The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

In Translation: Clinging to power with your teeth

The crack translation team at Industry Arabic brings us this week's installment of our In Translation feature, in which we translate a representative op-ed from the Arab press. This column in the pan-Arab, Saudi-owned Al Hayat newspaper by its editor, Ghassan Charbel, blames the conflict in Yemen on former Yemeni president (and erstwhile Saudi ally) Ali Abdullah Saleh's unwillingness to step down and includes quotes from several previous interviews Charbel conducted with Saleh. The introductory paragraphs, on the discourse of false humility and sacrifice of leaders who can't conceive of relinquishing power, apply pretty much to every ruler in the Arab world. 

The General Doesn’t Love the Palace

By Ghassan Charbel, Al-Hayat, 1 April 2015

The master of the palace embarrasses me when he tells me that he does not love the palace and that he awaits impatiently the date of his departure and that he suffers from a tortured conscience with regards to his family, since the concerns of the nation have distracted him from the First Lady and his children. He flabbergasts me when he tell me that he did what was necessary and will allow history to judge, that the decision to depart is final even if the masses cling to the hem of his jacket, and the time has come for him to have time to play with his grandchildren. The master of the palace disconcerts me when he says that power is a torment, and satisfying people an impossible task. He points out the white hair he has gotten from over-taxing himself for the needy and poor, and that he didn’t really intend to run in the last election but the people insisted. It disconcerts me that he says he remains in office based on election results. When he tries to portray the elections as free and fair, my mind immediately jumps to the intelligence chief and the vote-rigging factory in the Interior Ministry.

The fact of the matter is that I’m not a naïve enough journalist to believe all this. This profession has taken me to many capitals and I have interviewed many figures. Politeness forces me to suppress my chuckles so as not to jeopardize future interviews. Sometimes I have felt that the recording device itself will object to the expressions of humility voiced by a ruler who came to power on the back of a tank or the like.

Usually I humor the speaker, as if  saying that we are both from a region where rulers believe that they have no choice but the palace or the grave. And usually the coy response comes that rulers must learn from the experiences of others, and that some days you’re up, and some days you’re down…and if someone else lasted forever in power, you would never get a turn. Sometimes I say that journalists do not find an interesting story in modest people but in those who cling to power with their teeth.

The Houthis would not have taken over Sanaa and besieged the president there and then pursued him to Aden if Field Marshall Ali Abdullah Saleh had not put most of the Yemeni army at their disposal. It reeks of revenge. Saleh left the presidential palace burned and injured – when he reached Saudi Arabia after the explosion that targeted him, he could do nothing more than blink his eyes. He felt as if he had been kicked out of his house, where he should have stayed until he passed the palace down to his son Ahmed.

Journalists may forget facts, but computers are petty enough to remember. Yesterday I went back to three interviews with Saleh.

In 2006:

Q: Do rulers retire in the Arab world?

A: Of course.

Q: You don’t think that the title “former president” would be hard for you to bear?

A: Why would it be hard? The best title I hear now in Lebanon is “former president.” Why can’t we be like our brothers in Lebanon?

Q: Doesn’t the idea bother you?

A: Not at all, to the contrary.

In 2009:

Q: There’s talk of a possible agreement for you to serve another term?

A: I abide by the constitution. As far as I’m concerned, I will not run. I will not accept to be nominated by anyone.

Q: Why?

A: You have time and you use up your youth and use up your experiences over thirty years. If God grants me health, I will finish the remaining constitutional period. God willing, Yemen will produce many men like Ali Abdullah Saleh to take the place of Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Q: You don’t want to hold on to power?

A: No, no.

Q: Is it tiring to be president in Yemen?

A: I always say that ruling in Yemen is like dancing on the heads of snakes.

In 2010:

Q: You said last year that ruling in Yemen is like dancing on the heads of snakes: did the snakes wake up now?

A: If you want to change the expression, you could say vipers.

Q: Aren’t you scared of the vipers’ sting?

A: The snakes have grown up and become vipers. Me and my people, God willing, are able to deal with them and tame them. We’re not afraid.

Q: Is it possible that there will come a day when we see you allow someone else in the presidential palace?

A: (Laughs) A Yemeni president, of course.

Before bidding farewell, Ali Abdullah Saleh said that he would like to play with his grandchildren. Would that he would do so.