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Making the Best out of a Bad Situation: Saleh’s Political Talent

Making the Best out of a Bad Situation: Saleh’s Political Talent

The Yemeni President, Ali Saleh, is a talented politician. His style of managing the Yemeni uprising reveals a lot about his governing style of the country’s affairs. For almost 33 years, he has put his political survival first, and policy later.

Photo: White House

The long-time president or dictator – depending on your political views – can, finally now, review Yemeni politics from the backseat.  At least officially, Ali Abdullah Saleh is not anymore the most powerful man in Yemen after the election of new president in this month. Yet, his style of managing the one-year political crisis or revolution – the exact term also depends – reveals a lot about his style of governing Yemen for almost 33 years.

When student demonstrations started in Yemen on 27 January, Saleh was not caught unprepared. The Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted of power two weeks ago and only two days ago, demonstrators took to the streets in Cairo advertising a similar revolution. Saleh’s first shot at the brewing crisis was to try to preempt it.

On 2 February, Saleh’s declared in a special session of the Yemeni parliament that he will not run for a second term, among other concessions including not handing power to his sun and stopping a constitutional amendment that was underway. Essentially, Saleh gave in to the demands of the opposition. But these were the pre-revolutionary demands.

By preempting protests, Saleh hoped to give himself a political justification for any future clamp down on them. When protests reached a critical mass in the following weeks, the president and his allies would use concessions made in front of the parliament to show that demonstrators’ demands were ‘hollow’.

Of course Saleh’s initial strategy of managing the crisis only went so far. After around 45 protests were killed later on 18 March, the protests led to a secession of some parts of the army under the control of General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar. Later on, things got worse for Saleh after a tribal uprising was starting to take shape. The ceiling of the protesters’ demands went up and became stronger. Thus, the crisis management strategy of the president changed accordingly.

By that time, Saleh must have realized that he was now writing the last chapter of his presidential legacy.  For this, time was ticking very fast as protests become more confident in getting away with a full-fledged revolution. Saleh could only use his political skills to slow time in order pursue a strategy by which he can achieve the best possible exit for himself.

When revolution became imminent for many, Saleh offered forming a national unity government or early elections. The opposition rejected citing street demands and the lack of trust in the president. Threats of civil war came to the surface. In the midst of all of that, the GCC ‘s mediation offer came into play providing Saleh a unique opportunity to get a dignified political exit without destroying his political legacy by resorting to military power.

However, Saleh would not be the experienced and savvy politician of which people like to describe him, if he had signed the GCC’s initiative immediately. Instead, he saw in the new initiative a chance to make some politics and gain more time.

During the rest period of the crisis, Saleh tried, through acting ‘presidential’ and giving speeches, holding own rallies or delaying the signing of the GCC’s initiative for ceremonial reasons, to consolidate his own political position in order better weather the crisis. This way, he achieved to get even more political compromises from the opposition parties.

Ultimately, the GCC’s initiative was signed in Riyad on 23 of November in televised ceremony with only Saleh, alongside the Saudi King, being allowed to give a ‘fatherlike’ speech with a mixture of blames and advices. Starting from that point, the protests became again less like a revolution and more like a crisis. Once again, Saleh succeeded in beating the odds.

Ali Abdullah Saleh is a crisis manager par excellence. For 33 years, he has been doing this as matter of style in governing the often difficult Yemeni affairs.

The problem of Saleh’s legacy as a president is that he might have regarded Yemen’s existential problems as ‘essentially’ political crises. Regardless of the real underlying long-term socio-economic problems, Saleh, almost always, concentrated on easy short-run political remedies. And when Yemen’s political situation had went bad in the past, repeatedly, he managed to get the best out the situation, namely best politically for him.

Of course, Saleh was also lucky enough to experience moments when political convenience met good policy choices. The decision to go for the unification of Yemen might have been such a moment. Nonetheless, the government’s style of the former president of Yemen is most evident in his micro-management of many of the tribal and regional conflicts during his time of reign.

Clearly, Saleh believed in ‘patience in politics’ and in ‘setting out political crisis and problems’. Some problems, like the endemic corruption or the spread of social drug ‘Qat’, have occasionally disappeared from public debate by just ignoring them, but others problems would stay.

Another governing strategy of Saleh was to allow rival political powers to hold each other in check. In this sense, the growing influence of some Zaydi movements like the Houthis, a radical branch of the Zaydis, themselves a branch of the Shi’ites, was compensated by letting some Salafis groups, a radical branch in Sunni Islam, to flourish in the same region.

The political talent of president Saleh was to survive in difficult political situation. He survived during the war between the former South and North of Yemen at the end of 1970s, the cold-war between the two in the 1980s, the civil war in 1994 and the political crisis following the 2006 elections.

Time and time again, Saleh used all means at his disposal to get himself a better negotiating position. This is why his politics might seem for some as being driven by situation than value or policy.

The use of Al-Qaida to keep the USA interested on the one hand, and the use of the US military support to check the power of Al-Qaida on the other, is a good example of Saleh’s instrumentalization of issues in order to promote stability and thus extend his political life.

Saleh’s relative success in securing his political exit path, and with it also his legacy, is a reflection of his style as politician for which Yemenis have knew him since many years. Instead of being a genuine problem solver, he proved during his 33 years that he is a talented crisis manager. He is used to ride whatever political storm Yemeni or world events would bring. In this respective, often enough, he had not performed badly.

Written by Mohammad Al-Saidi

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