I spent last night in an Egyptian hospital – don’t ask, not serious – but the time away from my computer and books with only BBC Arabic and al-Arabiya gave me an opportunity to take a step back and think about potential moves by the different players now that Salih has left for Saudi Arabia.
Veteran Yemen watchers like Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment and Ginny Hill of the Chatham House both seem to believe that this is the end for Salih, that he can’t get back to Yemen. Others like Abd al-Ghani al-Iryani have expressed similar sentiments. Maybe they are right. I hope they are. But I still worry that the old guy has a few more tricks up his sleeve.
There is a reason his eldest son Ahmad, who commands the Rep. Guard and Special forces, and his quartet of nephews stayed in the country.
(There are just too many scenarios I can imagine involving those five and their men with guns for me to fully jump on the Salih is done bandwagon. – don’t get me wrong I think he is on his way out, still, I’m not just sure if it is now – Even if he is forced out as president he may not be done. In many ways, this is personal. The other day my adviser at Princeton Bernard Haykel, who has taught me a great deal about Yemen, recorded this Bloggingheads session, with another bright Yemen watcher, Charles Scmitz. The two talked about politics in Yemen, and particularly about politics in Salih’s family mirroring the Godfather trilogy – Abddullah Hamid al-Din, a very smart professor, has made a similar point.)
It’s hard to imagine, at least for me, Salih sinking into a quite Saudi retirement like Ben Ali – I hope he will, but I worry he won’t.
This fear seems to be driving others as well. As I woke up this morning, al-Arabiya was reporting that Salih would be returning to Yemen in two weeks, that time frame may be a bit optimistic – but clearly some are trying to lay the ground work. Other reports claim Salih will need months to recover.
If this goes all the way to the wire, are the Saudis going to arrest Salih? Besides with so many family members still in Yemen, money and influence, Salih can still exert a lot of influence even from behind the scenes.
For their part the US and the UK are pressuring Saudi to keep Salih in Riyadh – the Saudis have a lot of influence over Yemen, but I’m not so sure they are the infallible snake charmers so many western observers believe them to be. Saudi has poured a lot, and I mean a lot of money into Yemen over the years, but I haven’t seen much evidence the Saudi gets much of a return on its riyals in Yemen.
Certainly, the al-Ahmar brothers and many others pay lip service to Saudi, but how much does that really effect their actions. King Abdullah was able to negotiate a cease-fire recently, but it was one in which Sadiq stated he would abide by the cease fire, but would return fire if fired upon. Other brothers were even less eager to sign up.
After Salih left town, all the sides shuffled around a bit. Vice President Hadi, who I talked about yesterday, took over the reigns of the government – although he didn’t move into the presidential palaces. Instead, Ahmad has moved in, which is not at all a good sign.
Meanwhile, Hadi who met with Ahmad, Tariq and Yahya (two of four key nephews) yesterday (AR.), is running things from his office in the Ministry of Defense as well as from his home, which is reportedly protected by troops loyal to Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar.
Salih’s vp – not having troops of his own, an important factor in this conflict – is being protected by troops loyal to Ali Muhsin, the general who defected back in March.
The official opposition meanwhile is hurrying to throw its support behind Hadi, calling for him to be named acting president, in an effort to start the clock on the 60 days and as a first step towards new elections. It seems the opposition is hoping that this can short circuit any potential return by Salih from Riyadh, leaving him with a fait acomplii – we’ll see.
At the same time Himyar al-Ahmar, the former deputy speaker of parliament, had his house attacked today amidst reports of isolated clashes.
And of course, the peaceful protesters, whom many unofficial observers are rooting for, but unable to help, continue to be caught in the middle as they have been for much of the past few weeks. Some of the youth organizations are putting together plans and making statements.
As ever in Yemen, much is unknown, but Salih’s departure has led to a shuffling of alliances – and a new set of battle lines. Now it remains to be seen what moves Ahmad and his four cousins make, as well as, and this is important, how loyal their troops remain with the Big Boss out of the country.