not had a full voter registry since February 2009.  Many of the youth protesting today were under age and will instantly demand access to the electoral process.  IFES also commented on the state of the Supreme Commission for Elections and Referendum (SCRE), which was a primary source of conflict in December 2010 when Saleh appointed a number of judges without consulting the opposition.  If security were to return to the entire country and ensure safety of polls and transport of ballot boxes following the elections there still remains the problem that poll committees need to be appointed and staff trained, in addition to training local and international observers.  None of this could be accomplished within the 90 days set by the GCC initiative.  Once the committee is in place to begin work on elections, whether parliamentary or presidential, dates must be set and a number of benchmarks met before legitimate elections can take place.  This will also test the credibility of the opposition in the eyes of the independent youth as the opposition’s dedication to democracy will definitely be tested.  This process may take six to eight months, and the thought of such a long period will continue to worry the youth who believe Saleh will pull another ace from under his sleeve in order to prolong his term in office or guarantee his son’s succession in 2013.

The prospect of president Saleh remaining in office until 2013 will lead to a demoralized youth movement which has proven its resolve over the past eight months.  The movement has revitalized each time following clashes with government forces, and proven they do not fear death or clandestine persecution.  Yet, if the opposition sits with Saleh to negotiate a deal short of removing him from office, they ill feel as though all their efforts would have been in vain as they do not see anything at all positive from an electoral process including Saleh and his regime.  The youth will also question the credibility of the plan drafted by the ruling party concerning the authority and power of Vice President Abdo Rabo. The Vice President has disappointed all in the opposition, and some in the care-taker government, for his lack of authority during Saleh’s absence.  Abdo Rabo is also perceived as having given into the power of Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh and his cousins Yahya and Ammar.  The reality of any deal negotiated by the regime and the opposition clearly indicates that Abdo Rabo will remain without real authority and power under a military council and an interim coalition committee drafting the electoral procedures in the coming months.  President Saleh will still have the ability to influence the military council, as commander-in-chief (a position difficult for him to give up), and the elections’ committee, as head of the ruling party.

Prior to September 23rd it was difficult to imagine the opposition rejecting Saleh’s olive branch under such scenarios.  Without a doubt Saleh will once again publicly offer dialogue to the opposition and if they reject such offer, the opposition will risk losing any credibility they have left in the eyes of Western diplomats who are desperate for final solution to the crisis. Saudi Arabia is however a different story.  By rejecting dialogue they would all then be risking their own lives during direct military conflict beyond the numerous ongoing proxy battles around Sana’a and Taiz.  The only way the opposition would retain some credibility with the masses will be if they were to organize the National Transition Council as a legitimate entity truly safeguarding protesters under full immunity and acting against the regime in cases where violations take place in full view of the public and with international collaboration.  Anything short of this will seal their political suicide in the eyes of the independent youth.  On the other hand, Saleh has a much tougher road to travel as he attempts to de-mobilize the streets occupied by his opponents.  His first step would have to be a public address to his own supporters in the streets of Sana’a to withdraw and allow only government forces to oversee security.  This would mean Saleh will have to appease many of his tribal supporters already used to nearly eight months of sustained financial contributions.

Saleh’s return to Sana’a has proven many correct on predictions of his vengefulness, but he is now forced to prove to his allies that he can end the crisis.  Friday’s events ultimately destroyed Saleh’s image as the responsible head of state willing to contribute to the stability of the region and Western interests.  Relations with the youth after so many deaths will be irreparable.  Saleh knows that political and financial support from Saudi Arabia will never be sufficient to avoid Bin Ali’s or Hosni Mubarak’s fate, especially since all Western diplomats from the start rejected the immunity clause within the GCC initiative.  If he is to retain what ever legitimacy he has left in the eyes of Western diplomats, President Saleh simultaneously must rein in his son and the rest of the regime, de-militarize the capital and other cities, complete the defeat of terrorist elements in the southern provinces of Abyan, Lahj and Shebwa, and fully engage a credible process that delivers as many of the demands from the youth as possible.  Anything short of this will definitely etch his political obituary in stone once and for all.

Activists and protesters on the street will object to this analysis in full, but reality in Yemen still adheres to traditional modes of positioning and both sides look after their own interests, not the people’s interests.  For those of you who follow Yemeni history remember al-Sabaeen (70 days) when Sana’a was besieged by Royalists forces and all retreated at the end.