Yemen: Saleh's Last Dance on the Heads of Snakes

Sana'a, Yemen December 2017
Sana'a, Yemen December 2017

“Now the real civil war will start”, a seasoned senior humanitarian officer, who worked in Yemen and has extensive knowledge of its affairs, told me.

“And this was not a real one?” I asked.

“No, I do not think this was the real one”, She answered.

It may sound cruel to you, but it is not. She was just stating a matter of fact. The numbers of the latest causalities seem to support her argument.

Since the break of the civil war in March 2015, the UN has counted more than 13,000 civilian deaths - including more than 1,500 children - and tens of thousands of people who have been injured.

Since clashes erupted six days ago between the Zaydi Huthi militia and supporters of former President Ali Abduallah Saleh, more than 234 killed and 400 wounded; and the toll is rising with reports of summary executions and continued fighting.

The civil war certainly took a darker turn with the murder of Saleh.

His death shocked his supporters and detractors alike. Some celebrated. Fireworks were launched in rejoice in some areas in the South, where Saleh crushed a cession in the 1994 Civil war. Grief would be strange in light of what he had done there.

But disbelief was one common reaction. It was as if many thought he would never die.

How many generations grew with his face hovering over them from schoolbooks, TV channels and placards in the streets? Even some of those activists, who demanded his departure during Yemen’s 2011 Youth Uprising, expressed grief for his death in their FB postings. Astonishing, right? Some called it a Stockholm syndrome.

How could he die? He was the master of survival.

He enjoyed the dance on the heads of the snakes. This is what it means to rule Yemen, he told a journalist once. Was it surprising that he was killed by one of the pet snakes–the Huthis – he nurtured?

Between 1974 and 1978, the Yemen Arab Republic (north Yemen) had three presidents in quick succession. The first two were assassinated and the third gave up power for fear for his life; all of them alternated power in a span of one single year.

Saleh was the fourth president. He was neither charismatic nor well known when he assumed power in 1978. A military commander and member of the strong Hashid tribe with little formal education, Salih was not particularly liked or respected. Many presumed he had played a role in the murder of former Yemeni president al-Hamdi in 1977 and served as a mere front for tribal and Saudi interests. So, few believed he would survive for long as president. Yet he survived them all, became president of united Yemen in 1994, and remained president until he was forced to step down in 2012. When everybody thought his political career was over, he rose from the ashes again in 2014, supporting the Huthi revolt and ensuring his political relevance.

His regime’s politics of survival brought the country to its ruins.

Saleh’s regime depended on the support and loyalty of a close network within his own sectarian and tribal group, at the same time playing on the sectarian, tribal, and regional divisions within society. This exploitation has led to a constantly shifting interplay in which various political and ethnic groups are included at the expense of others at one point, only to be excluded at another point. The rise of Islamist movements, Sunni and Zaydis alike, was an outcome of this politics.

The resilience of Saleh’s regime was attributed to his reliance on his tribal military power base. But that resilience came to an end due to power struggle within this close circle of strongmen. Those dissatisfied members of his clan decided to support the youth uprising in 2011 paving the ground for the open hostility that took place thereafter.

Anyone who follows Yemen would be wise to refrain from future predictions. How can you predict a future when alliances rise and fall as the waves ebb and flow?

My friend’s observation is not to be discarded though. It tells you that the war will intensify before it may stop.

Before, Saleh’s clan was divided. Some were fighting with Saleh, others with the Saudi led coalition and yet others with the Iranian backed Huthi militia.

Saleh’s murder changed that. It is bound to unite his clan again. His supporters, led now by his son, Ahmad, are joining their clan members fighting on the Saudi led coalition’s side. Together they will bring the war to the regions thus controlled by the Huthi militia and their tribal allies.

The real civil war might begin now. If the one raging since two years was not the real one, I dread thinking of the destruction that is yet to come.

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