“How many murdered citizens does it take to make a bad dictator?”
Ali Abdullah Saleh must go!
On 18th March, Yemen saw one of the bloodiest days since the uprising proper began on 22nd January: 53 men, women and children were gunned down; hundreds more were wounded. I say bloodiest because, of course, there have been many other bloody incidents around the country (in Aden, Mukalla, Ta’iz, Hodeidah, Harf Sufyan, and Sa’ada) where peaceful protest has been met with batons, CS, water canon, live ammunition, and even a mysterious gas that left people convulsing uncontrollably – 27 deaths and hundreds of wounded. This is what Ali Abdullah Saleh does to Yemenis when they dare to speak out – he murders again and again, with impunity.
As I contemplate what I know to be Ali Abdullah Saleh’s murderous history in Yemen, I am perturbed by the steady stream of anti-hero worship for Saleh. Analysts admire him as “smart”, “shrewd”, “a good tactician”, even “Machiavellian”?! Expert opinion panders to his self-proclaimed “dancer on the heads of snakes” analogy. Even respected monitoring groups have reported that “Yemen’s regime is less repressive, more broadly inclusive and more flexible than were its Egyptian or Tunisian counterparts”. These published foreign analysts and monitors evidently failed to visit his “security” dungeons or even the public prisons; they missed the grinding poverty and lack of very basic resources in hospitals, schools, and universities. Most Yemenis, however, are greatly underwhelmed by Saleh’s hypnotic powers. Yemenis, of all Arab peoples, most deserve a change of regime and system of government.
The truth – plain and simple – is that Saleh is a brutal dictator, in the mould of Qaddafi, Mubarak, Ben-Ali and other Arab despots, with many bloody tricks yet up his sleeve. Ordinary Yemenis throughout the land speak – behind closed doors – of how they despise and fear Saleh and his cabal, and long for freedom.
The magnitude of Ali Saleh’s tyranny and corruption is staggering. Since 1978, predating Mubarak and Ben Ali, Ali Saleh – the ruler of the most impoverished Arab country – has amassed a personal fortune of over $100 billion. When oil and gas were first discovered in Yemen in 1984, Yemenis hoped to see their land transformed like Oman. Instead, Ali Saleh’s personal fortunes seem to have been transformed. In a land where children must beg in the streets to keep their families from hunger, the President has palatial properties in Germany, Italy, and the United States.
Most erudite forecasts on Yemen have opined on looming misfortunes and impending mayhem – internal struggles, external threats; al Qaeda militancy, tribal warfare – all eventually descending into a foretold chaos. Yemen could turn into a failed state: rogue as Somalia; more complex than Afghanistan; and so forth. With severe water shortages, dwindling oil supplies, abject poverty, high illiteracy (60% of men, 84% women), high population growth (3.4%), the highest unemployment in the Arab World (40%), and corruption endemic to the system of government, indeed the list is long.
Yemen is already a failed state, its age-old tribal system clinging on in their mountain fastnesses. Here and there are pockets of militants, secessionists, sympathisers of al Qaeda or al Huthi – seeming to attract adherents to their cause, but actually opponents of Saleh’s rule.
Yemen did not fail on its own. Ali Saleh failed Yemen. He failed its people. He failed to develop vital structural, economic and social changes recommended by experts. Saleh and his gang plunged Yemen into the abyss, stifling free speech (despite his apologists’ claims), crushing or corrupting any opposition, and killing Yemenis’ spirit, the life and soul of good citizenship. Instead, he and his clique pillaged whatever they could lay their hands on. Unlike Somalia or Afghanistan, Yemen’s central problem is simple, embedded, and glaringly obvious – it is Ali Abdullah Saleh; his regime and its deceit. His time is up. He must leave.
Yemenis have risen against his oppression, they have broken the fear barrier. Despite the poverty and degradation, Yemen still has great economic and human potential. It sits on a strategic juncture of the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian Ocean, and the East African routes, and Yemenis possess ingenuity and talent aplenty. On this road to stability and democracy, Yemen will need international help. They are reaching out to the World; in turn, the International Community has a moral duty to support them in their struggle for freedom and justice from corrupt oppression.