Yemenis jubilant at departure of President Saleh, but what's next?

McClatchy NewspapersJune 5, 2011 

SANAA, Yemen — Jubilant crowds on Sunday celebrated the news that embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh had arrived in Saudi Arabia for medical treatment following a Friday attack on his presidential compound.

While Yemeni Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansur Hadi assumed the powers of the presidency, the situation remained unclear, as officials continued to assert that Saleh would return to Yemen and remain as president.

Saleh departed for Saudi Arabia late Saturday night. The president is believed to have suffered from severe burns and shrapnel wound to his chest. He is expected to remain in Saudi Arabia for two weeks of recovery.

By nightfall Sunday, jubilant crowds had massed in Sanaa's "Change Square," where anti-government demonstrators have held a sit-in for the past four months. In the eyes of most demonstrators, there was little ambiguity over Saleh's fate. Following evening prayers, the crowds broke out into chants, saying "The people have finished, the regime has fallen."

State media denied reports that Saleh traveled to Saudi Arabia with numerous members of his family. It was widely agreed that many of Saleh's powerful relatives, including his son, Ahmed Ali, who leads the elite Republican Guard, remained in the country, fueling fears that Saleh could aim to retake power after his recovery.

Still, analysts said that Saleh's time in power was up, arguing that it would be nearly impossible for him to regain the office of president.

"For him to attempt to return to power would be absurd," said Abdulgani al-Iryani, a Yemeni political analyst and cofounder of the Democratic Awakening Movement. Iryani said that the formation of a unity government incorporating members of the opposition was imminent, likely taking place within the next two weeks.

Vice President Joe Biden reportedly called acting President Hadi Sunday morning, after Gerald Feierstein, American ambassador to Yemen, met with Hadi Saturday afternoon. These actions were interpreted as an American endorsement of the transfer of power.

Vice President Hadi is widely seen as a weak figure, suitable for a temporary period in power, but unlikely to hold it for long. According to Iryani, a to-be-formed unity government would likely hold provisional elections in 60 days. The winners would be expected to oversee the rewriting of the Yemeni constitution, leading to a transition to a parliamentary system.

A strong parliamentary system would allow for greater regional representation and political accountability, addressing concerns from many disaffected Yemenis, who argue that Yemenis outside of nation's geographical powerbase have been marginalized since the nation's unification.

Even amidst the public celebrations, sporadic shelling reverberated in the Hasaba district of the nation's capital, Sanaa. Still, while some voiced fear that the nation could continue to spiral out of control, many Yemenis shared Iryani's optimism.

"We are very hopeful," said Mohamed al Muwadda, an engineer supportive of the pro-democracy movement. "Of course, there are likely to be a few problems, but I think that we are on our way to a better future."

Iryani expressed confidence that a post-Saleh Yemen would better serve both external and internal interests. He said that the departure of Saleh, accused by opponents of manipulating western concerns about terrorism for his own benefit, would lead to a decline in the power of armed Islamist groups.

Yemen is home to the Bin Laden-affiliated al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula group which, despite consisting of only a few hundred fighters, is widely seen as one of the most active branches of the terrorist organization.

"The strength of al Qaida is the product of regime complicity" he said, "as soon as this regime falls, al Qaida will greatly diminish."

Amid increasing internal discord, Saleh has also witnessed the apparent crumbling of his relationship with powerful foreign allies. Despite maintaining a close relationship with former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Saleh cultivated close relationships with Saudi Arabia and the West.

Yemen's Saudi Arabian neighbors have seen Saleh as a bulwark against unrest on their southern border, while the United States has referred to the Yemeni president as a crucial ally in the war against terrorism. Despite the past months of unrest, Saleh maintains a reputation as a political survivor, having maintained power in tumultuous Yemen for over three decades.

Born to humble origins in a village outside Sanaa, Saleh began his career in the military, eventually rising to become military governor of the city of Taizz. Saleh became president of North Yemen in 1979 following the assassination of former President Ahmed bin Hussein al-Ghashmi. Saleh retained power following the 1990 union of North and South Yemen. Since unification, Saleh has weathered a civil war in 1994 and ongoing insurgencies by separatists in Yemen's north and south.

Despite his political acumen, Saleh, has been severely challenged by ongoing demonstrations that have seen longtime adversaries and former allies of the president unite to call for his exit from power.

Initially consisting of a small number of university students and longtime activists, Yemen's anti-government demonstrations began more than four months ago following the flight and resignation of Tunisian President Zine el-Din Abdedin Ben Ali.

Demonstrations slowly gathered the support of a diverse group of Yemenis, turning into sprawling sit-ins and large Friday demonstrations in major cities. Many described the demonstrations as leading to the first "true" unification of often-divided Yemen.

"For the first time in my life, I have seen a united Yemen," said Idris Hussein, a cab driver originally from the northern city of Amran. "All across Yemen, everyone _Houthis, southerners, socialists, Islamists, students, engineers, tribesmen, men, women — has come together to call for a better Yemen."

Opposition forces were soon joined by numerous former supporters of Saleh. Following a March 18th attack on demonstrators in Sanaa, military strongman and former Saleh ally General Ali Mohsen, the head of the first armored division, declared support for the anti-government movement. Since their defection, Mohsen's forces have been deployed near Sanaa University, providing support to anti-government demonstrators in Change Square.

The past months have further seen Saleh's support among Yemen's powerful tribes crumble. Ongoing clashes between government forces and armed tribesmen loyal to Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, a powerful tribal leader who declared support for anti-government demonstrators in March, have seen many of Yemen's tribal leaders rally to support Ahmar. Clashes have been largely concentrated in the Hasaba district which contains the sheikh's house and numerous government ministries.

Mohsen and the Ahmar family have publicly declared that they do not intend to seek power and lack widespread popular support.

Following the collapse of a western-backed, Gulf Cooperation Council-negotiated talks aimed at securing Saleh's peaceful departure from power, foreign criticism of Saleh has intensified. Saleh backed away from promises to sign the deal on three separate occasions.

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(Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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