Eid surprise as Yemen’s ‘old alliance’ rears head

Eid surprise as Yemen’s ‘old alliance’ rears head
The former president meets the general who ousted him in a display of elite unity at the Saleh Mosque
4 min read
09 October, 2014
The reconciliation happened in Sanaa's Saleh Mosque [John Lund]

Yemenis were in for a surprise yesterday when televised Eid prayers from a Sanaa mosque saw President Abd-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and military strongman General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar appear together in public for the first time in three years.

Broadcast live, the three sat cross-legged, Saleh and Ali Muhsin flanking Hadi on the front row of the central Sanaa Saleh Mosque, listening to a sermon about reconciliation.

This reunion of old allies has got tongues wagging. Is this the return of the old order? Will this establish unity among the elite in the face of the Houthi rebel advance towards the capital? And what now for Yemen’s popular uprising that ended in a negotiated transfer of power?

Hadi became president after months of protests and instability in Yemen sparked by the 2011 Arab Spring, eventually leading to Saleh’s resignation


Their reconciliation is important. It was also no coincidence.

in February 2012 under a deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and which ensured the former president’s immunity from prosecution.

But it was Ali Muhsin’s backing for the popular demonstrations against Saleh’s rule in late 2011 that decisively swung the momentum and led to the GCC deal. The two had built a close relationship over decades and Saleh saw Ali Muhsin’s move as an act of betrayal.

Their reconciliation is therefore important. It was also no coincidence. Hadi had meticulously planned the details, even down to how many guards would accompany each figure. The former vice-president under Saleh, Hadi had not officially met his former boss since Saleh handed over the keys to the presidential palace.


Saudi mediation


The display at the Saleh Mosque was unexpected, even after weeks of Saudi efforts to unite Yemen’s elites against Houthi rebels. Only weeks earlier, a crisis had erupted between Hadi and Saleh, with the former sending troops to close down the latter’s Yemen Today television channel, which he accused of inciting anti-Hadi riots.

The Saleh Mosque itself was encircled. Built by Saleh in the twilight years of his 33 years in office, the mosque is a grandiose structure that overlooks the presidential palace. It is loved and loathed by Yemenis; loved for its beauty, but loathed for the money spent on it and its perceived status as a vanity project.

Protestors packing up [Getty]

The crisis only ended when the mosque was handed over to the presidential guards, having previously been under the control of Saleh’s own loyalists.

Far deeper, it seems, runs the enmity between Saleh and Ali Mushin.

A video recorded after the prayers shows Hadi attempting to get Saleh and Ali Muhsin to shake hands. Ali Muhsin stretched out his hand, but it looks as if Saleh ignored it, shaking Hadi’s hand instead before walking away.

Saleh’s secretary, Ahmad al-Sufi, downplayed the significance of the apparently rejected handshake, calling it an “admonition” to Ali Muhsin.

“The meeting came as a result of Saudi efforts that began weeks ago, and shows that those efforts were successful,” said al-Sufi.


Burying the hatchet


Meanwhile, a high-level source in Ali Muhsin’s office said the attempted handshake “shows that he is a forgiving man”. The source, who asked to remain anonymous, also confirmed that Hadi had organised the meeting.

The meeting has calmed the fears of those worried that continuing hostilities between the leading political players in Yemen could render the capital powerless against the advance of Houthi rebels from the north-west.


While the elite appears to have patched up their differences, the youth find themselves as alienated as ever

Yet it has also raised questions as to whether this hostility was overblown for public consumption, with some suggesting that the whole 2011 revolution and its fallout was a charade. For all the talk of change and a new order, the faces on the front row of the Saleh Mosque are the same that have been in power for decades.

The meeting suggests that the Yemeni political elite has emerged from the tumultuous events of 2011 largely intact. And while the elite appears to have patched up their differences, the youth, who led the protests, find themselves as alienated as ever.

Politically, it is too early to say if the meeting will in lead to real change. Hadi comes out of it as an apparent kingmaker, but he risks losing the increased popularity he has gained among members of the secessionist Southern Movement (Hirak), who despise Saleh and Ali Muhsin for their role as leaders of the 1994 war against the secessionist south.  

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition