After Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Nansur Hadi delivered a speech the night of Eid al-Fitr calling for national reconciliation based on core national principles – the Republic, unity and the resolutions of the last National Dialogue Conference – Yemeni intellectuals, elites and ordinary citizens were floored by an image broadcast on Yemen’s official [government-controlled] television station – an image that seemed to sizzle with symbolism and conspiracy, suggesting that any gains imagined in Yemen’s version of the Arab Spring might have turned on their collective head. The image, which would immediately rocket across social media, is of the ex-president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who stepped down after 33 years in power amid protests rocking Sana’a in late 2011, praying alongside his Arab Spring rival, Major General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar – with President Hadi in the middle!
The bond that endured more than four decades between Saleh and his right hand man, the mysterious and powerful military leader Ali Mohsen, had seemed to come to a bloody end marked by armed confrontation in 2011 amid the so-called Arab Spring and the massive revolutionary waves that rocked the country. Relations were reportedly strained prior over rivalries between Ali Moshen and some of Saleh’s sons and nephews, leaders of powerful military and security units, but boiled over in March 2011 when Ali Mohsen announced that he and his men, alongside the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen, would defend the anti-government Yemeni protesters – a move Saleh denounced as traitorous. So ended – or so we thought – the long, romantic, complicated history between the strong man and his military advisor.
Ten months of wide, bloody confrontations – full of sound and fury, and ending in many Yemeni killed – abated only with the intervention of six of Yemen’s neighbors comprising the Gulf Cooperation Council, who hammered out an agreement for transitioning Saleh from power. Supposedly, an era had ended.
Hadi, Saleh’s then-vice president, became President of Yemen in a quick, one-candidate election, but there was nonetheless optimism and promise in the air for a New Yemen marked by national reconciliation and a transition to democracy. Myriad obstacles and difficulties were offset to a degree by strong support by the international community, deeply involved in supporting a road map for a country in transition. Part of the new president’s efforts to restructure the military and remove the Old Guard from power included overt attempts to limit Ali Mohsen’s influence.
Despite some positive changes, notes of new tempests and conspiracies built into symphonies. The country’s socioeconomic and sociopolitical situations have deteriorated significantly, from bad to worse. Public services have almost disappeared. There has been a spate of serious security incidents, including assassinations of high-ranking military, security and intelligence officers. The crisis of electricity and water supply seems virtually limitless. Tensions produced by the presence of armed US drones and their hunting of al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have become epic. Corruption continues to spread. Not to mention an expanding conflict with the Houthis, the Zaidi Shia insurgent group, which has won battles and spread its presence from Sa’ada Governate into Amran, 40 kilometers to the north of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital city.
Beginning in 2011, even amid all the early notes of optimism, some analysts speculated about a cunning, sub rosa game at play between Saleh and Ali Mohsen, in collusion with certain Yemeni tribal elements, neither man resigned to resigning power forever. So, was their reunion in prayer an indicator of a peaceful ending to the last chapter of the long and dirty drama of 2011? Or was it the product of influence by Saleh’s long-time supporter, the United States, along with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, to nudge Yemen back onto a more familiar/acceptable track? Or are former enemies feeling the need for familiar faces in the face of Houthi insurgents approaching the gates of Sana’a?
Whatever the true meaning of the plots at play in Yemen – with the latest reminder of Saleh and his “A Team,” and the endless meddling of regional and international powers – developments feel amazingly fast and interesting. Even as regular Yemenis’ daily suffering continues, praying for safety and the basics without daring to dream of a better day that may never come.