News / Middle East

After President's Departure, Yemen Braces for Transition of Leadership

Meredith Buel

Yemen’s outgoing president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is in Oman and has been given a visa to enter the United States for medical treatment.  President Saleh left Yemen following nearly a year of protests against his rule that left hundreds dead.  

Inspired by protests across the Arab world, demonstrators in Yemen took to the streets to demand the ouster of President Saleh, who has ruled the country with an iron hand for more than three decades.

Mohammed Ahmed is one of those protesters.

“Saleh tore this country into pieces," he said. "He made this country a place for tribal feuds, racism and encouraged distinctions between the people.”

President Saleh agreed to transfer power only after parliament passed a controversial law granting him immunity from prosecution.

In what was described as a farewell address, Mr. Saleh was contrite.  

“If shortcomings occurred during my 33-year term, then I ask for forgiveness and I apologize to all the citizens of Yemen," said Saleh.

Last June, a bomb attack on Mr. Saleh’s presidential compound left him severely wounded.  He spent several months recuperating in Saudi Arabia.

The Yemeni president is expected to seek additional medical care in the United States, where officials have stressed his stay will not be permanent.

White House spokesman Jay Carney reiterated the U.S. position.

“The purpose of this travel is for medical treatment alone," said Carney. "And we expect that he will stay for a limited time that corresponds to the duration of this treatment.”

Yemen is a major security concern for the United States because it has been a haven for Islamic militants linked to al-Qaida.

Parts of the country are plagued by kidnappings, banditry and violent tribal feuds that appear beyond the control of the central government.

Marina Ottaway is a Middle East expert with the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment.

“I think our goals in Yemen are very narrow and it is to thwart al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and maintain enough stability so people don’t get killed day, after day, after day," she said.

Protesters are demanding the removal of Mr. Saleh’s family members from positions of power out of concern he will still be able to control key components of the country.

Ginny Hill directs the Yemen Forum at British-based research institution Chatham House:

“The question will be to what extent the president’s son and his nephews and his other relatives are able to retain control over military units, over business interests and over political power," said Hill.

President Saleh has vowed to return to Yemen and analysts such as the Carnegie Endowment 's Marina Ottoway say he could make a political comeback.

“You don’t stay in power that long in that part of the world if you are not a very astute politician with plenty of contacts, with a large network and Saleh has all that," she said. "So the possibility of a comeback can never be completely ruled out.”

A presidential election is scheduled for February 21, but it is not clear if that will end the political crisis and the chaos that have rocked Yemen over the past year.

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