San'aa, Yemen (TML)
The pitched battles have given way to occasional gun and mortar fire. Stores have re-opened, even if water and electricity remain in short supply. The city is bristling with troops, but many of them have flowers sprouting out of their guns, courtesy of the joyous opposition protestors.
But even with its long-serving president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, out of the country, the future of Yemen remains as murky as ever.
After repeatedly turning down offers to step down as part of a negotiated solution with the opposition, Saleh ended up leaving on a stretcher after he was wounded in a rocket attack on his compound over the weekend. He leaves behind a country in disarray, with a figurehead vice president officially in charge while powerful tribes and Saleh's sons and nephews vie for power and Al-Qa'ida lurks in the background. The economy is paralyzed.
"We are looking at an extreme political vacuum. We don't know exactly how long his sons and nephews can stay in control of security forces," Christian Koch, director of the international studies program at the Gulf Research Center told The Media Line. "There are too many questions marks around. We're looking for a period of continued volatility."
A lot is at stake in the poor, perpetually unstable country. Astride a major route of world oil, Yemen risks devolve into a failed state and a base for Islamic radicals much like Afghanistan and Somalia. Yemen's Gulf neighbors, together with the U.S., struggled to force Saleh out of office and see an orderly transition to a new government.
Saleh was a victim of a strategy to take on the tribal groups, led by the Hashis, which had emerged as the biggest challenge to his continued rule. Two weeks ago, he dispatched his troops to besiege the Al-Ahmar family compound, setting off the worst violence Sana'a had seen since protests against Saleh's rule erupted in January..
Along with leaving more than 200 dead and bringing the city to a standstill, the violence touched the president himself on Friday when a mosque in the presidential compound was hit -- probably by a mortar shell. Not only was Saleh wounded seriously enough for him to be flown out of the country, but the attack also injured the prime minister, two deputy prime ministers and the speakers of both parliamentary chambers, all of whom are now being treated in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
For now, Yemen is formally under the rule of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. But the real center of governmental power lies with the Saleh family, according to Jeb Boone, who is managing editor of The Yemen Times. They could employ that to ensure the president's return or take over the country themselves. Saleh briefly addressed the nation after the attack but didn't say he was relinquishing the power he has clung to tenaciously over the course of the unrest.
"His sons, who are military commanders of the Republican Guard and central security, are still in the country," Boone told The Media Line. "If he [Saleh] wanted to somehow secure his return through his sons as military commanders, I think they would have the ability to do that."
Two other contenders for power are Hamid Al-Ahmar, a millionaire businessmen and leader of the Hasid tribe. He is believed to have connections with Al-Qa'ida. Another is General Ali Mohsen who broke publicly with Saleh, his half-brother, sided with the anti-government opposition. Subsequently, he remained aloof from the fighting, but many Yemenis believe it was his forces that hit the presidential mosque, and not those of Al-Ahmar.
In the remote regions of Yemen, other tribes have asserted their authority at the expense of the government. Koch of the Gulf Research Center said he is pretty confident that with Saleh gone they would be prepared to recognize the authority of the central government again.
"None of the tribes want to see the disintegration of the state - it doesn't serve their interests," Koch said. "Most of them are interested in trying to find a working arrangement where their interests are respected."
The political arena, however, won't be left entirely to domestic players. The U.S. and, more importantly neighboring Saudi Arabia, are determined to ensure that stability returns to Yemen. The Saudis already have a trump card with Saleh and many of his top aides and family now in their sovereign territory.
Saudi Arabia and the other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have been running scared by the Arab Spring and its threat to the region's long-standing rulers. The GCC was quick to smother the only protests to break out among a member nation, Bahrain, by sending in troops.
Much bigger and more chaotic than Bahrain, a military option isn't likely in Yemen, Abdelkhaleq Abdalla, professor of political science at Emirates University in Dubai, told The Media Line.
"I don't think the Saudis will need to send any troops. That's not really an option, but the Saudis and the GCC will never give up in Yemen," he said. "It's in their backyard and its a strategic place. Whatever happens in Yemen is of immediate concern of the GCC capitals. They will do everything possible to restore some kind of normalcy with the help of America, Europe and others."
Analysts give relatively short shift to the Al-Qa'ida threat, which has been the biggest concern of the Washington policy makers. While the Islamic movement is active in Yemen and has chalked up some notable successes over the years, including the attack on the U.S.S. Cole and the Saudi interior minister, Saleh probably exaggerated its influence in the country in order to win more aid and support from Saudi Arabia and the West, they said.
The real challenge facing Yemen is the economy, which needs to be restarted if the country isn't going to slide into the ranks of the world's failed states.
"It's going to take a lot of work to bring it back to where it was before, to get oil production back up, to get foreign currency reserves back up and bring the devaluation of the riyal and inflation back down," said Boone of The Yemen Times.
(With reporting by David Rosenberg)
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