Analysts see Saleh exit soon, power transfer for Yemen

DUBAI Thu Jun 30, 2011 7:59pm IST

Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh stands for the national anthem during a ceremony in the southern city of Taiz, in this May 22, 2010 file photo. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah/Files

Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh stands for the national anthem during a ceremony in the southern city of Taiz, in this May 22, 2010 file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Khaled Abdullah/Files

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DUBAI (Reuters) - Even if Ali Abdullah Saleh wants to cling to power in Yemen, experts say an assassination bid may not have killed him but has succeeded in preventing him from resuming the presidency because of the wounds he has sustained.

Analysts believe that efforts are now focused on mapping out a path for a peaceful transition of power in Yemen to avert civil war and to persuade his family to relinquish their control of the army and security forces.

Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who has been running day-to-day affairs since Saleh's departure for treatment in Saudi Arabia following the assassination attempt in June, said that the president was so severely injured that it was uncertain when he will return to the country.

Hadi told CNN in an interview that he saw Saleh immediately after the bomb attack and the Yemeni leader had a piece of wood between his ribs in his chest and burns to his face, arms and upper body.

This, combined with a failure to produce a much-promised video recorded message to reassure Yemenis about his health, has added to speculation that Saleh may never go back to rule Yemen.

"The talk now is not over whether the president will return or not, but on how a peaceful transfer of power will take place," said Ibrahim Sharqieh, deputy director of the Brookings Doha Institute in Qatar.

"What is probably happening now is an intense discussion and debate on the final scenario for Saleh's exit from power," he added.

Months of protests against Saleh's three-decade rule, combined with an emboldened Islamist insurgency associated with al Qaeda in the south, has pushed the impoverished Arabian Peninsula country to the brink of civil war.

The United States and Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter, fear that the chaos in Yemen may pave the way for a resurgent al Qaeda to carry out attacks against their interests in the region and beyond.

U.S. PRESSURE

U.S. Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, during a visit to Yemen earlier this month, called for a peaceful and speedy transition of power in Yemen.

"It is time for Yemeni political leaders to work together for an immediate and peaceful transition of power," Feltman told a news conference in Sanaa.

Saudi Arabia wants to see a strong central government in neighbouring Yemen that will work to keep Islamist militants in check. At the same time, Riyadh wants to avoid any radical influence on its own people.

Analysts say behind-the-scenes efforts are likely to deal with any future role for close relatives of Saleh, including his son Ahmed, a general in charge of the powerful Republican Guards and a key player in the president's absence.

Talks are also likely to address any future role for Saleh's ruling General People's Congress party and his family members, who have been playing a key role in confronting Islamist militants in the south.

In a rare comment to the media, Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh recently said in comments carried by Yemen's state news agency Saba that he backs a dialogue that the vice president was holding with the opposition on a possible transfer of power.

"Among the points of contention are what will happen to the political system and how to accomplish the next stage," Sharqieh said. ""Many parties want the ruling party to play a role in the future," he added.

HOSPITAL ARREST

Analysts say Saudi Arabia was effectively keeping Saleh under "hospital arrest", while negotiations over his exit from power are being finalised.

They say differences with the United States over the transfer of power have delayed a deal on Saleh's departure.

But Saudis may have grown alarmed following reports that Islamists in the south appeared to be gaining ground.

The Islamist militants who had seized control of the city of Zinjibar in May, allegedly in collusion with Saleh in what his opponents describe as a Machiavellian attempt to show that only his rule can prevent an al Qaeda takeover, have made significant gains.

"The Saudis realise that this is the end of the Saleh regime, but they are not comfortable with the succession options," said Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of Cornerstone Global Associates and senior analyst at Political Capital.

"They want to make sure who they will be dealing with a new Yemeni government. The Saudis don't want elections. They just want a strong government, and this is a big difference they have with the Americans," Nusseibeh said.

Saleh, a shrewd politician who came to power in a 1978 coup, has resisted U.S. and Saudi pressure to hand over to his deputy under a Gulf initiative designed to ensure a smooth and peaceful transition.

He had repeatedly backed out of signing the plan drafted by his wealthier neighbours, hoping that protesters who had been demonstrating for months in Sanaa and other Yemeni cities will run out of steam and go home.

Opponents charge that Saleh had even sought to drag the country into a civil war by attacking demonstrators on the streets and by going after the leader of the powerful Hashed tribal federation.

Although a ceasefire brokered by Saudi Arabia between government forces and the Hashed gunmen was holding, Yemen has sunk more into chaos, with fuel shortages, power cuts and frequent explosions and gunfire.

"There is a consensus now within Yemen to remove the president," said Khaled al-Dakhil, a Saudi political science professor.

(sami.aboudi@thomsonreuters.com)

(Created by Peter Millership)

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