President Saleh, Yemen’s great survivor

SANAA — Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was wounded on Friday when shells hit a mosque in the presidential compound killing four guards, has ruled through more than three decades of Middle East turmoil.

By (AFP)

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Published: Fri 3 Jun 2011, 8:18 PM

Last updated: Thu 20 Feb 2020, 12:44 PM

Saleh has lived through civil war, rebellion in the north and an Al-Qaeda insurgency in the south, and a security official said he was “lightly wounded in the attack” as battles rage between opposition tribesmen and loyalist troops.
In May the long-time strongman refused to sign a Gulf Cooperation Council-sponsored transition deal that would have seen him leave office in 30 days in return for a promise of immunity from prosecution.
A US diplomatic cable from 2009 released by whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks spoke of a leader who had grown increasingly autocratic.
It quoted Saleh’s cousin Mohammed al-Qadhi as saying that “since 1994, he decided that he was the only man capable of making decisions in this country.”
“I have tried to tell him that Yemen has serious problems, but he gets angry and shuts me out... He doesn’t listen to anyone.”
Saleh, a stocky, 69-year-old with piercing eyes and a moustache, joined the army at an early age and took part in the 1962 coup that replaced the Zaidi imamate with an Arab nationalist republic.
His career has been remarkably long — of his four predecessors, two were assassinated and two went into exile after coups.
Saleh first took power at the height of the Cold War as leader of North Yemen in 1978, and in 1990 he successfully steered the country to reunification with the communist South.
He has since survived a succession of crises, including Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 after which Saudi Arabia punished its southern neighbour for siding with Iraq.
Riyadh expelled 700,000 Yemeni expatriate workers, depriving their poor country of remittances that constituted one of its main revenue sources.
In 1994, the south launched a secession bid, sparking a short-lived civil war. Saleh crushed the uprising, sealing the country’s reunification under his unbridled leadership.
The south, where many residents complain of discrimination by Saleh’s regime in the distribution of resources, is still the site of frequent secessionist protests.
Since 2004, Saleh has also faced a sporadic rebellion in the northern mountains by members of the Zaidi Shiite minority, a community to which he himself belongs.
The conflict escalated in August 2009 before a fragile truce came into force in February 2010.
Saleh has also had to contend with an insurgency by Al-Qaeda’s local franchise and has come under enormous international pressure to crack down on the group’s militants.
Saleh’s rule relies on the army and his General People’s Congress, an amalgam of civil servants and local notables, as well as a careful balancing act among rival tribes which still form the backbone of Yemeni society.
His ability to juggle so many different groups for so long in a country as complex as Yemen shows what a master tactician he is.
Following Yemen’s unification, Saleh launched a cautious process of reform, introducing a multi-party system and giving the press a margin of freedom, although in a mainly illiterate society his tight grip on the state broadcast media long allowed him to keep control of Yemenis’ access to information.
He organised parliamentary elections in 1993, 1997 and 2003, and a previous presidential poll in 1999 in which official results awarded him 96.3 percent of the vote.
He won his current seven-year term in September 2006 with 77 percent of the vote, once more outliving his own experiment in democratisation amid widespread charges of fraud.
Saleh has no trouble replacing his military uniform with elegant suits, and at times he wears the Yemeni traditional outfit of a long robe and jambiya, or dagger, tucked into his belt.
After the young Saleh joined the army, his leadership skills were quickly noticed and enabled him to climb the ladder of power in short order.
After the June 1978 assassination of president Ahmad al-Ghashmi, Saleh was elected northern president by a constituent assembly.
He immediately surrounded himself with a circle of close aides, notably his brothers, whom he named to key military and security posts.


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