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Outside the Ring.

Yemeni voters go to the polls tomorrow. The results are known in advance. The elections will be more of a referendum. Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi will become Mr. President, having lived a long time with the title of Mr. Vice President. It did not appear from his track record that he was waiting or looking forward for his time in power. Nor did he attempt to take hold of the strings, as did Saddam Hussein when he was once the Vice President. Most probably, he never thought that this moment would come. True, President Ali Abdullah Saleh sometimes disclosed his desire to rest, and would often say that he was not averse to the title of former president, and would like to have time to play with his grandchildren. But modern Arab history does not help in taking these statements seriously. Indeed, Arab history tells us that presidents only leave their palaces to their graves. Most likely, Ali Saleh did not expect that luck would come to give the Vice President a helping hand, because if he did, he would have probably left the post vacant like President Hosni Mubarak did.

But perhaps it is rather unfair to use today's lexicon to judge men who came to power from a different one altogether. Ali Saleh took or seized power in 1978. This was the time of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, when Aden was wearing a red dress. It was the time of the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Iraqi President Ahmed Hassan Bakr. Hafez al-Assad had been in power for eight years; Tripoli was commemorating its ninth year under the Brother Colonel who then never left the tent of his leadership except to his grave; and the Sudanese President back then was Jaafar Nimeiri.

When Ali Abdullah Saleh came, it was not deplorable for the savior to enter the presidential palace on board a tank, and for the ruler who took over the radio station to turn the Constitution into a concierge at the door of his office. Nor was it deplorable for him to bombard the strongholds of the opposition using the artillery, and for his security services to specialize in skinning those who doubt the wisdom of the leader. The same applies for trucks that chased down and ran over dissidents and opponents who died shortly after they were forced to drink a cup of tea. I am not talking here about Yemen, but about countries where life was more terrifying, and the security services ever more deadly.

I spent many days in Yemen asking about Ali Abdullah Saleh and his long tenure. Woe to those who lose, for the knives of both friends and foes shall pounce to stab them. Old records shall be dug up, and whispers and secrets shall be exposed.

To be sure, the tenure of Ali Abdullah Saleh was long, difficult and thorny. Forget the Constitution, the laws and their articles. The President was brilliant. He managed the tribal state amid the polarization of the various tribes. He advanced and retreated, attacked and circumvented, and antagonized and reconciled. He scolded and appeased, and his cannons thundered before he held banquets for reconciliations.

Ali Abdullah Saleh was brilliant, and he was tested both at home and abroad. He knew the intricate features of Yemen well, and those of the Yemeni spirit. He knew how to dance over this complex ring. It was no simple thing that the term of a Yemeni President lasted more than three decades. Nor was it that Yemeni unity was achieved under his presidency, or for him to leave unscathed even when he had taken office after two of his predecessors were killed. But the skillful president played many dangerous cards, fought hard and long, and left crumbling and depleted institutions.

The question today is therefore no longer about the future of Ali Abdullah Saleh. It is about the future of Yemen, its unity and its stability. It is also about the ability of the new regime to take charge of the country and implement the GCC initiative. The forces that called for the President to step down must today demonstrate their seriousness and reveal their program. If Ali Abdullah Saleh was the problem, then his presidency is now over. The victors must answer questions about the issues of the South, the Houthis and al-Qaeda, and issues related to the state, its institutions and security and development.

It can be said that Ali Abdullah Saleh is a lucky man. This is not only because he ruled for a long time, but also because he did not depart as did Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. He was not carried to the court like Hosni Mubarak was, and did not meet the same fate as Muammar Gaddafi. Even when he had a close encounter with death at the Presidential Palace, he got lucky.

Ali Abullah Saleh maneuvered for a long time, before discovering that signing the GCC initiative was less costly than risking a fate similar to what he has seen on television screens.

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Publication:Dar Al Hayat, International ed. (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7YEME
Date:Feb 20, 2012
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