Ali Abdullah Saleh, the embattled president of Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, has turned power over to his deputy and left for Saudi Arabia. Officially, Saleh is seeking treatment for injuries he suffered from a rocket attack on his palace. But it is widely assumed that Saleh's 33 years in power are over.
The uprising started months ago in an echo of populist movements that had toppled leaders in Tunisia and Egypt. Saleh, a close ally of the U.S., resisted calls for his departure, but protests escalated to include several of the tribes that he had bound to him through patronage and bribes.
The U.S. avoided calling for Saleh's departure because of concerns about al-Qaida's strong presence in the country. As violence escalated, Saudi Arabia had tried to broker a peaceful transition. But Saleh backed off each time a deal was thought to be completed for his departure.
The Washington Post reported:
U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials have testified repeatedly that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemen branch is known, represents the most immediate threat to American interests. AQAP has been linked to a series of failed plots, including the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas in 2009 and the shipment of printer cartridges packed with explosives to the United States.
The main worry among U.S. counterterrorism experts is that Saleh’s departure could set off a prolonged power struggle involving the few functioning institutions in Yemen: its military, intelligence services and tribal leadership. Those institutions, led by Saleh relatives and loyalists, were struggling to contain AQAP even before the dictator faced mounting protests against his rule.
"Once he steps out of Yemen, there's a major question as to whether he ever returns," said Juan Zarate, who was counterterrorism adviser to former president George W. Bush. "If in fact he leaves, I'm very pessimistic as to what follows. I think it turns very messy very quickly, creating all sorts of breathing space for [al-Qaeda] and problems for the United States."
Saleh had adopted a popular line among Middle East despots: it's me or chaos, a variation of that French counterrevolutionary slogan Après nous, le déluge. But his departure was inevitable, and the challenge now for the U.S. and Saudi Arabia will be to manage the transition while satisfying the growing demand for freedom in the region.
Read more about Saleh in the Washington Post.
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