SANAAA, Yemen – Yemeni protesters cheered Sunday the surprise late-night exit of President Ali Abdullah Saleh to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment and swore the man who has ruled their country for almost 33 years was finished.
“Yemen is reborn!” screamed thousands of demonstrators who have lived in front of Sanaaa University in the capital for more than four months, weathering tear gas, police batons and AK-47 fire.
But even as they rejoiced, officials close to Saleh vowed he would return in days and his trusted lieutenants, including his son, held on to senior security positions.
A government official said Saleh intended to come home once he recovered from his medical treatment for injuries he received Friday when opponents of his government fired a rocket into the presidential mosque while he was at prayer.
In response, Mohammed Qahtan, spokesman for a bloc of opposition parties, vowed that his coalition would do everything in its power to keep Saleh from re-entering Yemen.
“If Saleh comes back, there will be thousands of us at the airport to receive him,” said protester Marwan Noman, who vowed to remain in the demonstrators’ encampment until a new government is in place.
Saudi Arabia orchestrated the embattled president’s exit from Yemen, signaling the desert kingdom’s determination to stop its southern neighbor from spinning out of control.
The Saudis had been trying for weeks to get Saleh to step down. Instead he evaded signing an internationally backed agreement for a transfer of power two weeks ago, and the next day he plunged Sanaa into chaos by going to war with Sheik Sadeq Ahmar, the head of the president’s own powerful Hashid tribal grouping.
The Saudis were furious when Saleh backed out of the agreement to step down.
“He double-crossed them when (the Saudis) thought they had a deal, which pretty much ended any chance that Riyadh would help him out,” said professor F. Gregory Gause, an expert on the Arab Gulf states at the University of Vermont.
Despite efforts to restrain him, Saleh could very well seek to fulfill his oft-repeated prediction that Yemen would collapse into anarchy without him. The president left behind his senior commanders and most trusted family members. His eldest nephew, Yahya Saleh, who commands Yemen’s Central Security Forces, remains in the country, as does the president’s eldest son, Ahmed, who commands the Republican Guard and special forces.
On Sunday, the two younger Salehs ordered their forces to maintain positions surrounding Sanaa’s Hasaba district, home to Ahmar. Yahya Saleh’s military checkpoints dotted the capital.
Vice President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, considered a weak political player, has taken over as acting president during his boss’s absence. The 66-year-old career military man has been vice president since the end of the country’s civil war in 1994 and has remained loyal to President Saleh throughout his political career. Nonetheless, some of the president’s opponents believe they can manipulate him or press him to their side.