After feasting on fear and blood for decades, the wind is finally reversing towards Ali Abdullah Saleh. At midnight Saturday, Yemen’s president of 33 years reportedly stepped off a Saudi jet at King Khalid Air Base in Riyadh, where he transferred to a military hospital for treatment on his assassination wounds. Rumors swirl around Friday’s encounter with death, and an instantly-infamous evac is already being celebrated as the beginning of the revolution’s end.
As disinformation and scheming form the nucleus of Saleh’s governing style, information around the last 48 hours must be subjected to intense scrutiny. Vigilance is all the more necessary during this critical phase in the revolution.
The entirety of Saleh’s assassination attempt remains shrouded in darkness; chaos naturally flows from his being. Although attention immediately turned to Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, attacked by Saleh nearly two weeks ago in an attempt to provoke Yemen’s tribal lines, the Hashid chieftain has denied responsibility. Many still suspect that the al-Ahmars, Yemen’s most powerful family, wanted to show Saleh who’s the real “Boss” in Yemen. Security forces also shelled three of Sadiq’s brothers (Hamid, Hemyar and Mizhij) directly after the palace breach.
However others doubt that Hashid fighters possess the means to target Saleh so precisely inside his compound. Some news outlets are reporting an “advanced” rocket unused by Sadiq's militia. An accurate mortar strike cannot be ruled out, either by skill or luck, but splitting the pulpit amid Saleh’s ranking staff has generated a sizable number of skeptics. According to government sources Saleh's “inner circle” is beginning to suspect rogue General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, whose house was also shelled after the attack. Saleh will justify killing his rivals by any means, accounting for retaliatory attacks on the al-Ahmars and his former right-hand man.
A U.S. drone hovers over the mystery after Yemeni officials cryptically condemned the White House for “inciting assassination.” The State Department brushed off the accusation as “absurd,” but the Pentagon knows how much Saleh knows about U.S. military aid - and that he’ll snitch.
Regardless of who pulled the trigger, the extent of Saleh’s wounds has assumed priority for the moment. A high number of casualties within his bodyguards fueled rumors that he suffered more damage than officially acknowledged. A raspy tape released after the attempt multiplied speculation that Saleh was either seriously injured or dead. These rumors appeared to be disqualified after the BBC and Reuters reported him walking off of the plane.
Being self-conscious of his appearance also accords with Saleh’s narcissistic character. Rather than appear weak, playing to his strengths - deceit and chaos - is likely to hold greater appeal.
The overriding dilemma is that Saleh never operates in a straightforward fashion, and isn’t likely to start now. Some Yemeni officials still put Saleh in Sana’a, others concede his trip to Riyadh; his injuries range from second-degree burns on his head and hands to a 7.6 cm piece of shrapnel embedded below his heart. Such an injury would prove more laborious than minor burns, leading to the question of when Saleh plans to return.
This variable marks the event horizon currently breaking down most predictions.
While the hesitant euphoria of Yemen’s revolutionaries is certainly justified, Saleh’s temporary exit has thrown their cause into new disarray. The risk of misreporting, already running high, now increases with everyone guessing of his return. The U.S. media hasn’t paid attention to Yemen’s revolution and is in no position to make an accurate call now. Yet the information vacuum surrounding Saleh’s retreat is conducive to wild media speculation.
The AP reported, “Saleh might never return, given the opposition by large segments of the population and a powerful tribal alliance that took up arms after peaceful protests failed to persuade him to step down.”
"He is unlikely ever to return to Yemen as president," The Guardian similarly predicted.
That Saleh won’t return must be considered as a possible scenario. Battered and nearly bankrupt, Saleh might have finally realized his end and fled. A significant portion of his U.S.-trained Republican Guard has defected and he certainly wishes to avoid the punishment of their actions. As a long-time friend, King Abdullah would provide a comfy refuge where Saleh could live out the rest of his days in peace, oblivious to the outside world and his legacy as a brutal dictator.
This possibility has encouraged the belief that Saleh passively accepted the U.S-Saudi proposal sponsored by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), or else was coerced by Washington and Riyadh to safeguard their interests. Reports now have Vice President Abd al-Rabi Mansur al-Hadi as acting president, the second step to transferring power “constitutionally” after Saleh’s resignation. Perhaps the GCC’s deal kicked into immediate effect rather than wait the allocated 30 days.
Saleh’s son and nephews, who remain in control of his personal security forces, would presumably be rescued from Sana'a.
Except if Saleh truly accepted the GCC’s terms, such a plan remains a highly controversial way of “moving Yemen forward." The streets oppose Saleh escaping on his terms and leaving his ruling General People’s Party (GPC) to reassert control through the next election. Saleh himself has threatened to stage his own uprising inside or outside of the country. Left at large and his shadow will loom over Yemen’s future, undermining a total regime change.
Only international powers would welcome this outcome as it could preserve counter-terrorism operations against AQAP, counterproductive as this arrangement is during counterinsurgency.
Coupled with a call from White House CT adviser John Brennan, Yemeni journalist Munir Al Mawri told Al Jazeera from Washington, "US Vice-President Joe Biden has already phoned the Yemeni Vice-President [Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi], indicating that the US accepts him as the one to take over power in Yemen... I think the Saudis will never allow Saleh to go back to Yemen because they care about their interests inside Yemen."
In fact U.S. ambassador Gerald Feierstein, who has no contact with the youth coalitions, just met with al-Hadi. Feierstein reportedly hoped for "the quick recovery of President Ali Abdullah Saleh," and "affirmed" America's "full cooperation in all that concerns peace, stability and unity in Yemen."
This overt takeover is an affront to the revolution. Yemen needs legitimate closure to Saleh's regime, not more artificial chaos and foreign manipulation.
One Saudi official told the AFP early Sunday morning, "President Saleh has arrived in Riyadh for treatment, but he will return to Yemen.”
Transformative history is unfolding in Yemen and Saleh may be on his last leg, but the streets’ building sense of optimism must be directed into the death blow. Yemen’s Coordinating Council of the Youth Revolution of Change (CCYRC) and other popular coalitions are advising caution, and now offers a breather to reinforce defenses in preparation of a final showdown. An information offensive must target Western governments and media to block their manipulation of Saleh’s temporary absence.
If he decides to spare his life (which is all he cares about) or is blocked by Riyadh and Washington, the pro-democracy movement can expand on the ground and proceed against Saleh’s remnants until a free Yemen is truly born. Several coalitions have demanded that he actually appear within 24 hours or else they will declare an official government. One cannot sleep on a madman or Washington, and the next 24 to 72 hours present both opportunities and dangers to prepare for.
"This is absolutely despicable," CCYRC spokesman Jamal Nasser warned of Saleh's mysterious departure. "After all we have sacrificed, after all the lives that were lost, Saudi and Saleh are trying to dupe us again. This isn't the end. There will be more violence. Saleh isn't done yet."