Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is finally out after he stepped down and handed over power to his deputy. Or is he? Few days after he flew to Saudi Arabia to sign a GCC brokered plan to end 10 months of protests calling for his ouster, the 69-year-old was back in Sanaa where he issued a general amnesty and chaired a meeting of his ruling party.
Initially he was supposed to leave to New York from Riyadh to undergo further treatment for burns he had sustained in June when a rocket tumbled a mosque in the presidential compound where Saleh and aides were gathering. His unexpected return to Yemen has raised questions about his true intentions and whether the plan that he and the opposition had agreed to was still valid.
Meanwhile, Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Al Hadi appointed veteran politician and opposition leader Mohammed Basendwa as prime minister and asked him to form a unity government as part of a power sharing deal. But protesters across the country continued to demonstrate against Saleh and the deal he had signed. They accused the opposition of betraying their uprising by granting Saleh and a number of his relatives immunity from prosecution.
There is confusion over what will happen next in Yemen, now that Saleh has stepped down but continues to call the shots. He said in Riyadh that he was always ready to share power with the opposition, giving the impression that his role in the future of the country has not ended. By heading a meeting of the ruling party, the General People Congress, Saleh, who remains honorary president until the elections under the Gulf deal, has underlined the fact that while he may have resigned as president he remains politically active.
In fact some have predicted that he may even decide to run as candidate in the presidential elections which will be held in February. The opposition, working under the umbrella of the Joint Meeting Parties (Common Forum), has agreed that Vice President Hadi will be the only candidate. But it is doubtful that the power sharing deal will hold especially that the majority of Yemeni youth, who make up the backbone of the uprising, reject it.
Moreover, the Riyadh deal has yet to bring peace across the country. Sectarian violence claimed the lives of more than 20 people earlier in the week in the northern province of Saada. And one day after the Gulf sponsored agreement was signed in the Saudi capital, forces loyal to Saleh shot dead five protesters in Sanaa. The security situation in this vast country of 24 million people remains precarious. Al-Qaeda is believed to be active in remote areas in the southeast, while separatist sentiments are at an all time high in the south.
Saleh’s resignation will not terminate his influence on the country’s future. He still has loyalists and supporters especially in the army and elite security force, which are led by his son. The task before the interim prime minister will not be easy, especially as protests continue.
The gulf separating the youth and opposition parties is widening. Saleh’s deputy, Hadi, will find it difficult to achieve reconciliation, or even bow to public demands, in the coming few weeks so long as the president stays close.
Like Saleh the Common Forum may have underestimated the resolve of the country’s young who want sweeping political changes and a clean-cut departure from the 33-year-rule of President Saleh. The latter is proving to be audacious and confrontational. He refuses to leave the political stage and is planning for a comeback that may involve his son.
The opposition, which managed to stay united during the uprising, may unravel as protesters maintain their occupation of public squares in Sanaa, Taez and other towns. Some in the opposition have criticized Saleh’s sudden return and warned that he cannot be trusted and that he is bent on taking revenge against his opponents. The power sharing deal may have bought him some time to regroup and divide his opponents.
Saleh’s true intentions will keep his opponents guessing, but they should also concern the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, who have negotiated the deal and supported it. A peaceful transfer of power and an end to political turmoil are a priority for Yemen’s neighbors. But if the protests continue and the opposition is divided, then Saleh and his supporters may steer the country toward a different outcome.
So far Saleh has been able to survive and avoid a humiliating end similar to that of the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. He has secured immunity from prosecution and kept one foot in power through his deputy and as leader of the ruling party—at least for few more months. His shrewdness has undercut his opponents but it has also infuriated the protesters who appear ready to keep their uprising alive.
By Osama Al Sharif