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Is President Saleh Losing His Control Over Yemen?

May 31, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Heavy fighting resumed Tuesday in Yemen's capital after a cease-fire broke down between forces loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh and tribal militants. Margaret Warner discusses the country's power structure and Saleh's staying power with former U.S. Ambassador Barbara Bodine and Princeton University's Bernard Haykel.
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MARGARET WARNER: What explains President Saleh’s survival?

For that, we turn to Barbara Bodine, who served as U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 1997 until 2001, and Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University.

And Professor Haykel, after all these on-again/off-again deals, these forces besieging him, he is still there. Why? And how does he do it?

BERNARD HAYKEL, Princeton University: I mean, he has always ruled in this chaotic way, dividing up different forces in Yemen, playing off outside powers against each other, and also threatening collapse of Yemen, and promising that he’s the only person who can keep it together, and thereby getting money from either the Saudis or the Americans in order to stay in power.

He’s always ruled in this way. And I — and he wants to stay in power, clearly, and thinks that he can either outwit or out — you know, live out the patience of most of his opponents.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you see him that way, Ambassador Bodine? I mean, do you think he never did intend to live up to any of these deals?

BARBARA BODINE, former U.S. ambassador to Yemen: I’m beginning to think that he probably didn’t intend to live up to them, I think particularly when we got to the GCC-brokered agreement. That one had the largest backing, including us and all of the GCC members and is the one that he most clearly said he would sign.

He has outwitted all of his opponents over the last 30 years, but I think now he is starting to make some serious tactical mistakes. And, unfortunately, we’re seeing the — the results of that.

MARGARET WARNER: Briefly, what do you mean tactical mistakes? Give me one.

BARBARA BODINE: Well, constantly agreeing and then reneging, particularly this GCC one, because he lost a lot of backing.

There were — the — the basic sense of most outside countries, outside powers was to have a negotiated settlement between the opposition and to have some kind of reasonable transition, as opposed to Mubarak or Ben Ali just simply stepping down.

MARGARET WARNER: All right.

So — so, Professor, back to you. So, let’s talk about the outside powers. You had all the Gulf neighbors, ostensibly, including the Saudis, wanting him gone. Why can’t they pull it off? Isn’t he dependent, for instance, on the Saudis financially?

BERNARD HAYKEL: He has received financial support from the Saudis. And they — they, I think, have now given up on him.

The problem with the Saudis in particular is that the candidate that they would like to replace him with is a relative of his, a man called Ali Muhsin, who is really the continuation of the same system and wouldn’t be acceptable to most Yemenis.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, I see.

And how about the opposition, Professor, staying with you for another minute, just the opposition itself? I mean, you have all these different factions in the opposition.

MARGARET WARNER: Is there any cohesion? Is there any ability to actually pull something off here?

BERNARD HAYKEL: I mean the opposition is quite divided.

And the problem is also that the opposition is not representative of the populist movement that has overtaken this country. These large, young people — large numbers of young people, who are so far peacefully demonstrating, don’t have a leadership and are not organized around the older opposition members. So, you do have a country that is very, very fragmented.

BARBARA BODINE: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: And then, Ambassador Bodine, he’s always played, as I think the professor mentioned earlier, the sort of, “It’s me or al-Qaida” or, “It’s me or chaos” card.

Is that still working for him with either his own people or with, say, the U.S.?

BARBARA BODINE: I don’t think it’s working any longer.

It’s been more that, “It’s either me or chaos.” And as Professor Haykel pointed out, you know, there isn’t an obvious or agreed successor. But what we’re seeing is that what we have got now is him and chaos, not him or chaos. So, I think that card is no longer really a strong card.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Professor, this — this sort of takeover of Zinjibar, the city on the southern coast, the government seemed to hint that this was al-Qaida-in-the-Arabian-Peninsula-connected or something. Yet, there seems a lot of the skepticism about that.

BERNARD HAYKEL: Yes, there is.

And, you know, as Ambassador Bodine has just mentioned, I think he’s overplayed his hand. And this may be just another attempt again to use the al-Qaida card. And it’s not clear that, in fact, it is al-Qaida that has taken over this city…

BARBARA BODINE: Yes.

BERNARD HAYKEL: … if at all.

MARGARET WARNER: But who else would it be?

BERNARD HAYKEL: Oh, it could be local tribesmen, southern — southern — there’s a southern secessionist movement. And there’s also a man who is the descendent of the old leader of Zinjibar, a man called Tareq al-Fadhli, who is one of the big leaders in that town, and has his own men.

BARBARA BODINE: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: So, back to you, Ambassador. What — how does this — how is this likely to play out?

BARBARA BODINE: I don’t think anyone has the real answer on that.

It’s going to have to be negotiated. If you run through the various options, in that sense, the statement that it is going to have to be a Yemeni solution and somehow negotiated, I would think that, if not the GCC, one of the GCC members, probably not Saudi, will have to come in and broker some kind of a deal or this is just going to continue to spin out of control, and no one will win, absolutely no one.

MARGARET WARNER: But, Professor, that scenario depends on Saleh actually wanting to leave. I mean, do you see anything that would break either his will or his ability to hang on?

BERNARD HAYKEL: I think that, you know, the big question is, how much money does he have at his disposal? Because he is not able to wage a war against all Yemenis if he’s…

BARBARA BODINE: No.

BERNARD HAYKEL: … if he can’t buy off an — his own supporters.

This has always been a rule of thumb in Yemen, that you need to spend money on the tribes in order to mobilize them to your side. And I’m not sure how much money he has or how much money he’s willing to actually spend to mobilize support against this formidable opposition that is now against him.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Professor Haykel and Ambassador Bodine, thank you both.

BARBARA BODINE: Thank you.

BERNARD HAYKEL: Thank you.