|Sana'a, Yemen - Courtesy: Abdulwahab al-Ameri|
*Events have unfolded rapidly in Yemen over the last few days. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed by Houthi forces on Monday, following news he was moving away from his previous alliance with the Houthis toward new ties with the Saudi-led coalition that has been fighting them, and spurring an increase in violence in the Yemeni capital Sanaa.
Mada Masr spoke to Yemeni journalist Afrah Nasser about Saleh’s death, the deteriorating humanitarian situation, and the dynamics of living outside Yemen and speaking and writing about what is happening there.
Laura Bird: Were you surprised by the news of Saleh’s death? It must have been strange to see graphic images of the leader you grew up under and opposed in 2011 posted online. How did you feel when the news broke?
Afrah Nasser: I was shocked. I always believed Saleh’s alliance with the Houthis was very temporary. He was not only an influential man, he waged about six wars against the Houthis over the past decade and he always won — he even killed the leader of the Houthis. So I expected that he was going to win, but I underestimated the military power the Houthis had, thanks to Saleh. He also miscalculated this temporary alliance and I don’t think he ever thought they would turn the tables against him.
When I met Saleh in 2011, I understood how much this man was clinched to power. He thought he was irreplaceable, unmovable, untoppleable. His death must have even been a shock to him. He never thought that a youth movement on the ground, nor the Houthis, nor the Saudis, would take him away from power. So in that sense, as someone who was affiliated with the revolution, yes, the Houthis did what we couldn’t. But at the same time, they are another face of evil, another face of dictatorship — actually, one that is more brutal and based on sectarian ideology and extreme religious views.
LB: Why do you think Saleh made the decision to switch his allegiance at this point in the conflict? Was this a strategic political move, or one made out of “concern for the worsening humanitarian situation,” as Saleh claimed?
AN: It did look like Saleh was more concerned about the humanitarian situation than the Houthis, especially the looting and corruption within Houthi circles, but I think he felt they were after him and wanted to obtain a victory over them before this happened. They were never on the same page though; the only alliance they had was a temporary one against the Saudis. We’re dealing with two gangs, basically. Neither of them have any ethics or follow any political principles. They only want to survive and are thirsty for power and will crush anyone in their way until they get power. So Saleh realised that these guys were going to take him out so they could have an absolute grip over power and tried to make his move first.
LB: What do you think the ramifications of Saleh’s death are likely to be?
AN: I’m very worried about how the Saudis will scale up their military operation. Right now the Houthis are targeting every presidential building Saleh used to have, because they want to take control of all institutions. I am expecting a major military operation to hit the whole of the north of Yemen, not just Sanaa. This is a new chapter, more bloody than what has already come. I mean, if the war has killed 10,000 people already, this will multiply that number in the coming, not only weeks, but days, hours.
Maybe the Saudis will try to invest in Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh. I mean, even the name will garner sympathy on the ground in Yemen. The Houthis have force, but they don’t have popularity among many people in Yemen. And this will be the defining clash, if they win through military force. We will see, nobody knows.
The next round totally depends on how Yemenis react — the politicians, President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, it’s really up to all of these actors in the south, whether state or non-state, and how they respond. The Saudis, the Emiratis, they can only give them the tools, but it’s up to them how they orchestrate a response against the Houthis. It will be a darker scenario. Who will lead the country? Now Saleh is gone, the state is gone, nobody is ruling.