SANAA, Yemen — Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh left Yemen Sunday en route to United States for medical treatment. Saleh is expected to stop in Oman prior to arriving in New York by Wednesday.
Saleh announced his intention to leave Yemen in a farewell speech to government officials, in which he reiterated the formal transfer of presidential powers to his deputy, Vice President Abdurrab Mansour Hadi.
Still, Saleh maintained his intention to return to Yemen to head his ruling General People's Congress (GCP) party, indicating he could continue to play a major role in Yemeni political life despite his formal departure from power.
"I will leave for treatment in the United States and I will return to Sanaa as head of the General People's Congress Party," he said. He apologized for his mistakes and asked for "forgiveness...for any shortcomings" during his 33 years in power.
Saleh has sent mixed signals as to his travel plans since his November signing of an internationally backed, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-mediated deal offering him immunity from prosecution in exchange for his exit in power. Saleh had previously stated that he would travel to the United States in December, but backtracked weeks later.
His travel follows the Saturday passage of a controversial parliamentary bill granting Saleh immunity from prosecution, The act, despite gaining the backing of Yemen's establishment opposition, was sternly condemned by Yemeni demonstrators and international human rights groups, They continue to demand that the outgoing president stand trial for his role in numerous attacks on anti-government demonstrators.
The Yemeni parliament also unanimously nominated Vice President Hadi as a consensus candidate in the coming early elections, effectively guaranteeing that he will lead Yemen during the two-year transitional period laid out in the GCC plan.
Once seen as a force for stability in Yemen, Saleh has seen his hold on power dissipate over the past year in the face of mounting street protests and a series of political and military defections by former ruling party allies.
Yet even after returning to Yemen following a months-long convalescence in Saudi Arabia after suffering severe injuries in an apparent assassination attempt, Saleh appeared reluctant to let go of the presidency. He finally submitted to mounting international pressure in November, inking the power transfer agreement after backing away from signing it no less than three separate times.
Despite his exit, celebrations were muted in Sanaa's Change Square, a sprawling tent city where thousands have camped out calling for Saleh's ouster for months.
Saleh directly appealed to youth protesters in his speech, urging them to "return to their homes," but demonstrators maintained that they had no intention of abandoning their sit-in. They said Saleh's departure was a partial victory and stressed that the end of his rule was only a partial fulfillment of demands for large-scale reform and an end to corruption.
"[Saleh leaving] is the first step to achieving the goals of our revolution," said Osama Shamsan, a leading youth activist. "We will continue to target the rest of the regime. Even with the vice president in charge, we still have a complete lack of trust in the government."
Nearly a year of unrest has wrought havoc in Yemen, bringing the already fractious and impoverished nation to the brink of political and economic collapse. The central government has effectively lost control of swaths of territory, heightening fears that the Yemen-based militants could exploit the power vacuum. Simultaneously, the political crisis' toll on Yemen's economy has led international NGOs to warn of an impending humanitarian crisis.
A return to normalcy in Yemen, analysts stress, is still far off. But, some noted, Saleh's departure still marked a positive step towards a meaningful political transition.
"Before, the vice president was hesitant to use the authority granted to him by the GCC Deal. Now he will no longer have that hesitation," said Abdulgani al-Iryani, a Yemeni political analyst and founder of the Democratic Awakening Movement. "Today the transitional period really begins."
(Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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