Saleh’s Departure for Treatment Deepens Yemen Power Vacuum

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh
Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's president, at a military parade on the national day of Yemen's unity in Sana'a, on May 21. Photographer: Gamal Noman/AFP/Getty Images

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s supporters and his opponents agree on his decision to hand power to his vice president while receiving treatment in Saudi Arabia for wounds from a blast at his compound. They disagree on whether he’ll ever return.

Vice President Abduraboo Mansur Hadi is assuming Saleh’s duties “until the president returns,” Abdu al-Janadi, the deputy information minister, said in a phone interview from Sana’a, the capital. That will be within a few days, Hadi said yesterday, according to state news agency Saba.

U.S. officials said today that Saleh’s injuries from the June 3 attack on his presidential palace are worse than has been reported by Yemeni officials and state media, raising doubts about his ability to return soon. The Yemeni leader has bad burns on his face and 40 percent of his body, according to two U.S. officials in Washington not authorized to speak on the record. His injuries do not appear to be life threatening, they said.

In Yemen, protesters have celebrated Saleh’s exit as an opening to achieve what the four-month uprising has so far failed to do: end Saleh’s rule.

“There’s a power vacuum that’s opening up,” said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “It’s probably the worst-case scenario because there’s no clear succession pattern that is acceptable to all parties.”

Next Somalia?

Violence in the Arab region’s poorest country threatens to mirror the situation across the Gulf of Aden in Somalia, which has been mired in a civil war for two decades and hasn’t had a functioning central government since 1991.

“The instability and lack of security afflicting Yemen cannot be addressed until there’s some process that’s going to lead to the economic and political reforms” the people are seeking, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday at the State Department.

Fighting flared overnight and continued today in Taiz, Yemen’s second-largest city. Explosions and gunfire were heard in many parts of the southern city, amid shelling by army tanks, resident Yahia Ali said by telephone.

The clashes killed four soldiers and wounded 10, Abdulqawi Shalan, a protest activist, said by phone. Two civilians died and 10 were hurt, said Mohammed al-Rumaim, another protest activist. Earlier violence in Taiz was triggered by the killing of anti-government protesters by Saleh’s security forces.

Al-Qaeda Threat

Saleh’s government has said rising social unrest threatens to strengthen al-Qaeda, a concern also expressed by the U.S. The group has sought to use Yemen as a base from which to destabilize neighboring Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest exporter of crude oil, and for attempted attacks on international targets including two U.S. synagogues last year.

Protests have persisted since the government and the main opposition group, the Joint Meetings Parties, failed three times to sign a plan brokered by the Arab Gulf states. Under the terms of the U.S.-backed proposal, Saleh would have ceded power within a month of signing the deal and would be granted immunity from prosecution. A transition would follow within 60 days.

The president left for Saudi Arabia on June 4 for medical treatment after being wounded by a rocket that slammed into the mosque in his presidential compound. Sixteen people were killed in the attack and more than 100 wounded, Janadi said.

The opposition says his departure means the first part of the plan has taken place. The Joint Meeting Parties say they are drafting proposals to form a transitional government if the power transfer to Saleh’s vice president doesn’t happen.

‘Saleh is Out’

“Saleh is out,” said Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani, a founder of the Democratic Awakening Movement, which was set up to push for the establishment of democracy. “We’re one-third of the way into peaceful transfer of power.”

The original agreement was brokered by ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait. The bloc abandoned efforts to broker peace in Yemen after Saleh refused to sign the accord on May 22.

The attack on Saleh came as his security forces were embroiled in gun battles with supporters of Sadiq al-Ahmar, the head of the influential al-Hashid tribe to which the president belongs. Saleh blamed al-Ahmar for the rocket assault.

The gun battles have overshadowed months of protests that began with small demonstrations in January and grew into massive rallies a month later calling on Saleh to leave power.


Word of Saleh’s arrival in Saudi Arabia sparked an outbreak of dancing, singing and fireworks among thousands of Yemenis gathered in Taghyeer, or Change, Square, site of the protesters’ camp city.

“His departure has destabilized the regime,” activist Bilquis al-Lahabi said June 5. “And this is an achievement for the revolution.”

Saleh’s supporters have shrugged off the opposition’s assertions, saying the government’s power base remains intact and the presidential guard and special forces are still under the control of the president’s sons and nephews.

“The opposition is daydreaming,” Janadi said yesterday in a telephone interview from Sana’a. “Ali Abdullah Saleh is still president and he will remain so until his term ends in 2013 or until peaceful dialogue leads to an orderly transition of power.”

‘Work as Usual’

Industry and Trade Minister Hisham Sharaf said members of Yemen’s government have resumed their duties. “It’s work as usual,” he said in a telephone interview. The protests have cost Yemen $4 billion and a growing deficit threatens to destroy the country, Sharaf said in an interview May 24.

If Yemenis cannot quickly agree on who’s in charge, Yemen will descend into more turmoil, said analysts such as April Longley Alley, the senior Arabian Peninsula analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

The government’s grip on the country, which was tenuous before the uprising, may be slipping. In the coastal city of Zanjibar, Islamist gunmen last month occupied government buildings amid claims that groups such as al-Qaeda are exploiting unrest caused by the protests and violence.

Law and order in Taiz, scene of a government crackdown on protesters that left at least 21 people dead last month, has broken down completely since security forces pulled out, Alley said.

“If there is no agreement on how to move forward very quickly, you’re going to see the repercussions of this power vacuum even more than what we’re seeing right now,” she said.

More than 2,000 people protested Tuesday in front of the house of the acting president Hadi, demanding that he establish a national governing council that accommodates people from across the political spectrum.

The organizing committee of the Popular Youth Revolution has called in an e-mailed statement for massive rallies tomorrow, to call for an end to Saleh regime and creation of such a council along with a unity government until a parliamentary and presidential vote is organized.

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