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What Saleh's departure means for Yemen's future

By Jeremy Bowen
BBC Middle East editor

image captionThere have been near daily protests against President Saleh since February

President Ali Abdullah Saleh's opponents in Yemen have been celebrating as if he has gone forever. That might be premature.

The president's long time supporters in Saudi Arabia are giving him medical treatment for the wounds he suffered when his compound was shelled.

The Saudis want him to step down, and might increase the pressure now that he is on their home turf.

They are working on a deal that will usher him out of power, that he might be persuaded to sign.

But Mr Saleh has made hanging on to power into a science.

In Yemen sources in the presidency have told the BBC that as soon as he is better he will be back in Sanaa, the capital.

He has persisted despite huge popular demonstrations by tens of thousands of Yemenis who want their own Arab spring - and summer.

He has resisted pressure from the Gulf countries, and refused to budge in the face of a power struggle launched by a rival family.

Dynastic clash

Even if President Saleh decides it is time to go, his sons and nephews are still in key positions in Yemen, commanding important military units. They might not want to retire.

Against them is the next generation of the al-Ahmar family.

The late Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar, who died in 2007, effectively shared power with Mr Saleh. His four sons believe their time has come.

The contest for power in the elite has been going on at the same time as demonstrations by Yemenis who want real change, not just a dynastic reshuffle, in the Arab world's poorest country.

If there is a new face at the top, but no new system, they will not be satisfied.

Yemen has huge problems. There is a long running insurgency in the north, and a separatist movement in the south.

Prices are rising, and its growing population does not have enough to eat. Yemen has the third highest rate of malnutrition in the world.

It is running out of water and of its small deposits of oil. Sales of oil finance 90% of its imports of staple foods.

Al-Qaeda question

image captionPresidential sources say Mr Saleh will be back from Riyadh in a matter of days

Yemen is also the base for an ambitious and violent al-Qaeda affiliate.

Even after the demonstrations started, President Saleh was still seen as the least bad option by the Saudis and by Western countries, led by the United States.

He was seen as the best ally they had against the group, which calls itself al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

But now that President Saleh's stubbornness shows every sign of precipitating a civil war, his allies have decided it is time for him to go.

His departure will not take away the questions about Yemen's future.

But it might stop the worst of the killing, for a while at least, and it will buy time to try to find a way to reconcile the claims of Yemen's powerful families, and the demands of the people who have been camping on the streets of the capital demanding a better life.