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.

In the statement, Saleh's appearance is shocking. He sits rigidly, his hands bandaged and his face noticeably darker, likely the result of the burns that news reports say cover as much as 40 percent of his body and of the eight surgeries he has undergone in the past month. He wears a dishdasha and a red-checked kaffiyeh, and white stubble can be seen on his face and neck. He looks years removed from the stout, confident autocrat of just a few weeks ago. His message, though, stayed the same. Saleh said once again that he will accept reform, but only under the auspices of the Yemeni constitution -- that is to say, he will either finish his term or be voted out under a transition that he himself oversees. He again compared the situation to the 1994 civil war, an implicit warning that the country could dissolve into violence. In his most patronizing moment, he told his country that they do not understand democracy.

In the Yemeni stalemate, inaction will not be an effective strategy for Saleh for much longer. While the factions in Sanaa may have been paralyzed for the past month, now that Saleh has appeared again, only to reiterate his unwillingness to meet the opposition's primary demands, the stasis that has characterized the past month may begin to lift. While the political situation has stagnated, the country's economy and security have deteriorated dramatically.

Opposition groups are beginning to make serious efforts to create a transitional council, a collection of officials selected without consultation with the Saleh regime, to rule in place of the government until elections are held. However, with the opposition increasingly fragmented, it is unclear who would be responsible for the council, or if there would be more than one. By the end of June, the Civic Coalition for the Revolutionary Youth, a politically independent youth movement, was circulating a framework for a transitional council. Within the past week, the Joint Meeting Parties, the coalition of opposition political parties, has announced their own plan to declare a transitional council, but it is unclear if it will have the support of all the JMP parties. The faltering unaligned youth movement and the overtly political JMP are jockeying for leadership of the revolution, and the distrust between them is growing to such an extent that some protest camps are now segregated along partisan lines.

The arbiters of Yemen's fate will likely be, as they long have been, the tribes. Given the al Ahmar family's relationship with the JMP, it is likely their council will carry Yemen's future. As go the tribes, so too goes the military; if the tribal-military bloc can be maintained, the remnants of Saleh's regime will eventually be forced to cave to this political reality. But key questions remain unanswered. What will happen if the Republican Guard resists violently? What will become of the youth movement? Or the south, where separatist groups operate? And will Yemen have a single cent or drop of oil left to finance its new state?

Don't let the calm in Sanaa fool you. This isn't over.