After the forced departure of President Ali Abdullah Saleh from Yemen to Saudi Arabia to receive treatment for his injuries after an attack which targeted the presidential mosque earlier this month, the political scales and balance of power have substantially and imperatively changed.
For the first time in Yemen’s modern history, the vice president is exercising presidential powers in accordance to the constitution. The president is incapacitated and his deputy is authorised to rule according to Article 116 of the constitution, which states that the vice president will take over the powers of the presidency if the president is unable to carry out his duties.
The vice president is exercising his powers from his home rather than the presidential palace, which is still under the control of Saleh’s son, uncles and cousins since they are the chiefs of the Presidential Guard, the Special Forces and Central Security. This reveals the trials and tribulations that the vice president could face in the coming phase if his action is not approved by this camp, especially since it carries much political and military influence. If it does not agree with him, it is likely that matters will devolve into open military confrontation against those opposing the president’s return once he recovers.
These tribulations could be eased through international, regional and domestic recognition of the vice president since he is exercising constitutional rights on the one hand, and on the other because he is partially accepted as the leader of the interim period during which he will work with the opposition – especially those who are currently calling for a return to a civic regime which is accepted by the sweeping majority of Yemenis who took to the street demanding change. They all reject Saleh’s return in any way, shape or form.
One possible scenario is for Saleh to remain in Saudi Arabia as a president who was forced to leave the presidency, and a transitional phase which is acceptable to the opposition and the youth of change begins. This could have a partial positive outcome if security conditions proceed calmly or remain under control. The worst case scenario would be if Saleh insists on returning after convalescing to exercise his presidential powers, even if theoretically. This is certain to divide the country once again in a more polarised manner than before, because the new division will be tainted with feelings of revenge by all parties which may have been involved in the attack on the presidential palace, whether the sons of Al-Ahmar, whom Saleh mentioned by name as responsible for the attack, or Al-Qaeda or elements of the Yemeni Army who support the revolution.
The matter could evolve into a war where everyone is against everyone, making Yemen a model of a failed state whose institutes are in complete collapse, and where Yemeni citizens turn to their traditional loyalties such as tribe, region or doctrine for protection and continuity. The Yemeni army itself is divided among supporters and loyalists to the president and those who oppose him and support the revolution. Saleh’s return, if it happens, could usher in catastrophic results on many levels, including distracting the Armed Forces with in-fighting as Al-Qaeda gains more ground similar to what happened in Zanjibar in the governorate of Abeen.
The dividing line in Yemen appears to be between an internally split regime and a violent organisation which succeeded in controlling vital regions, which could be used as a launching pad for a network or state within a state that gives refuge to terrorist groups operating in the name of Islam. These conditions would encourage the supporters of the southern movement to directly move towards ending unity, and once again liberating South Yemen from the control of the North. This would be a move for partition which would certainly end what we have come to know as Yemen over the 20 years.
Another better scenario is also possible, namely that Saudi mediation succeeds in reviving the previously rejected Gulf initiative as a political means to ensure the peaceful transfer of power, especially that the proposal includes a clause which allows the vice president to take power and cooperate with the opposition during the interim period until the next presidential elections. Since fate has forced the transfer of power from the president to his deputy, there are only a few formalities left – most importantly that all parties accept the initiative and commit to its article, and that Saleh, his sons and family accept this transition without resistance or pursuit.
This should be followed by intense efforts to rebuild national conciliation to establish a new Yemen based on specific political and security steps according to an appropriate timeline. Such a scenario would safeguard Yemen against division, failure, war and confrontations on many levels. All these possible scenarios should make us as Arabs feel concerned about the pitfalls in Yemen, because whatever takes place there will have serious repercussions for its neighbours for a long time.
I believe now is an ideal moment for the Arab League to take action that complements Gulf efforts to restore the stature of the Gulf initiative, revive, activate and implement it, in a way that prevents the collapse or partition of Yemen. The starting point is to convince Saleh that returning to Yemen after recovery is not an option, and that he should urge his supporters to come to terms with the new situation. After that, Yemen should be left to its people to rebuild based on a vision of consensus in line with the spirit of the people seeking freedom and resisting all forms of tyranny.