Definitive Ambiguity in Yemen

7 June 2011


Ali Abdullah Saleh... President of Yemen?

Embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, besieged by the protests of his people, was seriously injured in an RPG attack on the presidential palace in Sana’a and subsequently taken to a military hospital in Saudi Arabia. Yemen’s vice president, Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi, is currently acting president of Yemen.

Abd al-Rahman Mansur al-Hadi, sort-of president of Yemen in the meantime.

While in a nation-state with robust institutions and a strong tradition of the rule of law, the fact that the legal president was out of the country for medical treatment would not threaten the position of said president, or make it unlikely that said president could resume power. But it was immediately perceived by the crowds of protesters as well as talking heads on the news that, once Saleh was out of the country, his chances of hanging on to power dropped dramatically. It is often said that “possession is nine-tenths of the law,” and it would seem that physical possession of a weak presidency, including one’s personal presence in the country, is nine-tenths of authoritarianism.

Saleh, it must be said, played a devious game of brinkmanship, agreeing in principle to sign off on his departure, and then pulling back at the last minute while hiring protesters to engage in a show of “street power” in hopes of shoring up his position. Brinkmanship is like a game of chicken: you’ve got to be fearless, if not a little reckless, and if both parties to the game are equally fearless, someone is going to lose big. In other words, if you take your confrontation to the brink, you might well fall over the precipice.

It has been openly speculated in the press that Saudi Arabia might not “allow” Saleh to leave without signing off on the Gulf Cooperation Council’s agreement that he reneged on earlier. Saudi Arabia leads the GCC, and they were embarrassed by Saleh’s failure to make good on his deal. I’m skeptical of this, because Saudi Arabia has a vested interest in supporting authoritarianism in principle, and I suspect that if Saleh went to the king and forcefully made his case, the king would relent. That being said, Saudi Arabia has a variety of levers they can have yet to use against Saleh to get his reluctant cooperation. But even to speculate on this political calculation — i.e., the intransigence of Ali Abdullah Saleh vs. the intransigence of King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud — is to admit that it’s a close-run thing.

It is one of the paradoxes of authoritarian rule that such rule fosters weak institutions and a civil society organized around the charismatic presence of a particular leader (or, less often, a particular leader’s family), so that in just such an ambiguous case as at present, even with Saleh still legally president of Yemen, the machinery of his personal rule cannot function effectively with him out of action. The authoritarian ruler is nearly absolute when in power, and stronger than a constitutional ruler, but when out of power the authoritarian ruler is even weaker than a constitutional ruler. Thus in gutting impersonal institutions and creating institutions dependent upon the personal presence of the ruler, the authoritarian ruler creates the conditions of his own fall from power.

But at the present moment, Saleh’s rule in Yemen is not even an institutional question; it is a question of his personal health. The most recent reports state that Saleh’s injuries are worse than originally reported. It is not known if he will be capable of exercising the duties of a president, much less able to forcefully assert himself in the face of adverse circumstances. An authoritarian ruler must be capable of wielding his authority, or he is nothing.

Thus to the ambiguity of Yemen’s weak institutions and the ambiguity of the role that Saudi Arabia will play is added the ambiguity of one man’s health, raising the ambiguity of Yemen’s future to a higher power.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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