Against the backdrop of complicated and intricate developments in Yemen, and the rush of events, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh remains a powerful figure in the political fray. He stepped down under interim arrangements ushered in by the Gulf initiative of March 2012 and was succeeded by then-Vice President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi. However, he retained his post as head of the former ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), which has had representatives in subsequent governments.
Saleh was the victim of an assassination attempt in June 2011 and transferred to a military hospital in Saudi Arabia for treatment. After his recovery, he returned to Yemen to resume his political activities. Recently, when the Houthis invaded and seized control over strategic locations in the capital, Sanaa, and asserted themselves as a major political force, Saleh came under suspicion for either actively supporting them or at least helping to clear the way for them by drawing on the connections and allegiances that he still controls in the armed forces.
The new balance of powers in the capital was manifested in the Peace and Partnership Agreement signed 21 September. Soon afterwards, the UN Security Council, invoking Chapter VII of the UN Charter, imposed sanctions against Ali Abdullah Saleh and Houthi leaders on the grounds of obstructing the political process. The former president has charged that the UN move has placed Yemen under an international mandate, constituting a flagrant impingement on its sovereignty. He argues that the divergent opinions and positions of the Yemeni parties do not warrant placing Yemen under the provisions of Chapter VII. In spite of this, he believes that his party, the GPC, has responded constructively by means of its constant efforts to avert the risks and dangers that could aggravate the crisis the Yemeni people have been enduring for three years.
Ahram Online met with the former Yemeni president in his home, which was abuzz with activity by the press, tribal representatives, and politicians who had worked with him in the past, along with GPC leaders. The interview opened by asking Saleh to speak about his role in the current political scene, and into the future.
“I am past tense. From the past. The question about Yemen’s future is one that should be put to the current leaders in Yemen, not to me. As for me, if you want my answer to that question it is: I wish for Yemen security, peace, stability, progress and the preservation of everything that has been accomplished with the addition of new accomplishments. That is my opinion.”
After February and March 2012 there was a general impression that Yemen was moving, more or less, towards stability. That impression lasted until 21 September 2014. Now everything appears to have virtually ground to a halt. What is your assessment of the current moment?
Everyone hope things will get better. People hoped that the change in 2011 would bring something better than what existed. Today, they hope to preserve what was achieved in the past and before 2011.
But what is your assessment of the political situation and Yemen and the current condition of the Yemeni citizen?
It pains me to see the country fragment, the institutions collapse, all the accomplishments of the past being destroyed. Okay, so they tried to keep positive points from the past and to offer something better than the negative points, but at what a cost! It’s a disaster.
Aren’t you part of the solution to this crisis?
No, the solution is in the hands of the decision-makers.
You are not a decision-maker? What is your situation in the current scene?
I am situated in a political organisation called the General People’s Congress, which tries to help, restore calm, instil peace of mind, promote calm with the government, and cooperation with the cabinet. The government never asked this of us, but we want to perform our duty to our people. This is to promote the restoration of calm and to help the political, military and security agencies to overcome this crisis. But not to simply land ourselves in another crisis. We need to overcome the 2011 crisis, bring it to an end and move on to make things better, rather than creating another crisis just as we begin to emerge from a previous one.
Do you have some dispute with the current government or with President Hadi in light of recent developments pertaining to sanctions and the current situation?
I have no dispute with anyone. They are at odds with themselves. They go out and tell the Americans and the UN and neighbouring countries that Ali Abdullah Saleh is part of the problem. If a gang blocks a road they say it’s Ali Abdullah Salah. If the electricity gets cut off, they say it’s Ali Abdullah Saleh. If an oil pipeline gets blown up, they say it’s Ali Abdullah Saleh. If the economy deteriorates, they say it’s Ali Abdullah Saleh. If the Houthis move, they say it’s Ali Abdullah Saleh. If Al-Qaeda moves, they say it’s Ali Abdullah Saleh. That’s the current government for you.
What do you have to say about the Gulf initiative that is being spearheaded by Oman?
I believe that the first Gulf initiative was good. But it was circumvented and politicised in a way that produced results that were not good. Therefore, as our brothers in Oman announced, they have proposed a new Gulf initiative. I don’t know whether or not all the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries are agreed on it or whether it is an Omani proposal to improve the first Gulf initiative. In all events, I welcome it.
No one contacted you with regard to that subject?
No. But our neighbouring countries — Oman, Abu Dhabi and the other Gulf countries — have a duty to stand by Yemen and help it. This is not about money. It’s about political assistance towards an end to this crisis in Yemen. It is an asphyxiating crisis. There is no mutual trust between all the shades of the political spectrum and this breeds conflict. We are looking forward to a strong and effective Gulf role. It would have been better if they had asserted pressure to force the parties to implement and abide by the first Gulf initiative.
Are differences arising between you and Saudi Arabia at present?
I have no dispute with Saudi Arabia or any other party. What they write in the newspapers belonging to our brothers in the kingdom is based on domestic demand there. And that demand says, “Let’s surround him. Let’s surround Ali Abdullah Saleh from the US. Let’s surround him from the UN. Let’s surround him from the Gulf. Let’s surround him from here and from there ... I had never imagined I would be such an important figure.
But aren’t you an important figure?
I used to be, I think, at the time when I was a ruler. But afterwards do I still have such importance? Who knows?
What do you have to say about other regional interventions in Yemen?
I have nothing to do with that subject. I do not know the details. However, as I see it, when situations get out of control in the country and the performance of government weakens, it is very likely that lions, snakes and all sorts of beasts begin to intervene.
So the state is at a moment of weakness?
I do not think so. It is stronger than ever in the past.
The Yemeni state is strong today.
Yes. In my assessment, that is the case.
Do you mean that the military and security establishment is strong? What about the scenes and the manifestations of Houthi control in the streets?
Yes. I am not analysing the current scene. I was a ruler. They’ll say that I’m angry and thirsty for power so I suit my analysis accordingly. But other politicians can express their opinion on this matter.
But some say that you are a factor in the current scene. Some blame you and some support you. Is this not the case?
I can’t make others stay quiet. They are free to say what they want.
With regard to Egypt, how do you assess the situation? Is there a relationship between you and Egypt?
That is the crux of the issue — Egypt. I believe that the Arab Spring is bad and that it was backed by the Zionists. But there is a bright candle now with the presence of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi at the top of the pyramid of power in Egypt, and with the elimination of the Muslim Brotherhood, because the Muslim Brothers were a fascist and reactionary force.
But you didn’t exclude them. You worked with them, here in Yemen, and included them in every branch and agency of government.
I not only worked with them, I was allied with them. But after they conspired to assassinate me I left them. But as I said, the first candle of hope from 2011 to today is the presence of President Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi in power. Now there is a breakthrough in Egypt. Egypt is important to us and to the Arab nation. Egypt is culture. It is an army. It is security. It is tourism. It is economy. Egypt is important to us. Our culture here in Yemen is an entirely Egyptian culture. Our whole education is Egyptian.
Does this still apply? Some people say that Egypt is absent from Yemen.
No, Egypt is not absent. Egypt has duties and commitments. Right now it’s in the process of rectifying the conditions bequeathed by the nine months of Muslim Brotherhood rule and, before that, by the interim period that followed Hosni Mubarak when Tantawi was in charge. Egypt is in the process of setting its house in order. No one can blame it. But Egypt is there in the hearts and minds of every Arab, because to us it is the bastion, the citadel for all Arabs. Egypt is indispensable.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly.