After months of uncertainty around whether Ali Abdullah Saleh has been sincere about stepping down from his post as Yemen’s president, Sunday brought confirmation that he has left the country to seek medical treatment in the United States. Under a deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council with United Nations, United States and United Kingdom assistance, Saleh is barred from partaking in the Feb. 21 elections for an interim president. In exchange, he received immunity in an unamendable law — both nationally and internationally highly controversial — passed by Yemen’s parliament the day before his departure.
And yet Saleh made it immediately clear that he intended to return to Yemen before the elections to lead his General People’s Congress party, which holds a majority of seats in parliament. This is, of course, somewhat reminiscent of the last time Saleh left Yemen for medical treatment in June 2011. Following a bomb attack on the presidential palace which left several senior government officials dead and Saleh and others seriously injured, he sought treatment in Saudi Arabia amid hopes he would step down from office. He returned to Sana’a as president at the end of September. While Saleh will not be able to hold this office again, his intention of continuing to play a major role in the future of Yemen taints the otherwise good news of his departure.
But now what? We’ve seen leaders who had desperately tried to hold on forced from power in Arab countries before. Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was run out of Tunisia. Hosni Mubarak, under withering domestic and international pressure, stepped down from Egypt’s presidency. And Muammar Gaddafi wouldn’t leave and was finally killed.
Yemen, though, is different. Its crisis goes much deeper than socioeconomic and political dissatisfaction. It has insurgencies to worry about.
There are two: the al-Houthi uprising in the north since 2004 and the increasingly secessionist rebellion in the south that, while tracing its origins back to the brief 1994 north-south civil war, has gained violent momentum from 2007 onwards. Both insurgencies are reactions to political marginalization and economic neglect by Sana’a.