SANAA (Reuters) - Ali Abdullah Saleh once compared running Yemen to “dancing on the heads of snakes.”
In 33 years he has led a poor, unruly and fractious nation through civil war, uprisings, militant campaigns, tribal feuds and poverty.
It looked like his dancing days might be over this year, with a mass uprising inspired by revolts sweeping the Arab world. He repeatedly promised to step down, only to pirouette away from the edge at the last minute.
The bombing of his presidential compound in June, an apparent assassination attempt, covered him with severe burns and drove him abroad to recover in lavish exile in neighboring Saudi Arabia.
But the ever-nimble Saleh danced his way back into the snakepit on Friday, arriving in the capital Sanaa in a sudden step that analysts say raises the prospect of intensified violence and civil war.
Yemen has seen steadily intensifying street protests against Saleh’s rule since January, culminating in clashes between forces of the Hashed tribal group and troops loyal to Saleh in the capital and elsewhere.
The United States has talked openly of its concern about who might succeed Saleh, an ally in the fight against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a Yemen-based wing of the militant group.
Only recently, Saleh’s rule seemed all but unshakeable. Last year, supporters were pushing for constitutional changes to allow him unlimited five-year terms as president. Speculation was high that he was grooming one of his sons as a possible successor.
But the popular uprising that began in distant Tunisia in December came to scupper the plans. After Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak fell from power, tens of thousands of Yemenis escalated daily protests in the capital Sanaa and Saleh began to offer verbal concessions.
First Saleh said he would not stand for re-election in 2013 and dismissed the idea of his son succeeding, then offered a referendum on a new constitution by the end of the year and a shift to a truly democratic “parliamentary system.”
But after the death of 52 protesters mostly hit by sniper fire in March, a string of generals, tribal leaders, diplomats and ministers to resigned or declared their public allegiance to the protesters.
Many were from the al-Ahmar and Sanhan tribes, kinsmen whom Saleh placed in key military and other positions.
Since then, he came tantalizingly close three times to signing a power transfer deal brokered by Gulf Arab states, only to back out of it at the last moment, prolonging the standoff.
Saleh became the ruler of North Yemen in 1978 at a time when the south was a separate, communist state, and has led the unified country since the two states merged in 1990.
Opponents often complained that Yemen under Saleh failed to meet the basic needs of the country’s people, where two of every three live on less than $2 per day. Oil wealth is dwindling and water is running out, though liquefied natural gas exports began in 2009.
Yet Saleh managed to keep Western and Arab powers on side.
After the September 11, 2001 attacks against U.S. cities, Yemen came on to Washington’s radar as a source of foot soldiers for Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network. Bin Laden himself, though born in Saudi Arabia, originated from Yemen’s Hadramaut region.
Saleh cooperated with U.S. authorities, and the CIA carried out a successful drone attack against a wanted figure. But by 2007, militants had regrouped in Yemen and in 2008 they announced that their Saudi and Yemeni wings had united under the banner of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
From 2009, the resurgent group made ever bolder attempts to stage attacks on Saudi and U.S. targets beyond Yemeni soil, as well as targeting foreign tourists at home. At the same time, northern Shi’ites rebelled against Saleh’s rule and southerners, feeling marginalized, began a new separatist drive.
Saudi Arabia, the United States and other allies responded by stepping up with financial support to bolster Saleh’s rule.
If Saleh has been a determined survivor, he has also been a charismatic and often popular ruler who understood well the workings of Yemeni society.
Born in 1942 near Sanaa, he received only limited education before joining the military as a non-commissioned officer.
His first break came when President Ahmed al-Ghashmi, who came from the same Hashed tribe as Saleh, appointed him military governor of Taiz, North Yemen’s second city. When Ghashmi was killed by a bomb in 1978, Saleh replaced him.
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.
He angered Riyadh by staying close to Saddam Hussein during the 1990-1991 Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, leading to the expulsion of up to 1 million Yemenis from Saudi Arabia. Before the crisis, Kuwait had given Yemen financial aid.
But Saleh then won plaudits 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.
He swept to victory when southerners tried to secede from united Yemen in 1994 and drew closer to Saudi Arabia, which he allowed to spread its radical Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam.
Writing by Isabel Coles