Yemen Prepares for Future Without Saleh

The president's month-long absence has left the capital in a precarious stalemate, with Yemeni leaders unsure of what comes next

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A lethargic and visibly burned Saleh appears on Yemeni state TV / Reuters

One month ago, Yemen seemed ready to collapse. The reconciliation deal advanced by the Gulf Cooperation Council and the United States to end the political crisis had fallen through once again after Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh refused, at the last moment, to sign it. What followed was two weeks of violence pitting Saleh and his remaining loyalist military forces against Sheikh Sadiq al Ahmar, the head of the Hashid Tribal Federation, the most powerful tribal organization in the country. The diverse coalition that made up what is now a nearly six-month-long protest movement was fracturing under the stress of being pulled in too many directions. On June 3, a bomb detonated in Saleh's private mosque, severely wounding him and killing several senior members of his government. Within 48 hours, Saleh was in Saudi Arabia for emergency medical treatment.

Then, on the cusp of civil war, nothing happened.

Today, Yemen's political situation remains in critical condition, but has maintained a fragile stasis since Saleh's departure. "Tenuous" is the word of the moment, in describing the ceasefire between the tribes and the government, the relations between the factions within the opposition movement, and the understanding between Saleh's vice president, Abd Rabu Mansur Hadi, and Saleh's son, Ahmed, who commands Yemen's Republican Guard forces. There has been some movement: the United States has resuscitated the thrice-failed and severely flawed reconciliation deal and the political opposition is discussing forming a transitional government on its own to circumvent Saleh. For the moment, though, all factions in Sanaa seem to be waiting on Saleh's next move.

Saleh, meanwhile, spent the entire month in media silence. However, plenty of people claimed to speak on his behalf, leading to a contradictory mess of headlines. Some Yemeni officials predicted Saleh's imminent return to Sanaa, others a lengthy convalescence in Saudi Arabia; Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al Qirbi claimed the president authorized a dialogue to begin the transition outlined in the unsigned Gulf Cooperation Council deal, while Vice President Hadi has proposed a plan that would allow Saleh to return to Yemen and hand over only some responsibilities while presiding over an indefinite interim before elections. On his blog, Jeb Boone, special correspondent for the Washington Post in Sanaa, summed up the situation, "In short, no one knows what the hell is happening in Yemen or in Saleh's hospital bed."

Waiting on dictators' speeches has become a pastime of Middle East revolutionaries and analysts, whether it be a two-day postponement for a speech from Syria's Bashar al Assad or an all-day hype for a twenty-second statement from Libya's Muammar Qaddafi. In recent weeks, Saleh has taken this to new lengths. A Yemeni film crew traveled to Riyadh on June 27 to interview Saleh, but two days later a Yemeni diplomat announced that Saleh's condition did not allow a media appearance. Despite this, Saleh recorded a statement that week, to be broadcast "after Thursday," June 30. Finally, on July 7, the footage was shown on Yemen state television.

Presented by

J. Dana Stuster, a Joseph S. Nye National Security Research Intern at Center for a New American Security, is a writer living in Washington, DC.

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