Salih's Return to Yemen (Updated)
Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen, is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. Johnsen has written for a variety of publications on Yemen including, among others, Foreign Policy, The American Interest, The Independent, The Boston Globe, and The National. He is the co-founder of Waq al-Waq: Islam and Insurgency in Yemen Blog. In 2009, he was a member of the USAID's conflict assessment team for Yemen.
Remember back in June when President Salih narrowly escaped an assassination attempt and flew to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment? A number of people predicted that was the end. Analysts and experts publicly commented that Salih was finished and journalists started working on political obituaries.
But it turns out President Salih, who has survived more than three decades in Yemen's rough-and-tumble political world had other ideas.
Late last night the Yemen Embassy in Washington DC sent out this one-line statement:
"His Excellency President Ali Abdullah Saleh, President of the Republic of Yemen returned to Yemen after a three month long medical stay in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia."
And just like that things look a great deal darker in Yemen. Salih's return comes at the worst possible moment for the country. Fighting has recently broken out between army units loyal to him and his family and those on the side of the uprising, while tribes backing each side have also recently begun fighting again in different parts of Sanaa.
Salih's return is like gasoline on a raging fire. His presence in Sanaa is likely to galvanize people on both sides, further trenching warring interests that have already been using heavy munitions against one another.
One week ago, the US predicted a breakthrough in the negotiations - I don't think this is what it had in mind.
Whatever Salih says and does today, few will trust his intentions.
Back in the spring, when things were just getting started Salih warned that if he left Yemen would crumble into chaos - it looks as though he is doing his best to make that a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Update: For those looking to understand Salih's thinking, here is an article I wrote in 2006 that talks about how he dealt with a political crisis then. And there is also (This one as well.) His basic strategy is to deflect, set up two opposing sides, and then swoop in at the last minute to save the day.
He will say anything, but at heart he will plan to survive in power, just like he did in 2005/06 and in the mid-1990s. It has worked before, Salih knows, why shouldn't it work now?
Oh, and for all those wondering how Salih can believe this when it seems like the whole world thinks he is done. Well, when he first came to power, no one thought he would survive then as well. In fact - one of Salh's favorite anecdotes - the CIA believed he would be dead in 6 months.
But he survived that and, he believes, he can survive this.
That history is why I've always been so baffled at the US approach in Yemen.
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