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Yemen: An Era Ends - Goodbye Saleh

After 33-years of autocratic rule, Yemen's president Ali Abdullah Saleh steps down this week.
By Gabe Kahn.
First Publish: 2/20/2012, 7:26 PM

The 33-year rule of Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh comes to an end this week as Yememis appoint a replacement they hope will lead to democracy.

No ceremonies will mark the end of the reign Saleh once described as "dancing on the heads of snakes." Currently in the United States to receive treatment for injuries he sustained in an assassination attempt last June.

Before he flew to the United States on January 22, Saleh apologized for “any shortcoming” in his rule. He claimed he would return to Yemen, but it is widely believed he will seek refuge abroad.

But this week's election, in which Saleh’s deputy Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi is the only candidate, is expected to pave the way for Yemen to introduce political and economic reforms, as well as a restructuring of security forces currently run by Saleh's relatives.

From January 2011, Saleh struggled to quell a widespread popular uprising against his rule as a spate of gun-battles pushed Yemen to the brink of civil war. The violence culminated in deadly clashes between forces of the Hashed tribal group and government troops.

Under mounting pressure, Saleh agreed to sign a Gulf accord in November that was meant to see him gradually relinquish power.

Born in 1942 near Sana’a, Saleh had only limited education before joining the military as a non-commissioned officer.

Saleh's big political opportunity came when President Ahmed al-Ghashmi, who came from the same Hashed tribe as Saleh, appointed him military governor of Taez, North Yemen’s second city.

When Ghashmi was killed by a bomb in 1978, Saleh replaced him and earned a reputation as a shrewd political survivor who managed to stay in power for over three decades.

In 1990, an array of domestic and regional circumstances propelled North Yemen under Saleh and the socialist South Yemen state into a unification that Saudi Arabia at first opposed.

Saleh then angered Riyadh by staying close to Saddam Hussein during the 1990-91 Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, leading to the expulsion of up to one million Yemenis from Saudi Arabia. Before the crisis, Kuwait had given Yemen financial aid.

But Saleh garnered praise from Western powers for carrying out economic reforms drawn up by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and made efforts to attract foreign investors.

His General People’s Congress party swept to victory in a 1993 parliamentary election, the first held after unification. South Yemen tried but failed to secede in a brief civil war in 1994.

Saleh then proceeded to move closer to Saudi Arabia, allowing an influx of its radical Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam. But poverty and financial lethargy continued to plague the strategically located Arabian Peninsula country.

The 11 September 2011 attacks by Al Qaeda on the United States proved a key opportunity for Saleh, who needed to strengthen his military among growing domestic discontent.

With al-Qaeda declared Public Enemy Number 1 in Washington, Saleh was able to align himself with the US global counter-terror campaign, gaining financial, military, and political support for his increasingly embattled regime.

In the end, Saleh's leadership dance was not nimble enough to avoid a politically fatal snakebite.