He's Back: Implications of Saleh's Return to Yemen

Originally published in AEI Center for Defense Studies Blog
September 23, 2011

Today, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh unexpectedly returned to Sana’a, the capital. Saleh had been in Saudi Arabia since early June receiving medical treatment after the June 3 attack on the presidential mosque. It is unclear what effect Saleh’s return will have on the crisis in Yemen. Saleh’s probable motivation to return is either to complete the transition process or, more likely, to continue to fight for control in Sana’a. As the political crisis drags on, however, the challenges to the Yemeni state have grown and it is increasingly clear that any Yemeni government will be faced with the task of reuniting a fragmented state, part of which has been seized by al Qaeda militants, and mitigating the effects of a collapsing economy.

The situation in Sana’a has been tense for the past week as fighting flared. Saleh granted the vice president the authority to negotiate and sign a transition deal on September 12. This delegation of power to Vice President Abdul Rab Mansour al Hadi briefly breathed new life into ongoing political negotiations, along with Monday’s arrival of mediators from the UN and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The ruling and opposition parties seemed to be close to agreeing on the details of the GCC’s transition deal and a final agreement was projected to be reached by the end of this week.

Peaceful protests, however, turned violent Sunday. Anti-government demonstrators, previously kept in check by troops from the defected First Armored Division, were permitted to march outside of the protest camps toward loyalists’ territory. This march elicited a crackdown by security forces. Defected troops stepped in to protect the protestors, escalating the violence. Opposition tribesmen loyal to Hashid tribal confederation leader Sheikh Sadiq al Ahmar also fought sporadically with security forces in northern Sana’a. As of Saleh’s return today, the fighting is not on the same scale as earlier in the week, but tensions are running high.

The timing of Saleh’s reemergence on the Yemeni political scene is worth some consideration. First, Saleh may actually be seeking to fully transfer power to the vice president. A ruling party spokesman said that the GCC’s transition deal would be signed this coming Sunday. Should Saleh be seeking to transfer power, there would be no pressing reason for him to leave Riyadh for Sana’a unless his subordinates were not properly executing the deal – either they were unwilling to move forward in the process or unable to negotiate acceptable terms. The second and more likely reason for Saleh’s return is a decision to secure his hold on the Yemeni government. Should Saleh be forced out of power, it is likely that demands to arrest and try him would increase. Saleh has nothing to gain by transferring power and still has a significant section of the Yemeni military under his authority. The question still stands as to whether Saleh will or will not transfer power peacefully.

The ongoing political crisis masks underlying challenges to the Yemeni state. Yemen has long-term problems such as a weak economy, further stressed by the unrest, and resource depletion that will need to be addressed. State fragmentation, long a concern in Yemen, has become a reality. The al Houthi rebels in the north, whose last battle with the Yemeni state prompted Saudi military involvement, have carved off territory. Of more concern to the United States is the success that al Qaeda militants have had in south Yemen, which has increased the operating space of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. An al Qaeda-linked militant group calling itself Ansar al Sharia seized control of Abyan governorate’s capital, Zinjibar, in late May. From there, the militants increased the areas under their control and, at one point, controlled much of the highway running to Aden. A Yemeni military offensive has yet to defeat the militants and re-establish control in the south.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s sudden return to Sana’a will impact developments in Sana’a by either hastening a transfer of power or driving the country closer to broader armed conflict. Al Qaeda’s gains and long-term challenges to stability in Yemen should not be forgotten, however, as they could quickly erase any short-term gains made in the capital. 

Image: Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh (SABA News Agency)