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Abdullah Saleh: Yemen's Unsackable Leader

Of all the Arab Spring dictators, only one has managed to cling to power.

Hani Mohammed/AP

When the sun goes down on the ancient city of Sana, the capital of Yemen, the pillars and domes on the country’s largest mosque shine tall and bright in a sea of near darkness. The massive complex, known simply as Saleh’s Mosque, was commissioned by Ali Abdullah Saleh, the country’s former dictator, then named in his honor.

In one of the mosque’s backrooms, a new, rather peculiar exhibit is set to open, filled with items seemingly out of place in a house of God. It includes a pair of eyeglasses, engraved guns, golden swords, and—the most unusual item of all—a pair of charred pants torn to bits in a shrapnel attack. These items belong to none other than Saleh himself, and the exhibit—described by one local paper as a “journey into a land of dreams”—was envisioned by him, too.

Of all the Arab Spring dictators who met their match in popular uprisings, only one came out a winner. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak is serving a life sentence. Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali is in exile. Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is cut off from most of the international community. Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi is dead. Yet Saleh, who narrowly escaped death during an attack on his palace in 2011, has managed to avoid the worst of fates and is, instead, living peacefully in Sana, opening museums and brash self-tributes in what many fear is the early groundwork for a political comeback.

“Saleh is just like this guy Putin in Russia,” said Yahya Al-Hajj, an apolitical Sana resident. “We wish he goes away, but the more we wish, the more he is sticking to us.”

Saleh’s determination to keep his name engrained in the minds of Yemenis stretches far beyond the walls of his new museum. The ex-president is scheduled on Tuesday to give a speech to his supporters in one of Sana’s public squares marking the anniversary of his own removal. Yet many Yemenis do not take his antics lightly and are demanding an end to his political career once and for all. Under a power-transfer deal, drafted by the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council at the height of Yemen’s uprising, Saleh was granted immunity for violations committed during his time in power, including the deaths of at least 45 protesters in 2011. But he was not barred from political involvement. Even today, one year after his forced resignation, Saleh, and not his successor, President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, remains the leader of Yemen’s largest political party, the General People Congress, which he founded in 1982.

“The jury is still out whether we will see significant change in Yemen or a whitewash of just enough reform to keep the public more or less content and a continuation of status quo,” said Letta Tayler, a Yemen expert with Human Rights Watch. “Most of the elites who were in power at the time of the uprising remain in power—just that they played a game of musical chairs.”

The Al-Hasabah section of the capital remains a tangible reminder of its latest bout with violence during the 2011 uprising. Buildings surrounding the main square are tattered by thousands of bullet holes, and the likelihood of compensation to repair or rebuild is uncertain. Here, in the Arab world’s poorest nation, many are frustrated with the lack of change and insist that the injustices tied to the former regime have gone ignored for long enough. Tensions are rising among various factions in the country. The southern city of Aden, Yemen’s second largest, was the scene of deadly clashes this week as Southern independence separatists feuded with security forces and demonstrators supporting the central government in the north. Residents say men attacked, looted, and burned government buildings while security forces vanished.

“Change is being driven backwards by the reproduction of the same traditional powers from the past,” said Sarah Jamal, a Yemeni sociologist and co-founder of Support Yemen, a nonprofit organization that promotes the establishment of a democratic state. “Those traditional powers stopped Yemen from becoming a civil state, and now they are getting reorganized to make sure they find a place in the new state."

But Saleh, who ruled over Yemen for 33 years and presided over the unification of North Yemen and South Yemen in 1990, still has his share of supporters. The General People’s Congress is divided, with some members showing support to President Hadi, while others remain staunchly loyal to Saleh. His family accuses the Islamist Islah Party, the largest opposition group, of planning a coup against them, as well as of the June 2011 assassination attempt on Saleh’s compound that left him and a number of aides seriously injured.

The United Nations Security Council issued a stern warning last week to Saleh and other “spoilers” of possible sanctions if he attempts to derail a national dialogue conference, geared toward drafting a new constitution. Opposition leaders have refused to take part in the talks on March 18 unless Saleh's relatives and loyalists who hold key military and security posts are removed. President Hadi has dissolved the country's powerful U.S.-trained Republican Guard, which was led by Saleh's eldest son, Ahmed. He also removed Yahya Mohammed Saleh, the president’s nephew, who led the counterterrorism unit and central security forces. But many analysts say the move was more of a reshuffle than a restructuring, and it will take years to fully purge the military of Saleh’s footprint—a reality that could jeopardize any cross-party reconciliation.

Stakes are high for these talks—not just for Yemen but also for countries in the region and beyond. The economy, already in shambles before the uprising, has deteriorated to the brink of collapse, and a humanitarian crisis the likes of that in the Horn of Africa is now an unavoidable reality. A faltering economy and a breakdown of law and order leave many around the world fearful that growing extremist elements, like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, will seize this opportunity to grow in size and strength.

“Some places in my country became too dangerous to visit,” said Ali Hamed, a university student from Aden. “But the people in the government are too busy fighting with each other that they don’t notice what’s going on around them.”