Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh is back

The photograph above is from a post I wrote a few days ago entitled “The Yemeni government kills its children” and today we see that the recent wave of state violence was paving the way for President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s return following his miraculous recovery in a Saudi hospital from the extensive burns he suffered in a bomb attack on his presidential palace.  Saleh disavowed the bloodshed, saying, “The solution is not in the barrels of guns and cannon, but in dialogue.”  This can be dismissed: the barrel of the gun has long been one of Saleh’s preferred methods of dialogue.  But when Saleh promised some weeks ago that he would be back, in a tone half commanding and half menacing, I asked why the opposition had not made better use of his absence.  One man is not a government, of course, even in a dictatorship but the perception of weakness is as important in winning over mass opinion as the fact of it so the opposition must reconsider its approach now that the whisky-loving strongman of Yemen is once again ensconced in Sana’a.

I spent a month in Yemen twenty years ago — I wrote about that here — and in a region often mischaracterized as tribal it is one of the few to deserve the appellation, so the country is perpetually beset by low-grade regional insurrections.  To be fair to Saleh, Yemen is murder to control: the undeveloped infrastructure makes it difficult to project power from the capital, the mountainous terrain provides sanctuary for resistance groups, the Saudis intervene fairly regularly along their restive shared border in the north and, in the east, Osama bin Laden’s ancestral homeland of the Hadramaut remains one of Al Qaeda’s most stubborn redoubts.  In the current struggle, that fractured legacy places the burden of responsibility on the opposition to put forward a credible alternative unity government to answer Saleh’s après moi, le déluge claim that he alone stands in the way of the Islamist flood.  Thus far the opposition has not done that, despite some high-level defections to their side that could bridge the tribal and regional divisions.  But you can’t watch video below, compiled from the peaceful protests earlier this year, and not see that that unity is possible and need only be given institutional form.

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