Rembrandt’s ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’ (1635)

Mene mene tekal upharsin. Some two and a half millennia ago it did not take King Belshazzar of Babylon too long to get this Aramaic message. Here is the gist, as recorded in the biblical book of Daniel (5:25-28):

And this is the writing that was written, MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN. This is the interpretation of the thing: MENE; God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it. TEKEL; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting. PERES; Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.

The ink on this populist uprising, with over 100 days of signs held aloft in Yemeni protests saying “irhal ya Ali”, has long since dried and Ali Abdullah Salih has been dilly dallying all along. The latest deal, brokered by the GCC with the U.S. and E.U. seals of approval, was signed yesterday by the opposition parties and Salih was supposed to sign today.

But at the last minute, or at least in time to make the Al Jazeera news, President Salih is calling for an open, public meeting with all parties present rather than a behind-closed-doors (the way he usually operates) signing. To sign or not to sign: in any case he is simply not reading the signs of the times being held up by his people.

It is hard to imagine why Ali continues to dilly dally when the agreement gives him immunity and allows him another 30 days to continue to plunder the country’s wealth (such as survives these days). It is in no uncertain terms a sweet deal, the kind of early retirement that is far too generous to decade-heavy dictators. What else does this guy want: a presidential library dedicated to him?

On the other hand, maybe Salih has read the prophet Daniel only too well. Even though the dream was correctly interpreted for King Belshazzar and he duly awarded Daniel for his divine insight, he was slain that very night. President Salih, for his part, is warning that when he steps down Al Qaeda will step in. Given that he has been milking this mantra for almost a decade, it continues to ring hollow. The army will not disappear when he leaves. There are very few Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen and most people have little sympathy for their acts of violence. The vast majority of Yemen’s population are simply tired of the 30-plus year rule of an autocrat who has plundered the wealth of his country for himself, his family and his cronies.

The longer Ali refuses the call to irhal, the more difficult the transition will be. The opposition is united only in the sense of wanting to rid the country of the rule of Ali Abdullah Salih. There also is little desire to plunge the country into civil war, but there will indeed be a clash between competing visions for Yemen’s future. It will not become another Iran, no matter who gains the upper hand. If the kind of grassroots civil discussion that blossomed after the unification of north and south in 2000 can be revived, Yemen does indeed have a future and the people of Yemen at long last may have hope for their own and their children’s future.

But perhaps the message needs a more modern translation for President Salih, so here goes:

And this is the writing that was written, MENE, MENE, RIYAL, UPPITY. This is the interpretation of the thing: MENE; the public protest hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it. RIYAL; Thou art weighed in the balances, and the economy is found wanting. IRHAL; Thy kingdom is divided, and given to Islah and the Socialists.

Daniel Martin Varisco