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Friday, July 8, 2011

Disfigured Saleh appears defiant but keeps dialogue door open

The appearance of the Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh before June’s assassination attempt. (File Photo)

The appearance of the Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh before June’s assassination attempt. (File Photo)
Embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh appeared emaciated and scarred, but in his first public sighting since the June bombing of his presidential compound in Sana’a that forced him to seek medical treatment in Saudi Arabia, clearly had not lost any of his feistiness or defiance.

Speaking in a pre-recorded, seven-minute television address, Mr. Saleh accused his opponents of having an “incorrect understanding of democracy,” but insisted that he wished to share power and engage in dialogue with protesters who have been demanding his immediate departure after 33 years in office.

For those protesting on the streets of Yemeni cities for the past four months, Mr. Saleh had nothing new to offer.
Protesters and tribesmen, who fought pitched battles with Saleh loyalists in the streets of Sana’a will put little faith in the words of a man who several times agreed to a deal negotiated by the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that would have eased him out of office but then refused to sign it at the last minute.

Mr. Saleh will also have failed to curry favor with his opponents by not giving any indication on whether he intended to return to Yemen once he had recovered from severe burn wounds as a result of the attack on his compound.

However, Mr. Saleh’s appearance, sitting rigidly and hardly recognizable in a chair, his hair covered with a Saudi-style red and white checkered hair dress, his face scarred and his hands bandaged coupled with his disclosure that he had undergone eight operations since his departure for Saudi Arabia on June 5, suggested that his possible return would not be imminent.

For Yemenis waiting to see Mr. Saleh for the first time since the attack, this could prove to be a reason to engage in a dialogue that could bring Yemen back from the brink.

In the only opening in his brief remarks, Mr. Saleh endorsed Vice President Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi to engage in dialogue with his opponents. That may not seem like much of a concession, but Mr. Hadi enjoys a degree of credibility that Mr. Saleh no longer can command.

Mr. Hadi has emerged as an acceptable interlocutor for Mr. Saleh’s opponents who see him as more conciliatory. Most, if not all, past meetings between opposition forces and the Saleh government have been held in his office. Mr. Hadi has also come under increasing domestic and international pressure since Mr. Saleh’s departure to Saudi Arabia to fully assume the powers of the presidency.

Mr. Saleh stopped short of granting Mr.Hadi that power but seemed to want to lend greater credibility to his call for dialogue. His endorsement of Mr. Hadi allows the vice president to back off his refusal so far to act without Mr. Saleh, who constitutionally remains Yemen’s leader.

All in all, Mr. Saleh’s address is certain to be viewed by his opponents as more of what they see as his duplicitous rhetoric. Nonetheless, the visual impact of the severity of his injuries coupled with his endorsement of a dialogue offers an albeit slim chance of breaking the deadlock.

To end the crisis however, Saudi Arabia and the United States will have to increase pressure on Mr. Saleh to agree to step down and accept that only a popularly elected leader rather than a figure identified with the existing power structure will be able to introduce the political and economic reforms that will satisfy the protesters and put Yemen on the road to recovery.

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