Yemen's Saleh Skillfully Avoids Joining Other Leaders Ousted by Arab Spring

In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh has seen his most powerful general defect. Saleh’s most influential neighbor, Saudi Arabia, is attempting to see him out of power through the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). His countrymen are cutting off the flow of oil, diesel, and cooking gas to the capital. Protests calling for his overthrow are entering their fourth month. How has Saleh managed to stay in power in the face of these challenges, and what message does this send to other dictators?

Saleh’s success rests on employing a combination of duplicity, stalling, and measured violence.

On three occasions, Saleh attempted to misdirect Yemenis and the international community by indicating his intentions to step down. He first announced a plan to transition to parliamentary government by the end of 2011, then entered talks with the recently-defected General Ali Mohsen, and has most recently bought himself another month by disingenuously flirting with the GCC’s initiative to peacefully transfer power.

In all cases, Saleh sought to buy more time by demonstrating his willingness to reform, but stipulated conditions that were either unacceptable to protesters or would delegitimize those opposition figures and parties who did accept his conditions; for example, requiring an end to demonstrations before agreeing to step down, and including immunity for his family in the GCC initiative. Thus, none of his offers appear to have been genuine.

Saleh has also responded with measured violence. With few exceptions, the death toll from attacks on protesters on any given day stays between one and 15. These casualty numbers are meant to instill fear in protesters and provoke them to break their commitment to protesting peacefully, yet remain low enough to appear minor in comparison to events in Syria and Libya.

The anti-government protesters’ determination to practice nonviolence has also kept Saleh in power. Protesting peacefully is necessary to discredit Saleh’s claims that anti-government protesters are the causes of chaos in Yemen, but without the arm-twisting assistance of external actors, this nonviolent path has so far failed to build enough pressure to force the president out of office.

Unfortunately, the message to dictators this Arab Spring appears to be this: If you want to stay in power, do not give in early and do not be afraid to use violence skillfully. Syria is the prime example of success. So many foreign cameras on Cairo left former President Hosni Mubarak few options for resistance. Similarly, former President Zine Ben Ali in Tunisia may have managed to avoid setting off the Arab Spring entirely had his army not refused to fire on protesters.

Saleh has remarkably been able to delay leaving power, but his chances of retaining it are doubtful. Sana’a is now locked in a tense stalemate, with each side stubbornly hoping to break the others’ resolve to continue, as casualties slowly mount. Even if Saleh manages to remain president, he will have done so at the cost of losing his people's respect. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has done the same.

Perhaps this leaves one more message for Arab dictators; Saleh had a chance to remain president and retain credibility among Yemenis by undertaking dramatic, meaningful governmental reforms. Arguably, Assad once had this same opportunity, but both leaders quickly breezed by these windows of opportunity. Violence may be an effective means of putting down calls for change, but actually answering demands for better government is the only way to stay in power and keep the people’s respect. What a novel approach.

Photo CreditSallam