The serpent charmer, who for decades “danced on the heads of snakes,” was ultimately bitten by a viper he failed to tame. Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed on Monday as he was performing his last dance in the jaws of the Houthi snake, which is on the verge of swallowing Yemen whole in favor of Iran’s sectarian agenda.
Saleh was born to a poor family in the village of Sanhan, south of the capital Sana’a, on March 21, 1942. He lost his father at a young age and was raised by his step-father. After a few years at school, he began his military career at the young age of 12.
No one predicted that the son of a family of farmers and sheep herders would one day become the president of Yemen, bringing together a country divided into a united one, with all of its tribal and cultural diversity.
At the age of 18 and through a tribal mediation, Saleh joined the North Yemen Military Academy. In 1962, he played a minor role in the revolt against the rule of the Hamideddine family that had governed northern Yemen after the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I.
At the time, Saleh was not the most prominent of Yemeni officers. He soon came to the forefront, however, becoming the leader of the Majd battalion in Taez following the Ibrahim al-Hamdi’s revolt against the government of Abdul Rahman al-Irani on June 13, 1974. He also played a role during the events that led to Hamdi’s assassination. Saleh’s rivals claim that he had a hand in the murder along with Ahmed al-Ghashmi, who would succeed Hamdi.
Ghashmi would however meet Hamdi’s fate and die in a bombing at his office in 1978.
Career as president
On July 17, 1978, a people’s council elected Saleh as president of northern Yemen. This kicked off his career as “snake charmer”, eventually earning a reputation for his ruthlessness, wiliness and ability to manipulate both allies and rivals alike.
He tightened his grip on the army and stifled more than one revolt against him. He allied himself with the Muslim Brotherhood to put an end to the rise of the socialist left in the central regions bordering southern Yemen. Northern and southern Yemen were eventually united in 1990.
Saleh proved to be a master in dealing with tribal powers through allowing them to take part in rule and the share of wealth, as demonstrated with the Hashed and Bakeel tribes. His relatives and Sanhan tribe also controlled the military.
Saleh seized the opportunity to unite northern and southern Yemen by announcing an agreement with South Yemen President Ali Salem al-Beidh. The agreement proved fragile however as Beidh sought more power at Saleh’s expense. This pushed the latter to ally himself with various northern and southern forces in order to confront Beidh’s secessionist attempts that culminated in the war of the summer 1994 in which Saleh and his allies emerged victorious.
On the foreign front, Saleh proved to be a pragmatic player of the first degree. He attempted to play on both sides of any divide, exploiting the al-Qaida, terrorism, Houthi and Arab causes cards. He stood with Saddam Hussein during the invasion of Kuwait and later reconciled with the Arab Gulf. One of his greatest achievements was the demarcation of the border with Saudi Arabia and Oman.
His supporters describe him as the builder of the united Yemen, while his adversaries view him as a minor dictator, who exploited the ignorance and poverty of his people to tighten his grip on power and reap its wealth without achieving any real development.
Despite the political and partisan diversity in Yemen, Saleh proved adept at preserving his power, outmaneuvering his rivals and weakening opposition groups. This led him to become the absolute ruler of the country under a republican guise, say his rivals.
Saleh waged six wars against the Iran-backed Houthi group, which originally emerged from the northern Saada province. The group was established by Hussein Badreddine al-Houthi, who was killed at the end of the first war in 2004.
Saleh was accused of not being serious enough in eliminating the Houthi movement, which managed to persevere under current leader Abdul Malek al-Houthi. Saleh was accused of seeking to maintain the group as a way to blackmail neighboring countries.
In the past ten years of his rule, Saleh sought to allow his family to seize all authority and wealth in Yemen. He therefore established the republican guard, which was commanded by his oldest son Ahmed, whom he was grooming to succeed him. He also appointed his oldest nephew as the head of security agencies. His step-brother Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar was appointed commander of the air force.
With the eruption of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, Yemen found itself vulnerable to the wave of change that swept the Arab world. Protests against Saleh erupted in early 2011 and his failure to contain them culminated in a failed attempt against his life in June. He miraculously survived the bombing of a mosque within his presidential compound and Saudi authorities at the time transported him to the Kingdom for treatment.
Soon after, the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative was approved as a safe means for Saleh and his party to leave power in favor of Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Hadi was unanimously elected president in early 2012.
Need for revenge
Saleh’s departure from power did not lead to his relatives leaving their military positions. It appeared that the need for revenge against those who ousted him led him to ally himself with the Houthis. He viewed them as a the “Trojan Horse” through which he could carry out his revenge against his rivals.
As the militias advanced from their Saada stronghold towards Sana’a to topple Hadi’s government, Saleh was holding meetings at his residence with tribal leaders and his various supporters in an attempt to facilitate the Houthi takeover of the capital. On September 21, 2014, the militias indeed took over Sana’a and Saleh then allied himself with the coup powers against Hadi’s legitimate government. This prompted Saudi Arabia to lead an alliance to restore legitimacy in Yemen.
Saleh, with all of his skill and wiliness, did not foresee the dangers of his actions. The Houthi snake this time was too wild to charm and Saleh could not rein in his ruthless partner. The Houthis managed to seize and loot weapons caches and state buildings and resources. They brainwashed tribal members to adhere to its sectarian ideology, thereby weakening Saleh’s power. In the end, the former president was left with only a small security quarter in southern Yemen, a television station and several helpless civilian supporters.
Towards the end of his life, Saleh became a nuisance to the Houthis and a constant source of concern because he was able to regroup his forces. The militias also wanted to humiliate him and avenge the death of their founder and the wars they waged against Saleh in 2004 and 2014. The militia therefore sought to completely eliminate him, especially after it witnessed a massive civilian rally in support of Saleh.
Snake charmers will inevitably meet their end with a snake bite and this is what happened with Saleh, who long boasted about being able to “dance on the heads of vipers.”
The Houthis took advantage of the occasion of the Prophet’s birthday on Thursday to rally their supporters to the Sabaeen square in Sana’a. They could have chosen any other location away from Saleh’s security zone, but it was an opportunity for them to seize control of the square and its mosque and eliminate the former president’s nephew.
It appears that Saleh realized that he was in real danger, he was either going to be humiliated or killed. He therefore made the call for a military confrontation against the Houthis, therefore ending his alliance with them. He succeeded for one day in confusing the group. His guards fiercely fought the Houthi tanks and his supporters in various provinces sought to stand up for him.
On Monday, Saleh left his security zone in al-Seyasy neighborhood in Sana’a. He departed in a small convoy after the collapse of his guard corps.
Several reports have emerged on how he was killed, but their conclusion is always the same. One said that he was a victim of an ambush on the Kholan road, which he was taking to head to his hometown of Sanhan. The Houthis were on to him and they dragged him out of his car and executed him to avenge their late leader.
There have been reports that two of his sons are now imprisoned by the Houthis, while the fate of several of his relatives and party members remains unknown.
Saleh’s supporters now view him as a hero and a martyr.
“Despite his alliance with the Houthis, he finally opened his eyes and was killed while he was confronting them to restore the republic,” they said.
Some of his rivals meanwhile said that he deserved his punishment.
In the end, the Yemenis are still living in the same crisis with the Houthis’ ongoing control of Sana’a and their oppression of the people.