Ali Abdullah Saleh, the either current or former leader of Yemen, depending on who you talk to, vowed to leave the country for the United States to receive treatment for injuries suffered in an assassination attempt this June. The US has not yet responded to the request to allow Saleh to enter the country.
Mr. Saleh was seriously wounded last June in a bomb attack on his palace in the Yemeni capital, Sana. He agreed to give up power a month ago and an election to replace him has been set for February, but until then, he maintains his title and much of his authority. Fears that Mr. Saleh will not let go have hampered Yemen’s transition and played an underlying role in the chronic political violence gripping the country, one of the poorest in the Middle East.
On Saturday, government security forces opened fire on protestors in Sana, killing at least nine people. They were protesting a deal under which Mr. Saleh would get immunity for his role in previous clashes with demonstrators, in return for giving up his post.
The United States will not offer Mr. Saleh asylum or safe harbor if it allows him to seek treatment here, the administration official said. Anti-government activists in Yemen said they would oppose that, and demand that the United States hand him over for legal prosecution at home.
It could get very messy if Saleh harbored stateside, especially if he continued to pull strings at home. The security forces that killed protesters finishing a long march to Sanaa this weekend are seen as loyal to Saleh. As said above, the key demand of protesters in Yemen now concerns the immunity deal for Saleh. If he leaves the country for what looks conspicuously like asylum, and if the repression of protest continues even with him removed from the scene, the country will remain as unstable as ever.
Elections have been scheduled, and a unity government currently holds power in the transition period. But Saleh’s key lieutenant, vice president Abdo Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi, still can use his power to crush dissent. Even as Saleh said he would leave during the elections, he promised to return “as an opposition figure.”
Meanwhile, we continue to rain down bombs from unmanned drones on sites in Yemen, which surely does little to stabilize a government in flux.
Allowing Saleh’s travel request would appear to confirm a lot of fears in the region over American meddling. Insistence that the request would only be granted for “legitimate medical attention” would be met in Yemen with suspicion. Saleh has lost the trust of the masses in the streets. The US would walk down the same path if they admitted Saleh.
The decision is oddly reminiscent of the decision to allow the Shah of Iran access to America, also to receive medical treatment. Needless to say, that didn’t end favorably.