Middle East

Yemen: Power struggle continues after Saleh departure

Anti-government protesters in Sanaa, 14 June
Image caption Mass rallies are being held by both pro- and anti-government demonstrators

Uncertainty over whether Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh will return to power after an attempt on his life has divided Yemenis and left the country with a dangerous power vacuum.

When news broke earlier this month that the president had flown to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, celebrations broke out at University Square - dubbed "Change Square" by the protesters.

The youth began dancing and singing, even sacrificing sheep - as they do for the Muslim feast of Eid that follows the holy month of Ramadan.

"This is the end of [Mr Saleh's] time, and he cannot come back to power," says Mohamad al-Qaid, a young revolutionary in Change Square.

"Many legal cases will be filed against him and he will have to face the charges if he comes back," he adds.

But the enthusiasm of the square is not echoed elsewhere - even among opposition leaders themselves - and claims that Mr Saleh's rule ended with his departure to Riyadh may be premature.

Mosque attack

The president, who has clung to power despite four months of protests, is undergoing treatment in a Riyadh hospital for serious burns and shrapnel wounds from a 3 June attack on his palace in the capital.

Image caption Opposition leader Mohammad Abu al-Louhoum has condemned the attack on the president

Mohammad Abu al-Louhoum, a former close ally of the president who now leads an opposition party, condemns the attack and says the celebrations are not acceptable in Yemeni culture.

Any attack on people praying in a mosque is offensive, says Mr Louhoum, adding that many who are loyal to Mr Saleh are calling for revenge.

But the president's nephew, Gen Yahia Mohammad Abdullah Saleh, who runs the security and counter-terrorism units, says justice will be served in a court of law - not meted out on the streets.

"Revenge applies to a tribal system, but we are a state," he says. "Investigations will be held… suspects will be charged and tried, or summoned via Interpol if they are overseas.''

Many suspects are reported to have been arrested in connection with the attack, and speculation is rife about who could have done it.

The president has directly accused his main rivals - the al-Ahmar tribe - but they have denied any involvement.

Many Yemenis view the attack as an inside job carried out by members of President Saleh's inner circle. Pictures of the destruction point to a bomb planted inside the mosque, in addition to rocket strikes from the outside.

President Saleh's health situation is unclear, but he is not expected to come home for some time yet. Even then, there is a question over whether he will he be able to return to power?

"Of course he will be back after he recovers," says his nephew, Gen Yahia Saleh, one of President Saleh's pillars of power in Yemen. "He will come back as a president to practice his national duties and rule the country," he insists.

Under constitutional rules, Mr Saleh has delegated authority to his vice-president, Abdrabo Mansour Hadi, to take charge during his absence.

But many here believe the Saleh family is still running the show - something his powerful nephew denies.

"Despite the attacks against the president and his government officials, the state is still holding together, which proves it [has proper institutions of state], and is not a one-person state," says Gen Yahia Saleh, who serves as chief-of-staff of the central security department and head of Yemen's counter-terrorism agency.

"All those who work in the government are abiding by the law and the constitution. As for us, the relatives of the president, we are professional army officers working for Yemen, taking our orders from the political body and the vice-president," he says.

Limits to power

The opposition has been calling for stronger state institutions and a limit on presidential powers, in a country where the regime is viewed as corrupt and nepotistic.

Image caption Ismail al-Jelaei has set up the Future party with young activists from across the country

Mr Louhoum says the real question is not about whether the president will return or not.

"It is about institutions, not about individuals," he says. "We have to move from the issue of one leader to proper functioning institutions of state."

Efforts for a peaceful political solution are ongoing, even as the country teeters on the brink of civil war between members of rival tribes, and armed militants launch brazen raids in some southern towns.

As a Gulf initiative flounders, the vice-president has started meeting opposition parties to work on finding solutions, mainly forming a national unity government.

"There was a breakthrough in the meeting and they are trying to keep Yemen out of violence," says Mr Abu al-Louhoum. "The opposition is sincere about working with the vice-president and I hope he helps to move the country towards a peaceful and safe Yemen."

But many here believe the opposition does not have a clear vision to address Yemen's many problems.

"The Joint Meeting Party (opposition coalition) and the ruling party are seeking their own interests," says Ismail al-Jelaei, a young protester who has set up a new political party.

"We have been sidelined as youth, although we were the ones who started the revolution."

Mr Jelaei, who is in his 20s, has formed the Future Party, with supporters from across the country.

But the young activists know that it will take time to establish themselves as a political force, and have vowed to keep up pressure to be included in the political process.

Even if peace holds, and negotiations towards a transition to a real democracy succeed, there are still big challenges ahead for the Middle East's poorest country.