The death of former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh demonstrates a lot about the nature of the country’s civil war. Saleh was killed by Houthi rebels, with whom he had previously been allied and against whom he publicly turned two days before.
Saleh, who died at the age of 75, was considered a wily politician, adept at manipulating rivals. An oft-quoted, though likely misattributed remark of his held that governing Yemen was like ‘dancing on the heads of snakes’. Much wry comment ensued after the pictures of his corpse began circulating, to the effect that one of the snakes whose head he had trampled had bitten Saleh back.
There is a little truth to this. The civil war is, in part, Saleh’s creation. After he was forced from power after decades, Saleh allied with the Houthis to oppose the country’s internationally recognised government and was an important figure in arranging the rebels’ capture of Sana’a in 2014.
The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen and the widening of the country’s civil war followed that rebellion. Saleh’s involvement in capturing and retaining the capital for the Houthis lengthened the war, in which the rebels have faced an international air campaign and technological asymmetry. The war created an extensive humanitarian crisis.
Saleh was not an uncomplicated ally to the Houthis, even in revolt. ‘Saleh’s shifting of alliances is a political strategy that enabled him to stay in power for almost four decades. However, it also led to his demise’, said Noha Aboueldahab, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Centre.
Thinking he could manipulate everyone led to political problems for the former president. ‘Saleh’s mistake was that he miscalculated the reaction of the Houthis when he declared his (re)-alliance with the Saudis’, Aboueldahab said.
Saleh’s political gamesmanship strained the relationship between his allies and the Houthis. ‘The tensions between Saleh and the Houthis had been growing for quite some time. They did not happen overnight’, Aboueldahab said. ‘Saleh misread these tensions and thought that he could rely on the support of the Saudis to stay on top of the political game in Yemen.’
Saleh declared his opposition to the Houthis on television on December 2. This led to clashes in Sana’a. ‘Given that the Saudis are not “on the ground” in Yemen, Saleh and his loyalists were left to their own defences to fend off the Houthis, and they were ultimately unsuccessful’, said Aboueldahab.
Saleh was killed shortly after his public break with the Houthis. A final political gamble had proven that he had no more luck.
When Saleh’s death was confirmed, much was said about his generation’s significance. Pictures of Saleh at the height of his power circulated, including group shots of Saleh and other Middle East leaders, such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi. His death, it was said, marked the end of an era.
Onlookers would be forgiven for thinking this a positive development, believing that it is good when dictators die and their attempts at retaining or regaining power fail.
Aboueldahab is less optimistic and does not endorse the generalisation. ‘Saleh does not represent the “last” of a generation of Arab dictators’, she said. ‘[Syrian President] Bashar Assad is still very much in power, for example.’
The superficial positivity of a dictator’s demise cannot disguise something less positive. Rather than beginning a process of democratisation and the overthrow of tyranny, the “Arab Spring” may have prompted the opposite. Thus, the overthrow of the old men who defined Arab tyranny may mean less than thought.
In Yemen, Saleh’s death tells of a violent, chaotic conflict far from resolution. Across the Middle East more widely, the death of an old tyrant means little for a region in which many suffer under oppression orchestrated by younger faces.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.