Has he really gone?
No one is betting yet on President Ali Abdullah Saleh actually ceding power
Dec 3rd 2011 | CAIRO | from the print edition
CELEBRATORY fireworks and gunfire lit up the skies across Yemen on November 23rd, after Ali Abdullah Saleh, the mountainous country’s president for the past 33 years, signed an agreement in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, to surrender power to a caretaker government. Yet happiness at Mr Saleh’s apparent exit was so tempered with other worries that the joy was painfully fleeting. Indeed, few are certain that Mr Saleh, famed for his guile, is sincere in promising to bow out for good.
According to the agreement, first proposed by Yemen’s rich neighbours in the Gulf Co-operation Council back in May, the 67-year-old leader retains the honorary title of president while transferring responsibilities to his longstanding vice-president, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The self-effacing Mr Hadi has vowed to be inclusive, and took an encouraging first step by choosing Muhammad Basindwa, a respected opposition politician from Yemen’s restive south, to form a national unity cabinet. Mr Hadi also set a date, February 21st, for presidential elections.
Yet Mr Saleh has found ways to signal his continuing influence. He had said he would fly from Riyadh to the United States to continue treatment for injuries he suffered in an assassination attempt in June. Instead, he returned to his palace in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a. His family and allies still dominate the security forces, in particular elite army units and the air force. As if to underline that nothing has changed on the ground in the stand-off between his men and the mix of students, opposition parties, rebel tribes and defecting army brigades that have faced each other since January, loyalist forces continued to attack protesters, most recently in Yemen’s second biggest city, Taiz.
Aside from fearing that such clashes could erupt into full-scale civil war, Mr Saleh’s opponents are angry that the Riyadh agreement grants him and his family judicial immunity. The ruling clan is not only widely perceived as corrupt. It is also held responsible for killing and wounding hundreds of Yemenis during the recent protests. In any case, many protesters distrust the formal opposition, which has in the past formed cosy tactical alliances with Mr Saleh’s long-ruling General People’s Congress party. Hence the continuation of mass sit-ins such as the one that was attacked in Taiz on November 30th.
Whether Mr Saleh stays or goes, Yemen will continue to suffer other chronic and potentially explosive troubles. Yemen is the Arab world’s poorest country; 43% of its 25m people are under 15, 74% under 30. Half are jobless. Water is running out. Even in Sana’a barely half the people are connected to water mains, which tend to come on stream only once or twice a week. Given the country’s precarious politics, foreign donors are likely to shy away from giving more aid.
Along the border with Saudi Arabia in the far north, a rebellion that has made 300,000 people homeless since 2004 still simmers. A rocket attack by Houthi rebels, who present themselves as champions of Yemen’s large Zaydi Shia community, killed some 24 students, many of them foreigners, at a religious school run by ultra-orthodox Sunnis near the town of Saada on November 29th. The Yemeni south, meanwhile, suffers the dual challenge of a strong separatist movement and intense activity by jihadists aligned to al-Qaeda.
One of Mr Saleh’s well-tested survival tactics was to stoke problems that only he had the key to resolve. Even with him gone, these hideous problems remain.