It was a game-changer, a bold attempt on the life of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s ruling strongman and preeminent political force for 33 years: After over 2 weeks of simmering violence bordering on the scope and organizational level that warrants the term “civil war,” unidentified assailants alleged by the government to be with the powerful Ahmari tribe (a leading opposition force) fired a rocket at a mosque in the Presidential Compound where Saleh and half a dozen top-ranking men of his government gathered for Friday prayers. President Saleh survived but was wounded in the attack; he prudently issued a radio address almost immediately insisting that he was alright, but according to the New York Times and other sources he sounded lethargic in the address–possibly an effect of sedation due to pain–and the very next day Saleh left Yemen seeking medical care in Saudi Arabia.
Saleh left Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi–a man generally believed to have no political ambitions of his own–in charge. One Tuesday the plot thickened, with the Washington Post reporting the known extent of Saleh’s injuries: The President of Yemen has severe burns over 40% of his body and has suffered bleeding in his brain. A full recovery is possible but Saleh will probably have to remain in Saudi Arabia for treatment for several weeks.
A few weeks is an awful long time for Yemen’s ruling strongman to be politically-inoperative, especially considering that even before the attempt on his life skirmishing factions were already carving-up crucial cities such as the capital Sana’a and Taiz into increasingly-hardened zones of control–a process that continued at first for several days after Friday.
A contentious calm followed on Wednesday, 5 days after the intrinsically-failed but perhaps effectively successful attempt on Saleh’s life. As indicated in the previous report by the Post, the opposition claimed that Saleh’s abdication is already an accomplished fact, and that his supporters should assent in the creation of a transitional government. Saleh’s supporters have taken the “It’s just a flesh wound” line, reasonably in the case of his injuries but rather dubiously in their insistence that Saleh will be able to stroll back into power in a few weeks and reassert a political status quo which an apparent majority of Yemenis already treat with hostile contempt. Saleh’s supporters have also insisted that his continued rule represents Yemen’s best chance of avoiding a slide into chaos.
A few facts about Yemen could help to give perspective. Its population is about 24 million, about the same as much larger and richer neighboring Saudi Arabia and about 4/5 that of somewhat-richer but long violence-wracked Iraq. It is the poorest Arab country, with a per capita income of $1,260 in 2008. Yemen is also unusually dependent upon remittances from migrant workers living in the oil-rich Gulf States, even by the standards of the other poor to middle-income non oil-producing Arab states. Remittance money can be a mixed blessing, sometimes offering a better life for the family of a migrant worker but potentially enough, due to exchange rates and price differences, to encourage idleness and in some cases going to violent dissidents rather than family. In fact, Yemen is the base for al-Qaeda in Arabia, one of the largest terrorist organizations under the al-Qaeda banner. It is also just north of the Gulf of Aden from Somalia, plausibly called the most lawless zone on Earth. Yemen is also noteworthy as one of the most heavily-armed countries on Earth.
Yemen was actually 2 countries until 1990, when at the close of the Cold War the Communist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen accepted reunification with Saleh’s more densely-populated Yemen Arab Republic, located in northwestern Yemen.
In claiming that Saleh is the only thing standing in the way of the radical Islamists and/or chaos, Saleh’s supporters simply sustain his own past protests to foreign calls for political liberalization, itself a familiar page from Hosni Mubarak’s well-worn playbook. Yemen simply happens to be a preeminent example of a country where the ruling strongman’s support, or at least his permission of action, was particularly valuable.
The truth is more dissonant, however: Like many shrewd tribal strongmen who become too reliant on either oil money or foreign aid to balance their power structure, Saleh exhibited a fundamental unwillingness to relinquish power once mass opinion shifted irrevocably against his dictatorship. While in most incidents the blood spilled in Yemen hasn’t compared to the large tolls seen in Egypt, Syria and especially Libya (or achieved the amoral spectacle of the mercenary crackdown on majority-Shi’a protesters in Bahrain), Yemen has faced sporadic dissent since late-January, and sustained protest in the wake of Hosni Mubarak’s dramatic February 11th abdication. Since mid-February a trickle of violence against demonstrators–shootings by state security here, a bomb detonated by loyalists there–has added up to a death toll of over 800 by the beginning of June. All of this happened because Saleh has repeatedly rebuffed any opposition offers for any transition deal requiring his abdication from power. Now, in a strange turn of events, he has been removed from power (likely never to return) but on terms that may momentarily deepen Yemen’s stalemate. In the days ahead, we will see whether Yemen’s well-armed and contentious tribes are capable of forming a government for themselves, or whether Saleh’s old constituents believe the shrewd strongman can be replaced by an empty suit chosen chosen to do their bidding. They’d be mistaken, but it wouldn’t be the first time an ancien regime had made a deadly mistake in the face of radically-shifted political realities.