By Brian Whitaker
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 05/06/2011
Contrary to the official story that he merely suffered scratches and/or a slight head wound in the explosion on Friday, latest reports say he has second-degree burns to his face and chest, plus a piece of shrapnel lodged near his heart which is affecting his breathing – though Saleh, who is 69, is said to have been able to walk from the plane when he landed in Riyadh.
A second plane followed him, reportedly carrying 24 members of his family. This is one indication that to all intents and purposes the Saleh era is finished. He is unlikely ever to return to Yemen as president – and the Saudis and Americans will be working behind the scenes to ensure that he doesn't.
It's also worth mentioning that others injured by the explosion include the prime minister, deputy prime minister, the heads of both houses of parliament and the governor of Sana'a, the capital. Some of them have also been flown to Saudi Arabia for treatment. One of Saleh's nephews, the commander of the special forces, is said to have been killed. So, even discounting Saleh himself, what's left of his regime is in serious disarray.
Given the desperate plight that Yemen is in, this offers the best prospect of a way forward for the country (as I suggested in an article on Friday). There is now a fair chance that the armed conflict will subside. It's by no means certain – and Yemen is never totally conflict-free – but the prospects for relative calm are a lot better now than they would have been if Saleh remained in Sana'a battling to cling on to power.
Secondly, work can begin on the political transition, drawing on some elements from the plan negotiated earlier by the Gulf Cooperation Council – the one that Saleh, after agreeing to it verbally, refused at the last minute to sign.
Apart from the lack of a signature from Saleh, there were two major problems with the plan which made it look unworkable at the time, though both of them are now somewhat academic.
One was that parliament had to grant Saleh immunity from prosecution before he would budge. This condition had been grudgingly accepted by Yemen's official opposition parties, though the protesters on the streets, together with international human rights organisations, found it abhorrent. With Saleh now out of the country, it need no longer be a bone of contention.
The second major hurdle in the GCC's plan was that it envisaged a prolonged resignation/transition period. After being granted immunity, Saleh would tender his resignation to parliament – though the parliament, where Saleh's party has an overwhelming majority, had the power to reject it unless he submitted his resignation for a second time. Meanwhile, the plan envisaged that Saleh would continue in office, working with a new transitional government that included opposition parties.
Anyone familiar with Saleh's usual modus operandi could see that this would not work. He would use every means at his disposal to sabotage its implementation, and the plan itself allowed plenty of scope for him to do so.
Despite that, the broad aim of the GCC plan – to form a government of national unity and prepare for elections – was (and is) the only practicable way forward in the circumstances, especially in the light on international concerns about Yemen's instability. It is far from ideal, because even the recognised opposition politicians have been around for years, some of them are as corrupt as Saleh's chums, and they are mostly devoid of new ideas for tackling the country's multifarious problems.
The hope then, is that this will indeed be a short-term transition and that elections will eventually bring in some new blood that reflects the aspirations of the millions of Yemenis who have risked their lives for so long protesting on the streets.
So far, constitutional procedures seem to be taking their course, and it is to be hoped that Saleh's kinsman, Ali Muhsen al-Ahmar, and the powerful tribal leaders will allow that to happen by staying on the sidelines.
Vice-president Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi, a Saleh appointee and a former military man from the south who is something of a nonentity, has temporarily taken charge as required by the constitution. As a next step, he should form a new government from across the political spectrum. Obviously Hadi's position is precarious in the light of the recent turmoil but for the time being at least he can count on international support – most importantly, from the US and Saudi Arabia.
The constitution specifies that presidential elections must be held within 60 days after Saleh resigns. Yemen is probably not ready for elections just yet but, since he is already out of the way, there is no immediate need for Saleh to formally resign.
It's certainly not going to be an easy ride and there's an awful lot that could still go wrong. But Saleh's departure for Riyadh does create an opportunity for a solution and Yemenis, together with their friends abroad, must seize the moment.