Saleh returns to Yemen at tensest time in months

Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh returned to Yemen today after months of recuperating in Saudi Arabia. Whether his return will prolong or bring to an end the country's instability is unclear.

Ahmed Jadallah/Reurters
Anti-government protesters attend a rally demanding the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa, today. Saleh unexpectedly returned to Yemen on Friday after three months in Saudi Arabia recovering from an assassination attempt, raising the risk of further violence and civil war.
Hani Mohammed/AP/File
Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh returned Friday to the violence-torn Yemeni capital after more than three months of medical treatment in Saudi Arabia.

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Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh returned to Sanaa today after more than three months away, and in the midst of the country's most violent week since June.

More than 100 people have died in the capital since Sunday, and many believe the fighting will intensify now that Mr. Saleh has returned, despite his immediate call for a ceasefire. Some in Yemen even warn that Saleh's return will tip the country into civil war – a possibility it's been facing for a week now.

Clashes between government troops and security forces and defected soldiers have raged for days. Tribal fighters joined in against government forces on Thursday, according to The New York Times, bringing the situation closer to where it was in June, when confused, fierce fighting in the capital also had the country on the brink of civil war. Saleh was severely wounded in June's fighting and left for Saudi Arabia to recover.

His return is "like gasoline on a raging fire," writes Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright fellow in Yemen.

Saleh's return comes at the worst possible moment for the country. Fighting has recently broken out between army units loyal to him and his family and those on the side of the uprising, while tribes backing each side have also recently begun fighting again in different parts of Sanaa.

… His presence in Sanaa is likely to galvanize people on both sides, further trenching warring interests that have already been using heavy munitions against one another.

International observers orchestrated a ceasefire on Tuesday in hopes of creating a window for a reform process that would include Saleh ceding power, but it broke down hours later, BBC reports. Whether Saleh's declared ceasefire will stick is unclear. Many believe Saleh will turn to violence, rather than continue the negotiation process, Reuters reports.

"This is an ominous sign, returning at a time like this probably signals he intends to use violence to resolve this. This is dangerous," said Abdulghani al-Iryani, a political analyst and co-founder of the Democratic Awakening Movement.

"His people will feel that they are in a stronger position and they will refuse to compromise. Basically this means the political process is dead in the water."

Before this week's fighting erupted, Yemeni politicians were "days away" from finalizing a power transfer agreement, according to Reuters. Saleh backed out of three previous plans brokered by the regional economic bloc, the Gulf Cooperation Council.

BBC reports that both Saleh's supporters and the antigovernment protesters have plans to hold rallies following Friday prayers.

The protesters who launched the uprising in February are still camped out in an area of the city dubbed "Change Square." Their movement has remained nonviolent, although their protest camp has become a semi-frequent target of snipers suspected of having ties to the government. The Times describes them as caught in the crossfire between the various armed groups in Sanaa.

Protesters are unsure whether Saleh's return will drag out the violence or bring it to a swifter end. Some hope that because Saleh is back, he can more easily be punished if he is removed from power, The Washington Post reports.

“It doesn’t mean anything to us whether the president is in the country or out of the country,” said Mohammed Qahtan, spokesman for the Joint Meeting Parties, the main coalition of opposition parties. “Our revolution started when the president was in good health and we are going to continue with our revolution until the fall of the regime.”

Some youth activist leaders, however, welcomed Saleh’s return, saying that it would bring fresh momentum to their calls for him to step down. They said they wanted him to return in order to try him one day for crimes committed during his rule, including the deaths of scores of protesters by government-backed snipers.

Saudi Arabia, which hosted the injured Saleh for months, is the country with the most leverage over the president, but it too seems unsure what its next move will be. Analysts believe members of the Saudi royal family unanimously believe Saleh has to give up power but are unsure whether they support the idea of a democratic government. They are also reportedly undecided about who, among the country's various tribal, political, and military leaders, they want to throw their weight behind, Reuters reports.

Johnsen writes that Saleh seems to be looking to foment, not tamp down, his country's chaos.

Whatever Salih says and does today, few will trust his intentions.

Back in the spring, when things were just getting started, Saleh warned that if he left Yemen would crumble into chaos – it looks as though he is doing his best to make that a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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