The Salehs make a play for power in Yemen

The Salehs make a play for power in Yemen
Analysis: Ahmed, son of Yemen's former ruler, comes out on top as reserve forces are deployed in and around Sanaa.
4 min read
12 March, 2015
Banners are going up in Sanaa in support of Ahmed Saleh [AFP]
Yemen's Houthi fighters are no longer visible in Sanaa's streets.

Now, portrait posters of Brigadier Ahmed Saleh - son of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh - are filling the town's billboards. 

Saleh's supporters are also to be found wandering the streets of the capital singing revolutionary songs. These are signs of a possible comeback for the old regime, it is thought. Ali Abdullah Saleh himself hinted at a return to power with the ominous phrase in a recent speech: "Things are still under control."

On Tuesday, a few hundred protesters gathered in the capital's Al-Sabaeen Square in support of Ahmed Saleh.

The protesters raised photos of Ahmad and chanted for him to "save Yemen" and lead the country. "Peacefully or violently, Ahmad Ali will be our president," they chanted.

Another rally was held on Tuesday, in Taiz city.

Protesters opposing Ali Abdullah Saleh voiced their disagreement and called for people to support Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, now holed up in Aden after escaping Houthi house arrest in the capital, as the legitimate president of Yemen.

Media outlets affiliated with the General People's Congress - Saleh's old party - described the protest as "spontaneous", and an attempt to test the nation's pulse and gauge reaction.

The idea of handing down dynastic power to Saleh's son led to a major rift between Saleh and parts of his administration, and sparked the 2011 uprising against him.

Ahmad Ali Saleh was commander of the Republican Guard under his father's tenure. He enjoys wide support among the army, along with First Armoured Brigade Commander Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who travelled to Saudi Arabia the day the Houthis entered the capital on 21 September 2014.

Yemen's Strategic Reserve Forces is the new name for the Republican Guard, after Hadi issued a series of decrees that served to both restructure Yemen's security forces and remove remnants of the ousted president from official command positions.

Military sources told al-Araby al-Jadeed that the troops pledged allegiance to Saleh's son after he was removed from the command and appointed ambassador to the UAE in April 2013.

     Reserve Forces have been deployed in and around Sanaa, in camps equipped with advanced weapons.

Reserve Forces have been deployed in and around Sanaa, in camps equipped with advanced weapons.

Several brigades have also reportedly been deployed in other regions across Yemen.

These brigades could be swayed to Saleh or other military leaders who want to contain the situation. One should also not also overlook the role Hadi and others in government have played in strengthening Saleh's grip over the army during the transitional period.

Houthis vs Saleh

The Houthis' crisis appeared clear after the recent address by their leader, Abdul Malek al-Houthi, on Tuesday.

In a similar way to his previous speeches, he highlighted the group's problem with Saleh. Houthi knows he cannot afford a direct confrontation with Saleh, with signs of his growing influence looming on the horizon.

The Houthis are now hostile to most parties in Yemen, and Saleh apparently no longer needs them as a facade to oust Hadi, his former deputy, and make a glorious comeback to "save Yemen" from the chaos which envelops it.

Over the past few weeks, some of Saleh's supporters who joined the Houthi-affiliated popular fronts replaced the group's slogan on their rifles with photos of Saleh's son.

"The Strategic Reserve Forces rebelled against a Houthi officer appointed by the group as a commander of the force's operations," a military source told al-Araby.

The former president gave a strongly worded speech on Monday, accusing Hadi of trying to split the country in two, and threatening to unleash civil war - as happened in 1994.

He also said he was willing to secure a sea route to Djibouti, "as the only breakthrough for secessionists to escape the country."

In 1994, "the secessionists had the choice to flee from three breakthroughs: Sharura (on the Saudi border), Al-Mahrah (on Oman's border) and through the Red Sea to Djibouti", he said.

His speech the following day was marked by a less intense approach, aimed at the leaders of neighbouring countries.

"Any messing with the security, unity and stability of Yemen would have negative effects not only on Yemen, but on the region as well." Saleh went on to praise the efforts made by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen.

It remains unclear if Saleh's comeback and his escalation of tension against Hadi is being performed in coordination with the Houthis, or if he will turn the table on them and regain popularity in anti-Houthi governorates.

He pledged to reveal "facts" and to level accusations at those who had once accused him of corruptly amassing a personal fortune of up to $60 billion while in office.

Houthi's speech, meanwhile, shows he knows Saleh can tip the balance in Sanaa at any moment.

That said, the Hadi-Saleh crisis appears more serious than the Hadi-Houthi crisis. Houthi did not mention Hadi in his speech, but was devoted to attacking the Gulf and the Islamist Al-Islah party instead.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.