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Yemen after Saleh: The Leader who Died Twice

Yemen after Saleh: The Leader who Died Twice

Saturday, 9 December, 2017 - 08:15
Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. (Reuters)

Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed twice. The first time was when he announced his alliance with the Houthis and the second was when he ended it with them. He died a political death the first time and a real one the second.

A journalist close to Saleh said that the decision to kill him was not made by Abdul Malek al-Houthi, head of Iranian-backed militia, but by Tehran. The decision was sparked by the uprising against the Houthis, the state of terror they were experiencing and the possibility of the collapse of the agenda Tehran was spearheading with all of its strength.

The result was the Houthis’ deployment of tanks in Sanaa which they had only previously used in protecting their Saada stronghold. They attacked Saleh and his forces in an unprecedented offensive. Videos posted on YouTube attested to the fierceness of the battle.

Yemeni, Arab and western analysts told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Houthis committed “political suicide” even though it was pushed to do so as part of a “struggle to survive.”

Yemeni political researcher Bara al-Shiban said: “Never has a politician blown up the residence of his ally.”

In a new Yemen and a new Sanaa, head of intelligence in the Houthi government Abou Ali al-Hakem, and head of its revolt committee, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, and others like them, have left the Saada caves and started to eliminate all who stand in their way.

Despite his death, Saleh remains the main concern of Yemen and its people. For four decades, the man was a part of everything in the country, from security to hope, to disrepute to joy.

He united the Yemenis in 1990, but then divided them in the war in the South in 1994. He then waged six wars against the Houthis and managed to unite Yemen against him in 2014 when he allied himself with them. He then sought to close a grey chapter in his history by opening a white one when he announced on December 2 the end of his alliance with the insurgents, a decision he paid the price for with his life two days later.

The struggle for power between Saleh’s General People’s Congress and the Houthis erupted in front of the al-Saleh mosque in Sanaa on November 29. Clashes between the two sides left some 16 people dead and for the first time since 2014, chants against the militias were heard in the streets of the capital.

The Houthis soon organized their ranks to confront the uprising and on November 30, they attacked Tarek Abdullah Saleh, head of Saleh’s guard, killing three of his corps. The offensive also targeted the former president’s family and members of his party.

Saleh’s assassination

Many reports have emerged on how Saleh was killed, but the murderer is the same. Video showed that he was killed as he was escaping Sanaa, while a statement issued by his son Ahmed, said that he was murdered in his home.

The fate of his corpse has not been revealed yet and it is strange that no tribal leader has demanded that it be retrieved. Only the women who were oppressed in Sanaa have made such pleas, said a Yemeni public employee on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

Dr. Manuel Almeida, a researcher on the Middle East, said that the Houthi leadership “will regret” killing Saleh, saying the development may be a turning point in the conflict.

Death in Sanaa

Saudi Ambassador to Yemen Mohammed al-Jaber said that Iran is “sending death to Yemen.” This claim is being proven today in Sanaa.

A Yemeni student said that the residents in the capital may have escaped death, but it still surrounds them in the city. He explained that since Saleh’s death, the Houthis have been trying to convince the locals that they have averted strife, “but we do not believe them.”

“We are living in terror in every sense of the word,” he stressed.

It is very difficult for someone to find a safe haven, besides those who have relatives in the countryside that is far away from the clashes.

Shiban told Asharq Al-Awsat: “I have never seen such terror in Sanaa. It appears that the Houthis are strong and no one can leave the capital now without thorough inspection.” He said that their belongings, such as mobile phones or laptops, are searched.

“One of my relatives in Sanaa said that they now listen out to loudspeakers that warn them against going outside. It is as if you are in North Korea or may be even worse,” he said.

Tribal role

Opinion has been divided over the role the tribes can play in the conflict. Some say that their influence is exaggerated, while others have accused them of betraying the cause. Others have demanded that they be given more time to absorb the shock of Saleh’s death, while others believe that a whole tribe, should it mobilize, can make a difference in the conflict.

A Yemeni observer said that the “people are now broken… but if the Arab alliance would shift from airstrikes to ground action, then speedier results may be reached on the field.”

The tribes should not be accused of treason, nor should they be completely trusted, said an official, who is close to the General People’s Congress.

“They are still influential players on the scene through their weapons, fighters and knowledge of the terrain,” he noted.

“They will be a mighty foe should they return to the scene and they are not as weak as some social media activists claim,” he added.

According to media sources, the tribal leaders are demanding that they receive strong support in order to eliminate the Houthis, but these claims cannot be completely trusted.

Some leaders said that they too have suffered like the rest of the Yemeni people at the hands of the Houthis. “We will advance if we receive real military, not financial, backing,” they explained.

“The Yemenis do not want Houthi rule and they will accept anything but the Houthis in Sanaa,” they stressed.

Yemeni political researcher Najib Ghalab said that the change in tribal alliances can be achieved by having an armed force that would be able to help rid the tribes of oppressive militia practices.

The Houthis can only control the tribes through oppression and violence, he remarked.

Furthermore, the losses that the tribes have incurred in both their alliance and opposition to the Arab coalition is a point that should not be overlooked, he stated.

With the right military support, the tribes can provide the needed environment to expel the Houthis. The Houthis will maintain their oppression unless a whole tribal bloc, not just small clusters, revolts, Ghalab stressed.

Yemen’s future

Joost Hiltermann, of the International Crisis Group, noted that the recent developments in Yemen indicate that the war will escalate.

Gerald Feierstein, a former US ambassador to Yemen of the Middle East Institute in Washington, said the Houthis waged their war largely without Saleh.

"He was largely a spent force by the time he died in a weekend's fighting," wrote Feierstein in a policy brief.

Almeida meanwhile said that the only surprising thing about recent developments was that it took this long for the Saleh-Houthi alliance to collapse. Ever since they seized control of Sanaa in 2014, the militias accumulated power and wealth at the expense of Saleh and his General People’s Congress, he remarked.

Saleh’s assassination will likely turn several of his supporters against the militias. This may help in recruiting northern tribes against the Houthis, he explained.

What happens to the General People’s Congress after Saleh’s death?

Ghalab said that the militants will try to force the party to restructure its leadership to transform it into a Houthi branch.

The Congress needs to stay strong and realistically deal with the developments and build a united front. The party can make a radical change and create unity in steering the battles against the Houthis, not just politically, but on the ground as well, he continued.

The reality is that the militias are actually living in a state of isolation. Their strength lies in the excessive use of force … but they have consequently fueled internal anger and they do not enjoy tribal or civilian backing, he said.

The Houthis will suffer popular backlash, especially in wake of the crimes and executions they are now committing, Ghalab predicted.

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