Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The Poetic Demise of Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s Most Powerful Man

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

The Poetic Demise of Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s Most Powerful Man

Article excerpt

ON DEC. 4, Houthi rebels assassinated Yemen's former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. For nearly 40 years, Saleh was the most powerful man in Yemen. Even after he was forced to resign as president in the wake of a popular uprising in 2012, he remained the center of gravity in Yemeni politics.

Most Yemenis have never known a Yemen without Ali Abdullah Saleh as its president or as a central political figure. In so many ways his-at times ruthless and always Machiavellian-rule defined modern Yemen. His grisly death at the hands of his enemies turned allies turned enemies again will reverberate for months and years to come. The already brutal and complex civil war in Yemen will only become more so.

There is a Yemeni poem that contains a repeated stanza that translates roughly as: cycles of revenge bring only cycles of sorrow. Saleh, like most Yemenis, was a fan of poetry, which is still a high art in Yemen. His assassination was itself an act of revenge, part of a cycle that he himself set in motion when he ordered the killing of Hussein al-Houthi in 2004, the founder of the revivalist movement who would go on to inspire the Houthi rebels. Members of the Houthi family swore revenge on Saleh and his family after that, and 13 years later they finally delivered.

The Houthis, who have proven to be as calculating as Saleh, were waiting for the opportunity to exact revenge and consolidate their power. By announcing that he was open to negotiations with Saudi Arabia, Saleh provided the Houthis with what they had been waiting for: an excuse to attack him and those closest to him. For months, if not years, the Houthis had been slowly co-opting Saleh's own network of ranking officers and tribal officials. It was a tactic that their leadership learned from Saleh himself, who was an expert at co-opting and liquidating rivals.

Saleh grew up poor, a member of what was then a weak tribe, the Sanhan. His education was limited to military training. Yemenis loved to make fun of his unpolished Arabic in his televised addresses. He began his career as an enlisted man and was then commissioned as second lieutenant. He participated in the coup against North Yemen's ruler, Imam Muhammad al-Badr, and by the mid-1970s he was a full colonel. For a man from an insignificant family that belonged to an insignificant tribe, his rapid progression from enlisted man to full colonel and then to president was nothing less than meteoric.

Saleh's rise to power was facilitated by ruthlessness-he did not hesitate in having his enemies lined up against a wall and shot-and an acute understanding of the men and country he sought to control. Saleh had a prodigious memory and could recite tribal lineages with ease. He knew who fit in where and who he needed to win over or eliminate. At the same time, for much of his 34-year reign (first as president of North Yemen and then as the first president of a unified Yemen in 1990) he understood that certain lines must not be crossed. There were limits to his ruthlessness. He knew that only so many cycles of revenge could be managed at once.

After 9/11, Saleh's understanding of the limits of his power shifted. For much of his reign he was referred to as the mayor of Sana'a because his writ did not extend beyond Yemen's capital. The United States, as part of its "war on terror," began training and funding Yemen's armed forces, ostensibly so they could engage al-Qaeda. …

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