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Updated: June 6, 2011 12:14 IST

Political vacuum as wounded Saleh leaves for Saudi Arabia

Atul Aneja
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An anti-government protester is thrown in to the air by others while celebrating President Ali Abdullah Saleh's departure to Saudi Arabia, in Sanaa, Yemen, on Sunday Photo: AP
An anti-government protester is thrown in to the air by others while celebrating President Ali Abdullah Saleh's departure to Saudi Arabia, in Sanaa, Yemen, on Sunday Photo: AP

Crowds erupt with joy in capital Sana'a

Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh has left for Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, leaving behind a political vacuum and as a slim chance for the pro-democracy movement to achieve its objectives.

On Sunday, two Saudi Arabian planes, one with Mr. Saleh on board and another ferrying members of the President's family and inner circle officials, headed for Riyadh. On arrival, Mr. Saleh was shifted to a military hospital where doctors attended to his wounds, sustained on Friday when rockets, apparently precision guided, slammed into a mosque inside the Presidential compound in Sana'a. While members of the powerful al-Ahmar family, Mr. Saleh's rivals, are prime suspects, the skill with which the attack had been undertaken have raised suspicions that General Muhsin Ahmar, a top military commander who had defected to the opposition might have played his part in the strike.

In capital Sana'a and the city of Taiz, another focal point of the anti-government protests that have been going on for several months, crowds erupted with joy, anticipating Mr. Saleh had permanently departed on somewhat similar lines to the former Tunisian President, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Reuters reported pro-democracy protesters in Sana'a holding aloft signs which read: “Yemen is more beautiful without you,” and “Name: A free Yemeni. Date of Birth: June 4, 2011. Place of birth: Change Square,” referring to the iconic Sana'a junction close to the university, which has been the epicentre of the protests.

Some Saudi Arabian officials said Mr. Saleh was in the Kingdom only for treatment, hinting his return to Yemen after recovery. But most analysts are of the view that his departure from Yemen is permanent — marking the end of a turbulent 33-year rule. I think this is just about the end of his match," said Khalid al-Dakhil, a Saudi Arabian political analyst.

Mr. Saleh's unexpected exit has left behind a political vacuum, which can become the source of considerable violence. The focus is on the elite Republican Guard, and its capacity to quell the armed tribes and possible remnants of a fracturing military, which might attempt a power grab.

Mr. Saleh's eldest son commands the Republican Guard and three of his nephews head the country's security and intelligence units. Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi is heading the government in Mr. Saleh's absence, but few merit him with the capacity to command mass support.

Within the opposition, the Saudi Arabia-backed Hamid al-Ahmar has emerged as the strongest counterweight to Mr. Saleh. A heavyweight within the Islamist anti-Saleh party, Islah, he is supported by General al-Ahmar of the breakaway First Armoured Division. However, observers say the two — through their influence within the tribal network and support from a section of the military — are mainly influential in north Yemen. But a serious national dialogue, which takes into account the aspirations of the youth as well as addresses the demands of southern separatist insurgency is yet to visibly commence.

Analysts say any post-Saleh dispensation will also have to contend with the al-Qaeda, active in central and south Yemen, and the Shia Houthi movement, which has been influential in the northern Saada mountains.

Anticipating a vast potential for violence, Reuters quoted Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of the Cornerstone Global Associates as saying: “There is a short window of opportunity for Saudi, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the West to salvage whatever they can in Yemen, and they need to act fast. We are entering a post-Saleh Yemen, which Saudi Arabia and the West may not be necessarily prepared for.”

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