Yemen's Saleh could be away for months, complicating transition plans

Yemen's political opposition and protesters are pushing for an immediate transition amid reports that Saleh's injuries are worse than previously admitted. But his supporters are intent on his return.

By , Staff writer

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    Antigovernment protesters read local newspapers featuring on the front page a photograph of Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and a headline that reads in Arabic, 'What's after Ali Abdullah Saleh,' in Sanaa, Yemen, on Tuesday, June 7. US officials said Tuesday that Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was more badly injured than thought in a blast at his compound last week, complicating the US response to increased instability in a key battleground in the war against Al Qaeda.
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The disclosure that Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh could spend months convalescing from injuries more severe than previously reported is spurring political maneuvering as a potential power vacuum looms. Amid ongoing fighting in Yemen's capital between Saleh loyalists and rebel tribesmen, political opposition and youth protesters are pressuring the acting president to finalize Mr. Saleh's ouster.

President Saleh was injured on June 3 when his presidential compound was shelled by opposition tribesmen. The attack has reportedly left him burns on 40 percent of his body, including his face, some of them severe. Citing unnamed Arab and Western diplomats, The New York Times reports that Saleh is expected to need far more than the few days of recovery first predicted by Yemeni officials.

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Saleh's extended stay in Saudi Arabia is likely to complicate Yemeni, Saudi, and US efforts to transition to a post-Saleh era. The US and Saudi Arabia have both pushed for Saleh's resignation in recent weeks, but no consensus has been reached on how to proceed now that he is in the hospital. Reports of his condition in Yemen vary with the Yemenis' political wishes, the Times reported: Those who want Saleh to remain in power downplay his injuries and say he is returning soon, while those who want him out say he is severely injured.

The political opposition coalition is pushing Vice President Abdul Rabu Mansoor Hadi, who has been named acting president in Saleh's absence, to formally assume the president's powers, Bloomberg reports. Hundreds protested in front of his home on Tuesday to demand action.

“The president is no longer president,” Mohammed al-Mutawakkil a member of the main opposition Joint Meeting Parties, said in a telephone interview from the capital, Sana’a. “He’s out of the game.” Al-Mutawakkil said the group will give Vice President Abduraboo Mansur Hadi a few days to “resolve this issue.”

An extended absence from the country will likely speed up the political transition, The Washington Post reports. The US and Saudi Arabia will have more time to persuade him to resign and not return, and it may drive home to his supporters that his rule is over, mitigating their defiance. That may leave a window for the approval of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) proposal, which lays out a plan for a transitional government and new elections within 60 days of Saleh's resignation.

The US hope is that the longer Saleh is out of the country, the more likely his supporters will be to realize that the GCC proposal is their best option. The political opposition has pushed acceptance of the proposal and said it will take it upon itself to appoint a transitional government and hold elections if Mr. Hadi does not take over the transition process, Bloomberg reports.

In Sanaa, the youth protesters who started the uprising in February see Saleh's departure from Yemen as an opportunity to push democratic reforms. “We have to take advantage of this moment,” Sanaa University student Riyad Zindani told The Washington Post. “A chance has been given to us on a plate of gold.”

Meanwhile, violence continues in Yemen's south, highlighting the precarious state that Saleh left the country in and the consequences if the power vacuum is not filled soon.

Militants and the Yemeni army clashed Tuesday in Abyan province in the far south, an Islamist militant stronghold. Taiz, in south-central Yemen, also saw violence. A truce in Sanaa, engineered by the Saudis on June 5, is still holding, but the mood in the capital is tense, The Washington Post reported. The Post adds that Saleh loyalists may be fostering the violence to illustrate what happens when Saleh is not leading the country.

UN children's agency UNICEF warned that months of unrest have left the country on the brink of a humanitarian disaster, Reuters reports. Widespread food shortages are endangering Yemeni children and fuel shortages are exacerbating the difficulty of transporting what food and water remain in the country.

UN agencies worry that the number of internally displaced Yemenis could climb as high as 40,000. Many of them are fleeing to the country's rural areas, which are barely capable of sustaining their full-time residents. In the south, there were reports of cholera.

"People are very, very distressed and very, very scared. People are comparing the situation with the previous wars in Yemen. They are scared of the violence and the looting," said Geert Cappelaere, the UNICEF representative in Yemen.

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