“He’s like a ghost,” a Yemeni waiter quietly tells a visiting political expert during a chance chat about his country’s former leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
“You don’t see him, but you can certainly feel his presence,” the waiter said, in an answer to a question that has left many minds blank.
Where is Saleh now?
He was the man who publicly flaunted his injuries during the civil uprising against his rule last year, which turned fierce when his tribal enemies began to unleash their ire. Then, Saleh had appeared to be a leader who unequivocally attempted to remain in the spotlight, both during his rise and his fall.
But after a Gulf-brokered deal that saw him step down and a medical trip to the United States, the former Yemeni top dog has seemingly vanished into thin air.
“No one knows where he is,” says Ibrahim Sharqieh, a conflict resolution analyst at the Brookings Doha Center who has written extensively about the conflict in Yemen. Sharqieh had recently visited the country and met with many Yemenis, who, like the waiter, pondered about the whereabouts of their former despot.
On the surface, Saleh and his allies appear to be backing away from the country’s political scopes, with the help of his replacement, Abd-Rabbu Hadi Mansour, who has been able to sideline former Saleh affiliates.
Through “robust international support,” notes Sharqieh, Hadi has been able to politically marginalize “General Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar, the air force chief and Saleh’s half-brother, as well as Tareq Saleh, a commander of a powerful brigade in Sana’a and Saleh’s nephew.”
And while this politically ostracized a few of Saleh’s family members, this has necessarily pushed them or Saleh to leave the country, where the latest reports have placed him to be. Failing to leave the country until now does not violate the U.S.-Gulf Arab negotiated peace deal he signed last year to step down as president, but it does stint a smooth political transition in Yemen and signals towards possible future political interference from those that were once ousted, says Sharqieh.
“The essence of the GCC initiative was about allowing a coordinated transition, but the possibility of Saleh remaining in Yemen does not allow for the smoothest transition,” notes Sharqieh.
While the Doha-based analyst held back from confirming Saleh’s presence in Yemen, he did say: “There isn’t any evidence that he is outside [the country].”
If so, his presence could provoke sporadic political unrest.
“There is a criticism that the GCC initiative did not include for him [Saleh] to retire from political action or to leave Yemen. There were talks of him leaving the country, but I doubt that he would ever have agreed to it,” says Sharqieh.
While critics have argued whether a proviso in the power-transfer deal that Saleh leave the country should have been settled, perhaps this has been (until now) intentionally overlooked by the GCC, the U.S. and the European Union – those who bore witness to Saleh’s signing of the deal. Why? Because the international community may have hoped that a White House warning back in May to Saleh and other prominent figures still stands.
America had issued a far reaching executive order giving the U.S. Treasury the power to seize U.S. assets of anyone “obstructing” the Yemeni political transition. But is this enough to keep Saleh at arm’s length ─ politically ─ despite his reported physical presence in the country?
Perhaps keeping quiet about his whereabouts is part of this arrangement.
Back and forth
In February 2012, after signing the power transfer deal, the then outgoing President Saleh left America after undergoing medical treatment. While a Yemeni official confirmed to Reuters that Saleh had left the country, the official held back from disclosing information about his location. This was the precise point when the world fell silent about his whereabouts.
His return to Yemen, even during the unrest, had been a point of major significance; a chance for analysts to not only dwell on the political implications of Saleh’s return but also to ponder on his state of mind and what he would be the embattled leader’s next move.
Back in June 2011, at the peak of the uprising, thousands of Yemenis celebrated the departure of Saleh, who had traveled to Saudi Arabia for his first bout of medical treatment. He underwent two operations on his chest and neck after he was hit by shrapnel three inches below the heart. The international community waxed lyrical about whether his visit to the Gulf kingdom was a “one-way ticket,” not because of the obvious: Saleh wanting to escape the fighting and the brutal uprising which had resulted in his injury, but because of the likelihood that Saudi Arabia would not allow his return to Yemen.
“Even if he wanted to return to Yemen, it’s unlikely the Saudis would let him. Quite possibly, they engineered this medical trip as a face-saving way to get him out of power,” BBC correspondent Jon Leyne wrote in June last year.
But Saleh returned, albeit three months later. He called for “a truce and a ceasefire,” but in actuality, his return prodded at the risk of an all-out civil war. But the country backed away from dropping off of that particular cliff, when Saleh sealed the deal just in time.
But Saleh’s ideological presence in the post-revolutionary edition of the country has been felt by Yemenis. Like many citizens, Sharqieh noted, the Yemeni waiter blamed the recent power outages to hit the country on Saleh’s remnants.
“Saleh’s men keep attacking the main power plant in Mareb to disrupt life in Sana’a. Saleh is still working against the revolution. He won’t give up,” the waiter told Sharqieh.
The analyst found that what the waiter reflected was “a general sense that the uprising against Saleh and his aides is far from over.”
Saleh’s “ghost” is also felt by the new regime, as Hadi grapples with the task of restructuring the military, which is mostly controlled by loyalists of the former president, appeasing the southern secessionist movement and suppressing militants in the country’s south.
“The Gulf initiative fault is that it wanted the removal of Saleh but the stay of his regime, which is impossible,” said Abdulbari Taher, an independent analyst in Sana’a told a Gulf-based newspaper this week.
“Saleh did not build a state but a gang that is still controlling the army and security forces which make it impossible for change to take place; the deal granted him immunity from prosecution and released his hand to spoil the transition,” Taher added.
And so, Saleh’s departure from Yemen could aid the country’s post-revolutionary beginning. But where would he go?
“It is better for him to leave the country and go somewhere in the Gulf,” Sharqieh suggests, adding that the United Arab Emirates and the United States have been come up as one of the candidate countries he could go to.
But all the possibilities come down to this: Saleh does not want to leave Yemen. When comparing him to the line of Arab leaders that have been toppled during 2011’s Arab Spring until now, Saleh has come out of the other end with the best deal. He did not have to flee the country and prosecution à la Tunisia’s Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, for example. Saleh also avoided being sentenced for regime crimes during the uprising, something which his former Egyptian counterpart Hosni Mubarak could not do. There have been no enquiries into killings carried out throughout the uprising, which revolutionaries still blame on Saleh’s regime. And now, as world pressure on Saleh has hushed to a standstill, the former Yemeni strongman does not need to defy any calls for him to leave.
If Saleh’s specter is in fact loitering in the shadows of Yemen’s political and military constructs, then keeping quiet could be the best tactical move the former president has made since his ouster.