SANAA, Yemen – Ali Abdullah Saleh survived for decades as Yemen’s strongman, the master of shifting alliances, playing both sides — or flipping sides freely — in the multiple guerrilla conflicts and civil wars that tore apart his impoverished nation throughout his life. But his last switch proved his end.
Saleh, who was Yemen’s president for 33 years until he stepped down in 2012 amid an Arab Spring uprising, was killed Monday by the Shiite rebels known as Houthis whom he’d once allied with in hopes of a return to power but then turned against in recent months.
A video circulating online showed Saleh’s body, his eyes open but glassy, motionless, blood staining his shirt and a gaping wound In his head. He was being carried in a blanket by rebel fighters chanting “God is great” who then dump him into a pickup truck. His grisly end recalled that of his contemporary, Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, whose body was shown being abused by the rebels who killed him in that country’s 2011 civil war.
During his rule, Saleh was known as the man who “dances on the heads of snakes” for his ability to manipulate friends and enemies alike, using patronage, family bonds and brute force. That skill enabled him to stay on top in the Arab world’s poorest nation and one of its most unstable, where tribal and regional alliances and the sheer geography of mountains and deserts made central rule weak.
But the decades of manipulation, corruption and conflict under Saleh left Yemen underdeveloped and dangerously fragile. Now the civil war, in large part caused by his maneuvering, has pushed it to near societal collapse: With hospitals and food distribution networks in a shambles, hunger is widespread among its population of nearly 28…