Dispatch: In Capital, the Shadow of Saleh Spoils the Party

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Ammar Awad / Reuters

Antigovernment protesters spray foam and wave the national flag in Sana'a on June 5, 2011, in celebration of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh's departure to Saudi Arabia

The echoes of the cries of joy could be heard throughout the Yemeni capital on Sunday morning, June 5. As news of President Ali Abdullah Saleh's departure for what was termed "medical treatment" in Saudi Arabia finally made its way to the stage at Change Square in Sana'a, thousands of protesters roared with complete jubilation. "The people have brought down the regime," they chanted in unison, slaughtering cows to feast on and spraying confetti into the thin mountain air of Sana'a.

For more than four months, the antiregime demonstrators occupying Change Square have weathered tear gas, high-pressure water cannons, police batons, Tasers and, in some cases, bullets flying from the barrels of AK-47s or mounted heavy machine guns. As participants in the longest-running protest movement in the Arab Spring, Yemenis were incredibly relieved to finally have a breakthrough after enduring so much violence. No matter that what ultimately forced Saleh out of the country was an attack on his presidential compound, those who have called the square home were just happy that Saleh caved to their demands to "get out."

But should they be so happy? Military checkpoints still dot the city; more ominously, soldiers of the Central Security Forces, the only Yemeni military branch that has remained ostensibly loyal to President Saleh, still roam the streets. Under the command of Saleh's eldest nephew, Yahya, these men are known for having itchy trigger fingers. All along the city's major thoroughfares, Yahya's men stare intently at passing traffic, looking down the barrels of Russian heavy machine guns mounted in the back of camouflage-painted pickup trucks.

Drivers who are stopped are always asked the same thing — "Are you carrying any weapons?" — and the response is the same as well: "No, no weapons, I swear to God," they say nervously, both hands on the steering wheel. Unlike his uncle, Yahya and his men have not left Sana'a. Nor has Saleh's eldest son, Ahmed, who is in command of the Republican Guard.

The continued presence of loyalist military units throughout the country has convinced some protest leaders that the celebrations may be premature. "I'm happy, yes, but I am still very suspicious," says Adel al-Surabi, a longtime protest organizer in the capital. "I'm just not sure of anything yet. No one really is."

Al-Surabi may be correct. Yemeni officials are insisting that Saleh's visit to Riyadh is only a temporary one and that he will return to Yemen once he is healthy enough to resume work. "The President will return to Sana'a after he has recovered from his medical procedures. There is no doubt in this," says a Yemeni government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

While some protesters remain defiant in the face of Saleh's imminent return, others are more cautious. "Things are so uncertain, we just don't know what is going through Saleh's head," says Yemeni writer and activist Ibrahim al-Mothana. "He is an incredibly unpredictable and wily man. Maybe he won't come back. We certainly hope he doesn't. But the truth is, depending on his condition, he could return at any moment."

Among the defiant protesters is Mohammed al-Qadi, a tribesmen from the village of Arhab, just outside of Sana'a. "We won't let him back in this country," he says. "We'll seize the airport before he sets another foot in Yemen." He points to a soldier dancing happily in celebration with the protesters he had been sent to protect. "We have the Brigade," he adds, referring to the 1st Armored Division, which defected from the regime and is known as simply "the Brigade" among Yemenis.

Since the Brigade's defection, however, their commander Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar has never ordered his men to advance on loyalist positions. Indeed, even though protesters on the march have come under fire from plainclothes gunmen just a short distance outside Change Square, the Brigade soldiers have never left their posts to return fire.

The daylight celebrations were soon replaced by the uncertainties of night — and the breaching of the second cease-fire arranged by the Saudis in less than 24 hours. Soldiers under the command of Saleh's son and nephew resumed artillery bombardments of tribal positions in Sana'a again on Sunday. For the 12th day in a row, Sana'a sleeps to the sound of consistent shelling.