There was much rejoicing in Yemen Sunday over the departure of Ali Abdallah Saleh, but the shelling and clashes that left more dead also signal that Saleh’s exit marks the beginning of a new phase that presents as much danger as the battle to remove the president.
Yemeni regime sources tried to spin Saleh’s trip to Saudi Arabia as a temporary visit, but all indications point to this dictator having served his last day in office. The Saudis, after months of trying to ease Saleh out through three failed deals to transfer power, will certainly exert more efforts to keep him from returning to Sanaa.
While the disgraced ruler might be out of the equation – and that is cause for joy – a broad consensus existed that he must go, so now a whole host of conflicting interests must be confronted. The questions is whether the people of Yemen, who demonstrated such admirable courage and restraint in demonstrating for months largely unarmed against a brutal and unscrupulous regime, can forge a new, democratic regime and will not let tribal animosities plunge the country into civil war.
The complexity of Yemen’s political dynamic almost makes Lebanon seem straightforward. Saleh’s sons remain behind in Yemen, as the official news agency ominously emphasized, and they control significant military forces – which evidently in Taiz Sunday opened fire on protesters who had stormed the presidential palace, as well as shelling the compounds of their main tribal opposition, the Ahmar clan.
Saleh’s eldest son Ahmed was being groomed as the despot’s successor, and with the Republican Guard under his control he will surely not cooperate warmly to hand over power to a new regime. Saleh’s allies are still many, and they have enjoyed enough perks under his misrule to fight for the preservation of the old autocracy. Furthermore, a strong secessionist movement exists in the south of the country. In the north, Houthi tribesmen have long clashed with government forces. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula also seems to be taking advantage of the turmoil to gain a foothold in the city of Zanzibar.
Meanwhile, the youth of Yemen who worked hardest for Saleh’s ouster will also find themselves colliding with mostly conservative tribesmen. All of these agendas will compete, of course, in the region’s poorest country and one of the world’s most heavily armed.
Regional and world powers will be paying close attention to Yemen – with so much of the world’s oil supply passing through the Red Sea – but they must proceed carefully. There are many wise Yemenis who led the struggle to get rid of Saleh, and now that he is mercifully gone, the international community must support these groups to build the democracy that Yemen deserves – for this post-Saleh stage, as all must realize, could also easily deteriorate into civil war and the dissolution of the country.