In Yemen, celebrations and confusion after Saleh leaves

Fireworks lit up the sky last night after embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh left Yemen to Saudi Arabia for 'medical treatment,' but loyalist forces continue to battle tribal fighters.

Hani Mohammed/AP
Anti-government protestors spray foam and wave their national flags as they celebrate President Ali Abdullah Saleh's departure to Saudi Arabia, in Sanaa, Yemen, Sunday.

A myriad of colors lit up the sky in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, last night.

Celebratory fireworks were launched from Change Square as news broke of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s departure to Saudi Arabia for what the Yemeni government called “medical treatment” resulting from minor injuries it says he sustained during an attack on his presidential compound Friday.

Government officials insist Mr. Saleh will return and resume power after being treated, but Vice President Abd al-Rabo Mansur al-Hadi has been named acting president in Saleh’s absence.

The celebrations – most intense among the thousands of protesters who've been living for months in tents just outside Sanaa University and in other camps around the country – were interrupted at around 9 p.m., however, by the familiar sound of shelling.heard as artillery pounded the al-Habasa district of Sanaa where loyalist military forces and anti-government tribesmen have been battling for almost two straight weeks.

A cease-fire brokered by Saudi mediators earlier on Saturday had only held for a matter of hours. And while celebrations continued, residents and some protest leaders weren’t convinced that Saleh’s departure was the end of violence.

“This is not the end, by any stretch of the imagination,” says Jamal Nasser, spokesmen for the Coordinating Council of the Youth Revolution of Change, Yemen’s largest protest organization. “I just don’t feel like celebrations are appropriate at this point.”

Too early to celebrate?

While Saleh took most of his family with him to Saudi Arabia, his son Ahmed, commander of the Republican Guard, and his nephew Yahyha, commander of the Central Security Forces, remained behind to continue Saleh’s military campaign against the tribesmen in Sanaa.

Some frustrated activists refuse to join the celebrations.

“Our revolution was hijacked by the tribes," says Shatha al-Harazi, a young Yemeni journalist and activist. "How can we establish a civil state if tribes still wield so much power? They forced Saleh out with weapons and we failed to force him out with peace.”

What's next?

What comes next in Yemen’s power transfer, ironically, seems to be in line with a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) power transfer deal that was rejected by the former president and protesters alike.

“The first step of the GCC initiative was to name al-Hadi as acting president. The opposition is now pushing for presidential elections. It seems as though the GCC plan will be put into play after all,” says Yemeni political analyst Abdul Ghani al-Iryani. “But I’m sure of one thing – Saleh is not coming back to Yemen.”

Economic woes

As celebrations continue across the country, more stoic citizens still worry about the state of Yemen’s economy.

“Saleh is gone, thank God,” says Hussein Mohammed al-Harazi, a resident of Sanaa’s old city. “But I still can’t find water or fuel.”

Yemen has also been beset by a foreign currency shortage, forcing up the cost of imports, especially wheat. Yemen imports 20 percent of its wheat supply in addition to a large number of basic food goods such as sugar.

The establishment of a new government may need to take place incredibly quickly is Yemen is to stave off economic collapse.

“If we don’t find a solution to these basic problems, the economy will collapse by Ramadan [in August],” says one senior western diplomat.

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