After weeks of speculation about his political future, all of it negative (most notably the Guardian’s pronouncement that he was politically moribund) Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh has given a speech on Yemeni State television, swaddled in cloth with his hands bound and his arms rigid at his sides. Despite his fragile state, both medically and politically, this speech was, to put it bluntly, more of the same. He persisted in calling his opponents “terrorists”, apparently not realising that the United States – the ally generally most receptive to such claims – has ditched him. The pleas for calm and considered progress through dialogue seem futile and insincere after a more than 1,000 deaths. After his near-death experience, Saleh’s will for a transitional power-sharing agreement may at last be genuine – but at this point it matters little. To quote Absolute Power, this is “Same shit, new bucket.”
Saleh may be trying to drag the uprising back to the stalemate that existed before the attack on the 3rd of June, under which he will able to repeat his last-minute retreats from agreements and truces ad infinitum. Given the stagnation and uncertainty that has prevailed in his absence, he may well succeed. But in any case I severely doubt that the Saudi authorities will allow him to return to Yemen. While he was vaguely in control, they probably considered his presence a stabilising factor. Now, after a month’s silence and fairly clear statements from a large proportion of the population that a continuation of his 36-year rule is unwelcome, to send him back would only invite more unrest, particularly with respect to the two groups the Saudis fear most: the Shias and al-Qa’ida. Still, the involvement (some might say meddling) of the Gulf Co-operation Council, given the continued Saudi occupation of Bahrain, is hardly likely to lead to a Yemen which is democratic or politically and economically independent.
But the most important question remains unspoken. With Sudan due to split on Saturday and Libya already de facto divided in two, can an artificially united Yemen survive the toppling from power of the man who created it, the only leader it has ever known?