By Arab News
The injuries suffered by Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Friday’s assassination attempt, and which forced his hurried departure to the Kingdom for treatment, adds a whole new dimension to the conflict now raging in his country. It is not clear when and if Saleh will return. Should he not go back, the protests, which erupted because of him, might stop. Or a power struggle, which is sure to ensue, might begin. Or the tribal street fighting which coopted the initially peaceful demonstrations might continue.
There are several questions which need answers in the next few critical days. Yemen’s constitution calls for the vice president to take over in the absence of the president, However, Saleh also has been widely believed to be grooming his son, Ahmed, as a successor and he is believed to have stayed behind in an apparent bid to hold on to power, raising concern the country could descend into a violent power struggle as the sides jockey to fill the vacuum in the president’s absence. Nor do we know whether acting president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, neither tried nor tested, can calm the situation down.
The unrest in Yemen has degenerated from a majority mass protest with a defined agenda of more basic freedoms and rights modeled on the Tunisian and Egyptian experience to a free-for-all of competing militia tribes and powerful families and confederations. This flux between what was once clear and what is now very confusing has had deadly consequences. Some 160 people died in the past two weeks alone when rebellious tribesmen and government forces clashed — against 150 killed since the uprising began in mid-February. Violence reached a crescendo Friday when a rocket slammed into the mosque in the presidential compound during a prayer service, killing 11 bodyguards and seriously injuring five top officials who were praying along with Saleh.
There is also the threat of Al-Qaeda which is exploiting the unrest. More than 200 Al-Qaeda fighters took over the capital of the southern province of Abyan in Zinjubar, and declared it an Islamic emirate after they “cleansed” it of the “agents of Americans”, raising the number of Al-Qaeda “emirates” to two within the past two months. Saleh has constantly warned that Al-Qaeda would take over should he leave office. Saleh must have said this to threaten his supporters, but the fact remains that Al-Qaeda is making use of the unrest more than any other party. It may perceive Yemen to be weak and use the power vacuum to its advantage. There are also other groups or disgruntled tribes and influential figures in other regions who refuse to use peaceful means. Though not allied with Al-Qaeda or sharing its ideology, they may play into the hands of Al-Qaeda.
Because it shares a border with Yemen, it is imperative that the Kingdom use its good offices, which it has, with the Yemeni government and the opposition to stop the fighting. Now that Saleh is in Saudi territory, perhaps he can be persuaded to sign a deal brokered by the Gulf states which he thrice reneged on but which allows him to leave office with dignity.
Saleh’s wounds incurred from the rocket attack are not life threatening. He disembarked from his plane in Riyadh unaided, serving up the possibility that he might return. He has, after all, proven his resilience for the past 32 years. But Yemen has awakened without Saleh in total command. This new dawn might in other times have brought a sigh of relief. But these are anxious, uncertain times in Yemen, now rudderless and as such, its destination unclear.