Often called the survivor of the Arab Spring for he managed to emerge relatively politically unscathed from such unprecedented revolutionary turmoil, Yemen former President Ali Abdullah Saleh might have ran out of luck altogether.
When former President Saleh reluctantly agreed to tender his resignation in 2012, under the pressure of the EU, the US and the GCC countries, he did so under the strict condition that his person, his close family members and his aides would benefit from complete judicial immunity.
If Saleh understood he could not possibly deny his people what they wanted: a change in leadership, he was bent on safeguarding his freedom and his immense wealth, especially in the wake of Egyptian President Husne Mubarak’s imprisonment and the death of Libyan Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Having carefully negotiated his departure from the presidency, Saleh was able to preserve much of his political influence and sway over not only the military but tribal leaders.
An astute tactician and a veteran politician, Saleh was not going to diminish without a good fight. Weakened and out of office that maybe, but Saleh had more than just a few tricks in his bag. And indeed, for the past two years the former president has been able to exert much influence over Yemen’s political life. The founder and head of the General People’s Congress, Saleh has been able to rule by proxy through his loyalists, pulling the strings of power from behind a veil.
While incumbent President Abdi Rabbo Mansour Hadi chose to allow such political co-existence, such attitude is not to be confused with apathy or weakness, but rather a keen sense of timing. Rather than confront Saleh directly at a time when he was still strong and his allegiances solid, President Hadi chose instead to slowly erode Saleh’s powerhouse from within, stripping the decades’ old political and military edifice, until it became but paper thin and vulnerable.
If President Hadi spent the past two years negotiating and mediating with Saleh and his loyalists, it is not because he wished to, but because he had no choice, at least not without risking engulfing Yemen into an all-out war.
But what a difference two years made.
Weakened and diminished, Saleh has lost much of his former influence and his reach is no longer as it once was. While many experts expected Saleh to slowly wither and eventually retire altogether from politics, Yemen’s old lion was not ready to throw in the towel just yet. He felt he had one last fight in him.
Earlier this month intelligence sources informed President Hadi that Saleh was planning a coup d’état against the coalition government.
President Hadi was quick to react.
On June 11, President Hadi ordered the presidential guards to storm Yemen Today’s offices (Saleh’s media arm) and order the television channel taken off the air. The raid ended with the confiscation of equipment and closure of the media group’s offices.
Needless to say that such a frontal attack was not well received by the former president and his supporters. Sultan al-Barakani, the head of the General People's Congress parliamentary bloc told reporters at the time, “Yemen Today television channel and newspaper were shut down today under order of President Hadi … Forces belonging to the presidential guard shuttered the headquarters of the television and newspaper and seized their equipment.” Al Barakani called the move a dangerous precedent, warning that such open media repression did not bode well for Yemen, especially since the coalition government has so often claim to be in favour of promoting civil liberties.
Days after this first strike, President Hadi ordered the military to regain control of Al Saleh Mosque in Sabain, near the presidential palace. Although classified as a government building, former President Saleh, who had the mosque built, has always retained control off the mosque’s ground, acting very much the landlord.
Sources in government explained that Saleh had planned to use secret underground tunnels to stage an attack on President Hadi, using the mosque as ground zero for his attempted coup. Stacks of light weapons were found in several tunnels running from the mosque to the presidential palace.
But President Hadi was not yet finished.
Earlier this week, President Hadi instructed his interior and foreign ministers to investigate Saleh’s eldest son, Gen. Ahmed Ali Saleh (former Commander in Chief of the Republican Guards) and Brig. Gen Tarek Mohammed Saleh, Saleh’s nephew and former Commander in Chief of the Presidential Guards over allegations of looting and embezzlement.
Several local media outlets have alleged that President Hadi is considering charging Gen. Ahmed Ali with treason for illegally confiscating military equipment, weapons and ammunitions for his own benefit.
While Saleh has worked to diffuse the situation by sending a negotiating committee to President Hadi, officials have warned that this time, Saleh’s former lieutenant is not keen on listening.
As commentators have noted, former President Saleh might be facing a snake much too big for him to dance on.