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The Yemeni president's playbook

Ali Abdullah Saleh hasn't been able to co-opt, mollify or pay off Yemen's opposition, so one of his last tactics seems to be fear: stark warnings of division and unrest.
Last modified: 1 Mar 2011 15:20

What's behind the recent wave of popular protests sweeping the Arab world? Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, says... Barack Obama.

"There is a control room in Tel Aviv, it's the cause of all of these problems sweeping the Arab world," Saleh said at the University of Sanaa. "These events are managed by the White House. We hear statements from president Obama asking the Egyptians to do this, telling the Tunisians to do that... this is none of your business, Mr. President."

"Yemen is not Tunisia or Egypt, and the Yemeni people are different," Saleh continued (sound familiar?).

In a separate statement, at a meeting with religious leaders, Saleh said Yemen would split into four parts if his government fell. He made similar comments to senior military officers on Saturday, when he accused foreign agents of plotting against Yemen's unity.

This is a familiar script for Saleh, who has deployed the same tactics consistently throughout his 33-year reign. He portrays himself as the only person capable of holding together a united Yemen, and blames shadowy foreign powers for the problems afflicting his country.

Here's Saleh in 2005, for example, warning foreign powers "not to interfere in our internal affairs." (Side note: He also pledged not to run in Yemen's September 2006 presidential election, which he went on to do anyway. That's why his recent promise not to run in 2013 was met with, shall we say, a bit of scepticism.)

Or there's this excerpt from a 2008 profile of Saleh in the New York Times:

Mr. Saleh lashed out at what he called American interference in Yemen’s affairs, saying it had harmed his ability to deal with terrorism.

“We are wondering why they criticize us, while when we ask them to hand over our Yemeni detainees in Guantánamo they put a lot of conditions on us,” he said.

But there's an air of desperation in Saleh's words this time, because he seems to be running out of options. He couldn't mollify the opposition by pledging not to run for re-election; nor could he co-opt them by offering a unity government, a proposal which was quickly rejected. Even his efforts to buy support (through his vaunted patronage network) seem to be slipping.

The often-fractious opposition appears to be unified around a single goal: ousting the increasingly isolated Saleh.

So one of the president's last gambits is playing the fear card. It's not a baseless tactic: Analysts in Sanaa warn that emerging splits within Yemen's tribal confederations could spark armed conflict. Laura Kasinof, a freelance journalist in the Yemeni capital, tweeted yesterday that - away from the protests - many people there "are scared and prefer to live under Saleh than see war".

Saleh's comical warnings of an Israeli-American plot are unlikely to convince Yemenis who've watched these Arab revolutions play out on Al Jazeera, other television channels, and the internet. (When I was in Cairo a month ago, Egyptians usually criticised Washington because it wasn't doing enough to support the revolution.)

But he undoubtedly hopes his warnings of division and conflict will strike a nerve - expect to hear more of them in the coming days.