With Saleh in Limbo, Yemen Protesters and Military Play a High-Stakes Power Game

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Hani Mohammed / AP

Members of the Yemeni security forces take up positions inside the Ministry of Industry and Trade, during clashes with tribesmen, loyal to Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar, the head of the powerful Hashid tribe, in Sanaa, Yemen, June 8, 2011.

For the first time in 13 days, a lull has descended upon the fierce fighting between armed tribesmen and forces loyal to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The consistent shelling and gunfire in the capital city of Sana'a have been replaced by a tense quiet, with most residents still choosing to stay in their homes or flee to ancestral villages.

After an attack on his presidential compound, Saleh, 69, is now lying in a Saudi hospital recovering from what U.S. officials said were burns to over 40% of his body. Should that statistic be accurate, it is unlikely a man of his age would be able to survive. That possibility has begun circulating among the anti-Saleh demonstrators. Dr. Hamaza Alshargabi, a physician who has been volunteering his services at the Change Square protest camp field hospital in Sana'a, treating bullet wounds, trauma, and asphyxiation from tear gas fumes, says that, based on the reports, the president's prognosis is dire. "A man that is nearly 70 such as the president would not be able to survive such severe injuries," says the doctor.

Nevertheless, the Yemeni Government has pledged that Saleh will return as soon as he is able. In a statement, it declared that "Consistent with the nation's constitutional process, [His Excellency] Vice President Abdu Rabo Mansour Hadi is the acting president in charge of the caretaker government during President Saleh's temporary medical leave. President Saleh will return to Yemen from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to re-assume his duties soon after he recovers."

In the meantime, as Saleh's health hangs in the balance in Saudi Arabia, his home country sits in limbo as major power brokers look to make their bids for power in his absence. The president's son, Ahmed, commander of the country's Republican Guard, has taken up residence in the palace. While he relaxes in his father's seat of power, some say that Ahmed has neither the credibility nor the connections to hold the fractured nation together as his father did. "Saleh's boys don't have a chance at ruling Yemen," says Yemeni political analyst Abdul Ghani al-Iryani. "Even with all of Saleh's skills and connections, he was losing control of the country. However, the sticky issue is the manner of Saleh's return. Should Ahmed or his nephew Yahya [commander of the ostensibly loyal Central Security Forces] feel his exit is dishonorable, they may be compelled to take up arms again all that oppose their patriarch."

As for Saleh's deputy, Abd Rabo Mansur Hadi is a characteristically weak figure, with no units of the military loyal to him personally. In a statement he provided to the ruling party committee, the vice president, in a shaky voice, simply said that Saleh's return was imminent, refusing to accept the responsibilities of acting president. Hadi's obvious ambivalence to assume power was something glaringly obvious to Yemen's pro-democracy protesters. On Tuesday afternoon, they pounced on the opportunity to force the reluctant vice president to pass on his responsibilities to a transitional government. The demonstrators marched on his residence, just a few yards outside of the protest camp's borders. Thousands streamed out of the square, screaming "Stay out, Ali! Stay out!"

Curiously, men loyal to the most prominent military defector to the protesters' side, General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, had surrounded the vice president's home and stopped the protesters from reaching the gates of his palatial estate. After setting up camp and pledging to stage a sit-in for 24 hours, the protesters were dispersed by the soldiers who had protected them since March. It appears as if Mohsen may have chosen to use Hadi as his surrogate in the political maneuverings — and provided him with the requisite military protection to be part of the game.

The Al-Ahmar family and the Hashid tribal confederation they control, while quieted for now, still maintain their positions in northern Sana'a. (General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar is not related to the al-Ahmar family that dominates the tribal militia.) Surrounding the Al-Hasaba area of the capital are checkpoints manned by tribesmen brandishing AK-47's, RPK heavy machine guns, Dragunov sniper rifles, RPG's, and shoulder mounted missile launchers. Their ammunition vests are quite nearly bursting at the seams — gun barrels bearing down on traffic in the distance from bunkers built with sandbags stacked seven high.

The tribesmen communicate through CB radio handsets, directing forces and coordinating with commanders to allow certain supply trucks to move into the area. "Traffic has picked up towards the south, send more men to the checkpoint," said one tribesman on his radio, sniper rifle slung over his shoulder.

Throughout the city lies proof of the tit-for-tat combat between Saleh loyalists and anti-regime forces. In front of the home Sadeq al-Ahmar, Hashid's most prominent sheikh, lies twisted metal that has fallen from the headquarters of Yemenia Airways, the state run airline. The 10-story building had been shelled over the last few days by Saleh loyalists. Its windows have been blown out and parts of the building's facade litter the street.

Meanwhile, the headquarters of Saleh's ruling party, the General People's Congress, is located within the territory that was taken by the tribesmen. An enormous portrait of President Saleh adorns the entrance of the building, peering over a high stone wall, pock marked with bullet holes. Two sandbag bunkers housing 10 tribesmen now block the entrance to the building, "Get out" spray-painted in Arabic on the heavily fortified front gate of the building. The more appropriate slogan now may be "Stay out."