When Yemeni security forces opened fire Monday on anti-government demonstrators in two cities, killing at least 12 and wounding scores, President Ali Abdullah Saleh was miles away, seemingly determined to stretch his 32-year-old rule. In front of hundreds of cheering supporters in the south-central city of Dhamar, he declared: “I will never betray the trust you gave me.”
Yet, two days earlier, in a meeting with his advisers, Saleh was weighing a new opposition plan for his departure. “He is not holding on to power,” insisted Yasser al-Awadi, a senior ruling party official who was at the meeting. “His intention is to transfer power to a person who represents the people’s will.”
As Saleh confronts the most significant challenge to his rule over this conservative tribal nation, he has created two, seemingly contradictory, personas. In private, he has indicated to advisers and diplomats that he wants to step down. In public, he has become steadfastly defiant, even as the populist revolt spreads across the nation and grows bloodier, appearing as if he is digging in or, at the very least, tormented about releasing his grip on power.
Together, though, his two personas appear designed to achieve one goal: an exit from power under his own terms, something that neither Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak nor Tunisian leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali managed to achieve before they were ousted by populist rebellions. How and when Saleh leaves office, and what role, if any, he will play in a new Yemen, will determine whether a transition of power will lead to stability or chaos, analysts say.
“He wants to step down, but he’s worried about his future,” said a Yemeni official who asked that his name not be revealed because he is a Saleh staff member.
On Tuesday, Saleh accepted an invitation from the Gulf Cooperation Council for talks in Saudi Arabia and urged the opposition to join him, an apparent indication that he expects his peers in the region, worried about instability in Yemen, to weigh in on his behalf.
The complexities of Saleh’s stance, drawn from more than a dozen interviews with his advisers, opposition officials, tribal leaders, Western diplomats and analysts, offer a glimpse into the mind-set of one of the Middle East’s wiliest autocrats, a master political tactician who has long survived by skillfully exploiting divisions, fears and perceptions to neutralize threats to his rule.
Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a longtime Saleh ally who recently joined the protest movement, said those forces were at work Tuesday, charging that supporters of the president had attempted to assassinate him.
Saleh increasingly views himself through the prism of history, legacy and family. His decisions, his supporters say, are driven by tribal codes of conduct and pride; a belief that he has been legitimately elected by the people; and a desire to protect his sons, nephews and other relatives who permeate his government.
“He thinks he is like [Thomas] Jefferson,” said Ahmed al-Sufi, a presidential spokesman. “What’s important is to deal with him as a historical figure.”
Around Yemen, though, Saleh used to be called “Little Saddam” after his mentor and close ally, former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Many analysts and opposition figures view Saleh’s hardening public stance as an attempt to give him an upper hand in the power transfer negotiations. He seeks, they say, to ensure a safe exit that would prevent his family from being stripped of their wealth or prosecuted for corruption and other crimes by the regime.
Saleh has warned publicly that chaos and terrorism would thrive if he does not turn power over to “safe hands,” mirroring language used by Mubarak in the days before his fall. Opponents describe such rhetoric as scare tactics to convince Yemen’s myriad tribal leaders and the international community, especially his vital ally the United States, that only he can keep the nation stable. They insist he has exaggerated the threat of al-Qaeda and terrorism to gain financial support and political backing from the United States and its allies.
“He’s betting on time,” said Tawfiq al-Khamery, a wealthy businessman and opposition figure. “He’s using the same old cards: al-Qaeda and terrorism. If they were a 20-percent problem, he makes it appear like 100 percent.”
“Nobody trusts him,” he added.
Saleh is often described as mercurial. A 2005 U.S. Embassy cable, released by WikiLeaks, said Saleh “listens to no one” and is “unrealistically and stupidly confident” that he will always make the right decisions. The cable also said Saleh does not think “strategically and cares only about enriching his own family.”
“His rule depends on his mood,” said Ali al-Jaradi, a prominent Yemeni columnist and editor. “At one moment, he makes a great decision, the next moment he destroys it.”
Still, even Saleh’s close advisers and top ruling party officials say that he no longer can rule effectively. The government, military and powerful tribes are divided; many of Saleh’s most influential allies defected to the side of the protesters after March 18, when pro-government snipers killed 52 protesters in the capital, a massacre widely blamed on Saleh.
The nation, which has long grappled with a Shiite Houthi rebellion in the north, a secessionist movement in the south and an emboldened al-Qaeda branch, appears on the verge of collapse. In recent days, the Houthis have seized northern Saada province; unrest is growing in two al-Qaeda strongholds, Shabwa and Abyan provinces; food prices are rising; the Yemeni rial is sinking.
“I think it is now almost impossible for him to run Yemen the way he did a month ago,” said Zaed al-Dhari, a senior ruling party official. “The price for being so persistent about ruling is bloodshed and violence.”
To pacify the growing discontent, Saleh offered economic and political concessions, including a promise not to run again in 2013 and not anoint his son, Ahmed, as his successor. Saleh later pledged to step down at the end of this year, if elections are held. But the opposition had little faith in his promises and rejected his offers.
“What people have said to me is this idea that Saleh wants to be seen as making the decisions himself,” a senior Western diplomat said. “He does not want to be seen as being pushed by anyone.”
In recent days, Saleh has declared he would offer no more concessions. And he has flooded the capital with hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters to demonstrate his popular appeal.
Behind closed doors, Saleh mostly listens to a small circle of advisers, led by his sons and nephews, who hold high-ranking positions in the security forces, and ruling party hard-liners and tribal leaders, said ruling party officials, opposition leaders and Western diplomats.
Saleh’s coterie, they say, is advising him to stand firm, even as the United States and its allies have privately been pushing him for several weeks to hand over power peacefully.
While in public, Saleh has chastised the behavior of top defectors from his regime as “foolishness.” In private, he is said to feel betrayed and concerned that they will seek retribution on him and his family.
“There are many forces in the opposition that want to take revenge on the president, and the regime is sensitive towards that,” said Mohammed al-Awmi, a senior ruling party official. “This is part of the Yemeni mentality that you want to preserve your pride and not be humiliated by your opponents.”
But what Saleh fears the most, said the Yemeni official, is how he will be remembered. “He doesn’t want to end up like Mubarak.”
Special correspondent Ali Almujahed contributed to this report.