The rumor seemed to crop up every week only to be chopped down by government denials and reality. Shortly after signing the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) initiative in Riyadh, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh was allegedly headed to America for medical treatment before reappearing in Sana’a. Government officials were forced to deny this rumor just last week.
Now comes word from Saleh himself: he’s taking a short vacation stateside.
"I will go to the United States,” he told a high-profile news conference on Saturday. “Not for treatment, because I'm fine, but to get away from attention, cameras, and allow the unity government to prepare properly for elections... I'll be there for several days, but I'll return because I won't leave my people and comrades who have been steadfast for 11 months.”
Saleh’s comments prompted a perplexed fury amongst Yemen’s revolutionaries. They’re experienced enough to expect the unexpected from a self-proclaimed “snake dancer,” but doing so daily basis remains a constant grind. Friday also passed without any official transfer of power to his Vice President, Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, giving rise to the possibility of disinformation. These rumors appear legitimate though; in contrast to local and Internet sources, Saleh himself confirmed in front of dozens of microphones. So did Mohammed Albasha, spokesman for Yemen’s Embassy in Washington.
The White House remains silent after 10 hours, evidence of confirmation, and the New York Times explicitly notes, “The American Embassy in Sana and officials in Washington said they had no comment about Mr. Saleh’s plans.”
Although some observers presume that Saleh’s visa is unfeasible, the Obama administration has spoken by allowing his statements to go unchallenged. Only Saleh - the “master” of al-Qaeda - could get away with this act, and arresting him would defy Washington's established logic in Yemen. U.S. officials are likely working through back-channels to formulate their next course of action.
What’s ironic is how Saleh thinks he should escape Yemen’s “attention” in America, when Yemen is the darkest place to hide. Having dodged the media frenzy around Egypt, Libya and Syria, he only deals with local press and the occasional foreign report. International media has gradually tuned out to even lower levels of awareness, ignoring many of his statements and abuses. Going to America is one of the quickest ways to attract attention.
If Saleh did just plant the seeds of another feign, he will remain cocooned in the Western and Gulf protection afforded by the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) initiative. The power-sharing agreement left a large part of his regime in power to contend with the oppositional Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), and has so far protected his military from restructuring. Ahmed, his son and commander of the Republican Guard, consulted with Western and Gulf officials only days ago.
He’s set to receive his father’s immunity as RG forces attack the finale of Yemen’s Life March.
Launched from Taizz after the government assaulted protesters throughout November and December, the Life March represents a collective rejection of the GCC initiative, Yemen’s "new" government, immunity and foreign intervention in general. Marchers arrived in Sana’a on Saturday. Some protesters proceeded down an avenue containing the presidential palace and were met with lethal force from RG and Central Security Forces. The GCC’s Western-sponsored immunity clause (still obscured under UN law) has allowed Saleh’s security forces to assault protesters with minimal international criticism and no accountability.
"The blood of the martyrs has been sold for dollars," protesters were heard shouting before coming under attack.
Not only does Saleh vow to return, the wily strongman is already re-styling himself as Yemen’s opposition for February’s presidential election - when his VP has been preselected as a consensus for the next two years. Speaking through his General People’s Congress (GPC), which currently holds the Defense and Foreign Ministries, Saleh declared that he will return and “lead political action in the heart of my party in opposition... I'll withdraw from political work and go into the street as part of the opposition."
The Obama administration appears prepared to allow this illogical act under the GCC’s initiative.
Saturday’s developments crafted a particularly unfavorable stage for Gerald Feierstein, America’s ambassador, after the unpopular diplomat rhetorically synched with Saleh. Yemen’s strongman labeled the Life March as incitement of anarchy and attempt to gain media attention before publicly reversing (and reversing again), and Feierstein reportedly demeaned the Life March as “a provocative act” as it approached the palace.
“We do not believe that such action is in the interest of the country,” he was quoted as saying.
Feierstein’s personal situation remains fluid due to limited sources; few U.S. media covered his statements and ensuing outrage, diverting the issue into social media. Some people cannot believe that Feierstein would make such inflammatory statements - others go so far as to diagnose a “panic attack” - and his comments can be attributed to the specific act of marching on Saleh’s heavily-guarded palace. He added that the United States supports peaceful demonstrations. Yet freedom of movement and the provocation of disproportionate force represent two goals of fourth-generation warfare (4GW), and Feierstein enjoys no benefit of the doubt after cooperating with the regime throughout Yemen’s 11-month revolution.
The unpopular ambassador didn't reject Saleh's statements or his immunity clause, and he's now facing a Twitter campaign to evict him: #GetoutFeierstein.
The suggestion contains a kernel of good intentions since he’s lost all legitimacy with the revolutionaries - just like the Obama administration - however Washington needs him to coordinate Yemen’s counter-revolution. A replacement would simply duplicate his rhetoric as well. Whether Saleh bunkers down in Yemen, jets to Riyadh or lounges in Virginia Beach, the international walls around him remains intact.