Wounded, Yemen's Saleh finds his support undamaged

McClatchy NewspapersJune 10, 2011 

SANAA, Yemen — One week after an explosion seriously wounded Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, forcing him to travel to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, this country's political course has taken a turn, but not in the direction many had expected.

Instead of weakening Saleh's grip on power, the bombing at the presidential compound's mosque may in fact have strengthened it, at least in the short term. His relatives appear to have consolidated their control of Yemen's best trained military units and his supporters have become more visibly defiant of calls for him to resign.

Tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators still protested Saleh's rule on Friday, as they have for much of the past four months. But his supporters have answered in kind, staging noisy demonstrations on three successive days, including Friday, that have featured enormous night-time displays of fireworks, flares and gunfire that the government insists are "spontaneous," though many suspect they are really orchestrated to show Saleh's strength.

Despite being in Saudi Arabia, Saleh remains very much a presence here. Highly trained troops under the command Saleh's relatives remain deployed throughout the capital, and portraits of the embattled leader are ubiquitous throughout most of the city.

Vice President Abd al Rab al Mansour al Haddi has assumed the powers of the presidency in accordance with the Yemeni constitution, but his control of the reins of power remains unclear. Perhaps tellingly, Haddi, who's generally considered a weak figure, has continued to work from his home or office, while Saleh's son, Ahmed Ali, has moved into the presidential compound.

Ahmed Ali remains at the command of the powerful republican guard, while the president's nephews lead other military units. Saleh's armed opponents, tribal forces loyal to Sheikh Sadiq al Ahmar, are a potent force, but fighting has subsided under a ceasefire agreement negotiated after the presidential mosque bombing.

Saleh's medical condition remains a topic of significant dispute. There has been no official word on the precise nature of his wounds, which various reports are said to include extensive burns and injuries caused by pieces of wood from the mosque's minbar, or pulpit, which was shattered by the explosion. But Yemeni government officials insist that Saleh's recuperation will not require months, as some reports have said. Instead, they assert that he will return to power after a quick recovery.

There has been less public discussion of exactly what caused the explosion, which struck as Saleh and several senior members of his government were celebrating Friday prayers. Initially, government officials blamed artillery rounds or mortar fire by Sheikh Ahmar's forces — the two sides had been engaged in pitched fighting for two weeks when the blast took place — but an Ahmar spokesman denied involvement.

In the days since, government officials privately have hinted that it would've been difficult, if not impossible, for an artillery round or rocket to have struck the mosque, given the location of the explosion and the angle from which such a missile would have had to have been fired. That's fed speculation that the blast came from inside the mosque by a bomb planted before Saleh and the other Yemeni officials arrived to worship.

In a video presentation posted earlier this week, Scott Stewart, a vice president of Stratfor, an Austin, Texas, risk assessment company, said that an examination of photos of the scene made it likely that the blast had originated inside the mosque. Citing soot patterns inside the mosque and the way bricks had fallen away from one of the mosque's exterior walls, he said the most likely source for the explosion was a military-grade explosive hidden several feet above the floor on an interior wall.

"This indicates to us it was most likely an inside job," Stewart said.

A government spokesman who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, declined to provide specifics about Saleh's injuries, the government's investigation of the explosion, or whether there were any suspects.

Meanwhile, Saleh's supporters, while credulous of government reports that Saleh will be able to return to power, said they were open to the prospect that his son, Ahmed Ali, would succeed him.

Before anti-government demonstrations began here, Ahmed Ali was widely considered his father's likely successor. However, in a bid to quell anti-government protests, the president declared earlier this year that his son would not succeed him. But supporters say sticking to that pledge now may make no sense.

"Ahmed Ali is educated, intelligent and strong," said a member of the Republican guard, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to reporters. "Why wouldn't we want him to lead our country?"

In Change Square, the name for the area adjacent to Sanaa University where anti-government protesters have camped out since February, demonstrators remained hopeful that Saleh's hospitalization in Saudi Arabia would be the harbinger of political change. Many, however, expressed fear that remnants of the regime would decline to engage in talks towards a transitional council in Saleh's absence.

"The government says nothing can happen when Saleh is out of the country, but Yemen cannot just remain paused while he is gone," said Adel al Surabi, a longtime youth organizer. "This time must used to work towards transition."

Members of Yemen's established political opposition have pushed for talks towards a unity government, while the U.S. and other nations continue to push for a transition along the lines of the so-called "GCC-initiative," a Gulf Cooperation Council-mediated that offered Saleh legal immunity in exchange for his exit from power. Saleh has refused to sign the deal on three separate occasions.

Despite the apparent defiance of his regime, however, many analysts argue that even if Saleh returns, he's unlikely to be able to rule Yemen in the same way he did before.

They note that even before last week's explosion, Saleh had lost his ability to exert control over many areas in the country following the defections of powerful tribal leaders and a large portion of the Yemeni military. In this light, they say, it is time for the international community to heighten their efforts to move Yemen toward a peaceful transition.

"Saleh's departure to Saudi Arabia represents a unique opportunity," said Gregory Johnsen, a Princeton-based Yemen analyst, noting the repeated failure of the GCC-initiative. The United States, Johnsen added, has maintained a close working relationship with relatives of Saleh, whose elite forces have benefited from American counterterrorism aid.

"If the US should have leverage with anyone in the Yemen, it's them" he said. "If not, then the American government should begin to question the wisdom of their counterterrorism policy in Yemen."

(Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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