Speaking Through His Wounds: Yemen's President Plays for Time

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Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR for TIME

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh speaks with TIME and the Washington Post in Sana'a on Sept. 29, 2011

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh doesn't act like a man with his back to the wall. Despite an eight-month-long popular uprising, major military defections, international pressure to step down and an assassination attempt that nearly took his life in June, he has made it clear that he will relinquish power only on his own terms. His belligerent stance risks putting this impoverished nation, plagued by militancy and home to the most virulent branch of al-Qaeda, on the path of civil war.

In an interview with TIME and the Washington Post — his first since returning to Yemen last week after four months of medical treatment in Saudi Arabia for wounds sustained in a June bomb attack at the presidential palace — Saleh lashed out at his political rivals, accusing them of hijacking a popular revolt inspired by the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia in order to foist him out of office. "They [the opposition] are saying that the government is the one that is oppressing the protesters, but on the other hand, they are the ones who are oppressing the state itself by their actions," Saleh said, obliquely linking his rivals with the attempted assassination. Though he declined to elaborate on his condition, his hands were enveloped in medical compression gloves usually worn by burn victims to prevent debilitating scarring. His traditional Yemeni headcloth was artfully folded low over his forehead, perhaps in an attempt to conceal further scars. He appeared to have trouble hearing as well, leaning forward for questions while carefully lifting the folded cloth over his ears.

What started as a peaceful youth protest in February has calcified into a tense standoff marked by extreme violence and outright turf battles between government troops, tribal militias and fighters loyal to a powerful general who defected to support the protesters. It was hoped that Saleh's return last Friday, coming on the heels of a particularly violent week that saw more than 100 dead, would signal a break in the impasse. Instead it has ratcheted up tensions. Tens of thousands of protesters throughout the country continue their daily antigovernment demonstrations, while members of the political opposition, which includes both socialist and Islamist parties, struggle to coalesce.

This latest upheaval may have been sparked by the Arab Spring, but its roots go back to 1994, when Saleh's northern forces emerged victorious from a brutal civil war that threatened to sunder a nation that had become a united republic only four years prior. His reign since then has been marked by an unpopular concentration of political and military power in the northern cities, combined with accusations of rampant corruption and cronyism among political elites tied to Saleh's party. Separatist tendencies in Yemen's south, where al-Qaeda has gained a foothold, continue to simmer. Tuesday's failed assassination attempt against Saleh's Defense Minister — the second in two months — in the volatile southern port city of Aden only underscores those tensions.

A compromise agreement sponsored by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and backed by the U.N. calls for Saleh to transfer power to his Vice President while the country prepares for elections. Saleh has nominally agreed to the proposal, which offers him and his entourage immunity from prosecution, but has balked at the extended timetable for holding new polls — something the opposition says is essential to ensure a clean election free from interference. Last month Saleh authorized his Vice President to negotiate the GCC proposal on his behalf, but until the question of timelines is settled, he says, neither he nor the Vice President will acquiesce. "We are not holding on to power," he said in the interview. "We are willing to leave power as stated in the agreement." But, he cautioned, he was not prepared to leave the country with a leadership vacuum while the opposition prepared themselves for elections. "What is important to [the opposition] is to remove the President from power and the country would then go through chaos," he said disparagingly.

Saleh revealed an additional caveat that could scuttle the compromise accord entirely — the issue of his former friends turned rivals. When General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, commander of Yemen's 1st Armored Division, defected in support of the protesters in March, it wasn't just a political blow, but a personal one. General Mohsen was one of Saleh's closest confidants, a longtime ally and strong supporter of the regime. Not long after, Yemeni telecom tycoon and influential politician Hamid al-Ahmar (who is not related) urged Saleh not just to step down, but to leave the country. Hamid's brother Sadeq al-Ahmar heads Yemen's most powerful tribal confederation — the one to which Saleh belongs as well. Saleh grew up with the brothers together in the same village, and they are cousins by marriage.

Since their defections, the Saleh government has painted the general and his former political associate as corrupt thugs addicted to power, flaws he consistently failed to point out when they were allied with the regime. Nevertheless, he says, he will not step down if it means that they will be eligible to run in the elections. Doing so could lead to civil war, he warned. "If they are in their positions, and they are still decisionmakers, this will be very dangerous. Because if we transfer power and they are there, this will mean that we have given in to a coup."

Sana'a is a sprawling city of 2 million whose geography is delineated by towering sun-scoured mesas. Mornings are often heralded by the rumble of rockets and bombs as armed rivals vie for the strategic heights north of the capital. The elite Republican Guards, commanded by Saleh's son Ahmed, have so far prevented troops loyal to Mohsen stationed in the northern provinces from entering the city. If that standoff falters, it could upset the balance of power with unpredictable results. Within the city, Mohsen's troops have adopted a largely protective role, guarding protesters as they embark on their daily demonstrations. Outside the capital, however, the fighting is fierce. On Wednesday al-Ahmar tribesmen shot down an army jetfighter north of the capital, they also attacked a Republican Guard garrison nearby. While protesters at Change Square, the newly dubbed locus of the movement, welcome the support of both Mohsen's troops and the al-Ahmar tribal militias, there is a risk that their calls for revolution are subsumed by a greater struggle for power among armed political elites.

For the moment, at least, the protesters are more concerned with the militarized crackdown on their demonstrations. Doctors at the improvised field hospital in the middle of Change Square say they have seen a major uptick in sniper-style shots to the head and chest — indications, they believe, of a concerted campaign to snuff out the rebellion. Protesters who leave the square are regularly peppered with machine-gun fire, and last week at least two demonstrators were blown in half by rocket-propelled grenades. Mortars have also landed among the protesters' tents, though it is possible that they were aimed at Mohsen's 1st Division headquarters nearby.

Saleh denies that his government has had anything to do with the violent crackdown. He blames Mohsen's troops, accusing them of cynically attacking the protesters in order to shame the government. "They assassinate protesters from behind so they can blame the state. They claimed that they are protecting [the protesters], and [they] end up by shooting them."

Throughout the brief interview, which took place at the presidential palace on a day racked by rocket attacks and mortar-fire exchanges between pro- and anti-government forces, Saleh painted himself the aggrieved party, committed to solving the country's crisis while faced with an intransigent opposition who wanted nothing more than to see Yemen plunge into chaos. More than once he raised the specter of political Islam and al-Qaeda, conflating the two in a studied attempt to gain sympathy from an international audience more concerned with the fight against terrorism than the establishment of a functioning democracy. "I am addressing the American public," he said at one point. "I want to ask a question: Are you still keeping your commitment in continuing the operations against the Taliban and al-Qaeda? If yes, that will be good. But what we see is that we are pressurized by America and the international community to speed up the process of handing over power. And we know to where the power is going to go. It is going to al-Qaeda, which is directly and completely linked to the Muslim Brotherhood."

There is no doubt that al-Qaeda is a concern in Yemen. The group has capitalized on government distraction and deteriorating security to seize power in several areas, including in the southern province of Abyan, where they captured a large town just a few kilometers outside of Aden. American counterterrorism officials have repeatedly expressed concerns about al-Qaeda's seeming ability to move freely throughout the country, prompting doubts about Saleh's claim that he is a key ally in the fight against the terrorist group. It won't be long, however, before Saleh's American allies can lay those suspicions to rest. Saleh says he won't run again for President, that his near brush with death has convinced him that his time in power is over. "As for me, I will retire. After the opposition contributed to make the President come closer to retirement through the criminal act that happened at the presidential mosque."