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Into the unknown

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AFTER 33 years at the helm, Yemen’s embattled president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was finally forced out of the country on June 4th and taken to a hospital in neighbouring Saudi Arabia following an attack on his compound in Sana’a, the capital. His faithful media at first made light of his wounds, describing them as scratches and predicting his rapid return. But it later emerged that Mr Saleh was badly burned, with shrapnel lodging close to his heart. He seemed highly unlikely to come back soon. His vice-president is temporarily in charge. Yemenis now wonder who will take over—and whether even greater chaos can be avoided, as competing factions bid to fill the power vacuum.

Youthful protesters, encamped for months in central Sana’a, exploded with joy when they learned of his departure, dancing in the street and letting off fireworks. Opposition politicians and diplomats were more cautious but assume he will not return. Among outsiders, the government of Saudi Arabia has the most clout to influence the future. Its main aim is to restore a measure of stability, pay Yemen’s tribes to keep quiet, and fend off al-Qaeda, which has cells dotted across the more rugged parts of Yemen and still views the Saudi kingdom as a target.

But it will not be easy for the Saudis to achieve these aims. Several times in the past two months the Saudis, at the head of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), had nearly clinched a deal that would give Mr Saleh immunity from prosecution if he handed power to his vice-president within 30 days of signing up, to be followed by elections within another two months after that. On each occasion Mr Saleh reneged at the last minute. The deal may now be resuscitated, presumably without having to give Mr Saleh a month in which to hand over. The Saudis are now fairly sure to tell him that the game is up.

The next step would be for a national-unity government to be formed, consisting of the General People’s Congress, which has been the ruling party under Mr Saleh, and an opposition coalition headed by the so-called Joint Meetings Party. American, British and European Union ambassadors have been working closely with their counterparts from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman to propose a plan for the Yemeni parties to endorse within the next day or so and start implementing forthwith. An election deadline of two months will again be laid down, though few think it will be met. An emerging transitional government would write a new constitution and elect a president with mainly ceremonial powers.


But the scope for chaos is immense. Mr Saleh’s power base remains strong. His sons and nephews still control most of the security forces, who have set up hundreds of checkpoints on the streets of Sana’a. The vice-president, Abd Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi, is theoretically in charge but lacks the tribal clout or the power of patronage with which to challenge the Saleh family.

Moreover, the official opposition is weak and divided, having long ago been co-opted by Mr Saleh to give Yemen a veneer of democracy. Many Yemenis still respect Mr Saleh for holding the country together for so long, by juggling and paying off its myriad tribes. “This is still a tribal society,” says a diplomat in Sana’a. “Saleh survived an attack on a mosque during prayers. He could come back as a hero and you would see hundreds of thousands of his supporters on the streets.”

The protest movement on the streets, which sparked the political crisis in the first place, could yet be marginalised, despite the bravery of the protesters, hundreds of whom have been killed. At a press conference on June 8th, leaders of the movement insisted that they would never back the GCC deal. But that could risk their exclusion from formal politics. No clear leader of the opposition has so far arisen.


While civil strife prevails across the country, talk of an election may be premature. Since Mr Saleh’s forces moved out of the provinces and into the main cities in an effort to quell the urban revolts, violence in the countryside has increased. In the north the Houthi clan has taken control of land they had long struggled to gain in a series of wars. In the southern province of Abyan Islamist militants said to have links with al-Qaeda have taken over government buildings and caused many residents to flee in panic. Yemen’s second city, Taiz, is still seething with unrest. Fighting in Sana’a has died down a bit, though the Hasaba district, where Mr Saleh’s loyalists fought a running battle for ten days with the powerful Ahmar family, is a ghostly wasteland of burned-out buildings and shot-up cars. Violence between them could easily resume. Mr Saleh’s exit has by no means ended the trouble. Yemen may be chaotic for months or even years yet.

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