After months of dodging promises to step down, President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen has exited — in a somewhat unexpected manner — after being wounded in rocket fire by opposition forces targeting the presidential palace in Sana'a. While his departure has led to rejoicing in Yemen, the next steps in a volatile country where al- Qaeda is feared to have a significant presence are far from clear. From January 2011, anti-government street protests put increasing pressure on Mr. Saleh to remit office. It is unlikely that the Yemen strongman, who ruled for 33 years beginning as the President of North Yemen in 1978, will return to his country from Saudi Arabia where he was flown for treatment of his wounds. Even if he overcomes his injuries, Saudi Arabia, which shares a border with Yemen and is nervous that the protests in its neighbourhood may spread to its soil if not ended swiftly, will do everything to prevent his return. An indication of this came with the Saudi regime joining the United States in the call for the swift implementation of a Gulf Cooperation Council plan for a transition in Yemen. The GCC plan envisages Mr. Saleh's resignation in return for immunity for himself and his family members, and a caretaker government that will hold parliamentary elections within 90 days. Three times he accepted the plan only to change his mind at the last minute, setting his forces on the protesters, raising the spectre of a civil war as Yemen's fractious tribes joined the fighting on both sides. It may be easier now to persuade him to sign on the dotted line. Indeed, the first step in the plan, handing over the reins of government to the Vice-President, has already been accomplished with his exit. But Mr. Saleh's family members remain in charge, with control of the intelligence service and the Army. Making them cede power peacefully may not be easy.
In these circumstances, a democratic election is hardly in sight. Unlike in other countries touched by the “jasmine revolution,” the mass protests in Yemen do seem to have an identifiable leadership. Initially propelled by youth and ordinary people, the movement could not have survived six months but for the backing of an important opposition leader from a rival tribe, Hamid Al Ahmar, a telecom tycoon who is said to have funded the protests. His brothers are also key figures in the movement. An important military general also defected and has claimed to support the protests. What is of concern here is that their opposition to the Saleh regime is based more on tribal and personal rivalries than on any commitment to democratic values. If Yemen is at the cusp of real change, it is as yet hard to see.