On 22 January 70 year-old Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, having ruled since 1978, left the Yemeni capital Sanaa onboard a private jet bound for who knows where, but apparently eventually the land of the brave and the home of the free.
Sources close to the opposition Islamist al Tajammu al Yamani lil-Islah (Islah) Party confirmed to the Yemen Post that Saleh was seen along with many of his family members in Sanaa international airport awaiting his flight, adding, "We don't know where Saleh is heading but probably he will go to Sultanate of Oman or the U.S."
The previous day however Sultan al-Barakani, a high official in Saleh's al Mo'tamar ash-Sha'by al 'Am (General People Congress, or GPC) party revealed that Saleh would visit Oman, Ethiopia and the U.S. before asserting he would return.
Saleh himself in a televised address before his departure told his fellow Yemenis, “I ask for pardon from all Yemeni men and women for any shortcoming that occurred during my 33-year rule and I ask forgiveness and offer my apologies to all Yemeni men and women. Now we must concentrate on our martyrs and injured.”
Seeking to game the system, before departing Saleh signed an agreement under which he transferred executive powers to Yemeni Vice President Abdul Rabu Mansour Hadi, who will run in the upcoming presidential elections as the sole candidate for both the GPC party and Ahzab al-Liqa’al-Mushtarak (Joint Meeting Party, or JMP), the main opposition bloc in the country.
As an additional bit of life insurance, on 23 January Yemeni Parliamentary members from both the opposition and ruling party passed a contentious immunity law after it was amended to provide protection from prosecution for specific leaders from both the opposition and ruling party, including, surprise, Saleh.
In the U.S. Saleh will receive medical treatment for injuries received in a June 2011 bombing amid an uprising against his regime that began a year ago.
Does his presence in the U.S. for medical treatment matter?
If history is anything to go by, yes indeed. Those with long memories of the Middle East might recall that after U.S. president Jimmy Carter allowed the exiled Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi into the U.S. for medical treatment, Iranian students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held it for 444 days, which destroyed Carter’s hopes for a second term and ushered in a period of ruptured diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran, which persist up to the present time.
Saleh leaves behind a troubled state with significant prospects for revolution in his absence. Saleh, President of North Yemen since 1978, in 1990 became President of unified Yemen since 1990 and subsequently the first elected President in reunified Yemen in 1999 and won re-election in 2006 in a contest that international observers judged to be "partly free" and subsequently has ruled for the last 33 years.
And things have gone downhill in Yemen ever since. Two years before Saleh’s second term, a civil war has been fought in Northern Yemen between Yemeni security forces and Shiite Houthi rebels and Sunni Salafi fighters, which in 2009 spilled over into the neighboring southern border region of Saudi Arabia. Conflict broadened beginning in February 2011, when a rebellion against the government proper occurred, and clashes with police and pro-government supporters have steadily intensified since.
Washington has hardly been impartial in Yemen’s turmoil. Taking the side of the Saleh government, in 2002 the CIA and the Pentagon began drone strikes against Yemeni and al Qaida insurgents, achieving their greatest success when on 30 September 2011 a CIA drone unleashed a barrage of Hellfire missiles at a car carrying American-born al Qaida member Anwar al Awlaki, killing him and a compatriot. President Obama said, “The death of Awlaki is a major blow to al Qaida’s most active operational affiliate.” The strike also killed an American citizen of Pakistani origin, Samir Khan, who helped edit al Qaida’s English-language online magazine “Inspire.” According to A senior Yemeni security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, Awlaki was killed on the road traveling between Yemen’s northern Marib and Jawf provinces, where al Qaida presence and central government has little influence.
So, what next for this obscure corner of the “Arab Spring?”
Hurdle number one occurs next month, when on 21 February a new Yemeni president will be elected in an early election agreed upon by all conflicting parties.
Will the Yemeni electorate simply rubberstamp Hadi, or will the election devolve into chaos?
All bets are out on this one.
And, of course, last but not least, there is the minor problem of Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which Saleh with a nudge and a wink allowed U.S. forces to attack with drone strikes.
How powerful is AQAP?
On the night of 14 January, hundreds of Islamic extremists along with AQAP militants occupied parts of the city of Rada’a, occupying the historic al-Amerya mosque and a castle overlooking it before they stormed the central prison in the city center, freeing 52 inmates.
Probably 52 fewer votes for Hadi.
And the leader of the Rada’a militants?
Tarek Ahmed Nasser al Dhahab, brother in law of Anwar al Awlaki.
Unless Yemenis exercise profound moderation in the upcoming elections, a quality hardly prevalent in the Arabian peninsula, then the stage may be being set for one of the CIA’s most feared concepts – “blowback.”
By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com