Medical intervention in Yemen

On Friday, after hearing of the attack inside Yemen's presidential compound, I posted a tweet which said: 

"Send Saleh abroad to be treated for his injuries. Problem solved."

That has now come to pass, but I doubt that it's a result of my suggestion on Twitter. It struck me at the time, though, that medicine has a history of intervening in the Middle East when politics falls short. It acts as a sort of force majeure.

Perhaps the most famous example was the "medical coup" in Tunisia in 1987 when doctors certified President Bourguiba unfit for office and brought the unlamented Ben Ali to power.

In 1994, during the north-south war in Yemen, various politicians who didn't want to be allied too closely to either side rushed off abroad for medical treatment, most of them recovering as soon as the war ended.

The effectiveness of medical intervention in politics often hinges on the belief that treatment needs to be carried out abroad. There's a kind of orientalist suspicion that local hospitals may not be up to the job (which isn't necessarily true) but it's probably also a status thing.

For heads of state, who obviously want the best no matter where it may be found, there's the additional fear that local doctors might be politically unreliable and tempted to stick a scalpel in the wrong place while they are on the operating table – hence the need for foreigners.

It's hard to guess how long Saleh might need to be in hospital. Apart from a six-centimetre fragment lodged near his heart, which was being removed on Sunday, he is said to have second-degree burns to his face and chest. According to Wikipedia, second-degree burns should heal in two to three weeks unless there are complications, but presumably he could be discharged earlier than that.

Yemeni officials insist that Saleh is only temporarily indisposed and will be returning shortly to lead the country again. This may remain as their official line for a while, though their behaviour suggests a transition is already under way with the blessing and assistance of the US and Saudi Arabia. 

I wrote an article for the Guardian earlier today about the probable way forward and won't repeat that here. However, an interesting question is how Saleh will be prevented from returning to Yemen if he does recover quickly. One factor which should not be underestimated is the dire state of the country's economy. It is going to need a massive injection of aid very shortly, and that gives the international community a lot of leverage over the future shape of Yemeni politics.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 June 2011