Yemen's Next Crises: Giving Saleh the Push May Have Been the Easy Part

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Khaled Abdullah / Reuters

Yemeni protesters walk past soldiers loyal to President Ali Abdullah Saleh as they march to demand his trial in Sana'a on Nov. 27, 2011

A rare moment of jubilation erupted in Sana'a on Nov. 23 as Yemenis gathered around their television sets to watch their ruler, Ali Abdullah Saleh, sign a deal transferring power to his deputy, effectively ending his 33-year grip on power. Grainy images on state TV showed a grinning Saleh seated next to Saudi King Abdullah in an ornate palace hall in Riyadh. Saleh chuckled briefly as he signed four copies of the U.S.-backed proposal which will see him retain the honorary title of President until a new head of state is elected in February. He then joined in on an ensuing round of applause.

"This disagreement for the last 10 months has had a big impact on Yemen in the realms of culture, development, politics, which led to a threat to national unity and destroyed what has been built in past years," he told a flock of Saudi sheiks, foreign ambassadors and tired-looking U.N. diplomats perched on a line of gold-crested chairs. "I declare the turning of a new page in the history of Yemen," said King Abdullah in a closing statement after the signing ceremony.

Saleh had balked at a signing on three previous occasions, and so seeing the deed done and attested too came as a relief to many Yemenis, exhausted and terrified after almost 10 months of bloodshed, political deadlock, soaring food and petrol prices, daily power cuts and an imploding economy. Fireworks and celebratory gunfire crackled overhead as hordes of people descended on Change Square, the sprawling tented shantytown in the heart of the capital where pro-democracy demonstrators have been camped out in their thousands since February. Fathers hoisted wriggling toddlers onto their shoulders as a group of grizzly-bearded tribesmen performed the bara — the traditional dagger dance — on a makeshift wooden stage, twirling the curved blades above their heads to cries of "Goodbye ya Ali, the tyrant has fled!"

For now all eyes are on Abd-Rabbua Mansour Hadi, Yemen's 66-year-old Vice President, who will assume caretaker responsibility for the government in the interim. Despite harking from the southern province of Abyan, Hadi, an ex-military commander, stuck by Saleh during the brutal 1994 civil war (South Yemen was an independent state governed by socialists until it was merged with the north in 1990). His loyalty earned him the title of Vice President, which he has clung to ever since. Forced to operate in Saleh's shadow, Hadi has never been a strong player on the Yemeni political scene and many still see him as an al-zumra, one of Saleh's token men from the south: smart, well connected but ultimately politically weak.

The last time Hadi was acting head of state, Saleh was recuperating in a Saudi hospital after a booby-trap explosion ripped through his presidential mosque in June. Western officials tried to court Hadi as if he were the acting power in Yemen, but it was clear who was ruling the roost when Ahmed Saleh, the President's temperamental son and commander of the Republican Guard, locked the Vice President out of the presidential palace and forced him to work from home. As long as the Saleh boys are breathing down his neck, Hadi will struggle to stamp his authority on the country.

Hadi's weakness, among several other factors, has tainted the excitement over Saleh's signing the agreement with skepticism and anger. Skepticism because the regime remains largely intact, with Saleh safely sheltered in his palace and his sons and nephews still occupying the upper echelons of the military and intelligence services. And anger because the deal, backed by the U.S. and the U.N., includes an instruction to Yemeni lawmakers to grant Saleh and his family immunity from prosecution — despite widespread corruption allegations and hundreds of protesters shot dead in recent months by government troops.

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