The Death of the Great Boxer

The Death of the Great Boxer

Tuesday, 5 December, 2017 - 07:30
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper
The Houthis immediately sensed the danger of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh abandoning the alliance that brought them together three years ago. They realized that he had taken away the excuse they had used to seize the Yemeni state. His absence uncovered their agenda and threatened to lead to their isolation. The end of the alliance would have changed military, political and tribal balances and would have turned them back into a rebel militia that lacks popular support in Yemen. The internal isolation would exacerbate the external one and lead to the break of the Yemeni link in the regional plot that they are a part of. They realized the danger of his abandonment of the alliance and immediately sought to kill him.

Taking into consideration the complexities of the Yemeni scene, as well as the security, military, popular and tribal support that Saleh enjoyed, we realize that yesterday’s scene may be more dangerous than previous ones. It is more dangerous than the image of the noose being tightened around Saddam Hussein’s neck amid the ecstasy of the onlookers. It is more dangerous than the image of Libyans harassing Moammar Gadhafi before his death. It is more dangerous than the image of the Lebanese people failing to find Rafik Hariri’s corpse because his killers sought to blow it up in all directions.

Ali Abdullah Saleh was not a regular player along the Yemeni faultline. The story of Yemen since the late 1970s is also his story and it bears his hallmarks. When he first became president in 1978, the country was still reeling from the assassination of two presidents, Ibrahim al-Hamdi and Ahmed al-Ghashmi, within eight months. Saleh fondly used to remember how the Washington Post predicted that he would not remain in power for more than six months. He left the presidential palace 34 years later in 2012.

He was not a regular player on the Yemeni scene. He was the great boxer, who dealt punches and received them. He bent to the will of the storm and then stood up straight again. He launched cannons and then mobilized mediators. He controlled Yemen, from the ballot boxes to the security agencies to the military, but above all else, he had a deep understanding of the Yemeni fabric and the ties between the state and the tribes.

From the capital Sana’a, he watched how “friends” back-stabbed each other in Aden in 1986. With the fall of the Berlin wall and Soviet Union, northern and southern Yemen united in 1990. He was called the maker of Yemen’s unity and he emerged victorious from a four-year war that threatened to divide the country once again.

Skill was Saleh’s primary asset. He had an extraordinary political instinct and ability to sense dangers. He would let the game play out and once its crosses the red line, he would seize the reins and don his general’s cap once again. On the internal and external fronts, he was not a compliant ally nor an easy adversary. He was a master at the art of longevity.

Saleh was the victim of his fate of the great boxer who did not find meaning for his life outside of the ring. I heard him say more than once that he was tired and longed to spend time with his grandchildren after the presidency deprived him of their company. I heard him say that he admired Lebanon, where a former president could stroll freely in the country without feeling threatened. He once said that it was time to break the rule that says an Arab president only leaves power to head to the grave or to exile. I used to skeptically listen to him because he was a man who clearly loved to remain at the heart of the game no matter how dangerous it became.

Those who knew Saleh, knew that he never got over the scene of Saddam Hussein’s death. He saw it as a form of revenge, not justice. He saw it as a bad omen, similar to what happened with Moammar Gadhafi. He said: “When they shave the beard of your neighbor, you must prepare to shave your own beard.” Despite these omens, the joy of staying in the heat of the battle never left him. His passion for the game was not diminished even after his body burned in a failed assassination attempt. He treated his wounds and returned to the game. He was forced to leave the presidential palace in order to preserve his role as the great boxer, who could not be taken out of the equation.

Saleh’s story cannot be separated from the thorny issue of Yemen that goes back to the past four decades. He was the focal point of this story and his absence will open a new chapter in this tragedy. Who knows, perhaps his blood would tighten the noose around the Houthis if the legitimacy forces came together with the supporters of the General People’s Congress and if the tribes mobilized against the militias that are trying to impose themselves on the country. They will however fail in altering Yemen’s Arab identity.

In 2009, I asked Saleh if ruling Yemen was tiring, he replied: “Ruling Yemen is like dancing on the heads of snakes.” I asked him the same question a year later, and he replied that the snakes have now turned into vipers.

The region is full of surprises and dangers where even the most expert player could be stung.

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