The World from Berlin Yemen Faces Abyss Despite President's Departure

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh may have left the country for medical treatment, but a peaceful transition of power is by no means assured. German commentators say that urgent action is required to prevent the country from sliding into civil war and chaos.


Allies of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh have promised that he will return. Having been flown to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment on Saturday evening after he and several senior officials were injured in a rocket attack on the presidential compound, officials said Saleh will be back in the country he has ruled for 33 years within weeks.

"Saleh will come back. Saleh is in good health," said Abdu al-Janadi, deputy information minister, according to the Associated Press. "He may give up authority one day, but it has to be in a constitutional way. Calm has returned. Coups have failed."

There are plenty of people both within Yemen and abroad, however, who believe that Saleh's departure is permanent. Thousands of people gathered in the streets of the capital Sana'a on Sunday to celebrate and talks between opposition groups and government officials are continuing. The negotiations are a continuation of talks held on a United States-backed proposal which foresees the resignation of Saleh. The Yemeni president has agreed to the deal several times in recent weeks -- only to change his mind at the last moment.

An opposition official told the AP that Saleh's departure to Saudi Arabia was delayed on Saturday evening as the US and Saudi Arabia both pushed him to sign a decree passing power to his vice president. The president refused.

A Power Vacuum

Anti-government protests have been ongoing for months in Yemen, with Saleh's security forces and military repeatedly using deadly force in an effort to put down the demonstrations. Human Rights Watch estimates that at least 166 people have been killed. The violence had increased in the last two weeks as the opposition gained support from a former tribal ally of Saleh.

The chaos has many in the region fearful that Yemen could descend into a failed state. The country is deeply impoverished and its power structures are fragmented, with tribal conflict a constant. Furthermore, al-Qaida has a strong foothold in the country and there are concerns that a power vacuum could provide the terror group with more freedom to operate.

Saleh underwent an operation in Saudi Arabia to remove splinters of wood from a mosque pulpit which became embedded in his chest after a rocket exploded as he and several senior officials were worshipping, medical officials told the AP. Eleven bodyguards were killed in the attack.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, together with her counterparts from France, Britain, Italy and Spain, issued an open statement on Sunday urging "the Yemeni people to find the way to reconciliation in a spirit of dialogue and national unity."

German commentators on Monday are unified in their belief that Saleh's rule has now come to an end.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"Saleh may have said that he wants to return to Yemen in a few days. But he should think twice. Furthermore, the Saudis may be willing to provide the president medical treatment, but they are unlikely to allow him to return home."

"External mediation would seem to be the only way forward. This is a role that Saudi Arabia would have to fill. The leading power on the Arabian Peninsula wants to see peace return to Yemen: The conflict in the region's poorest country could spread to the oil kingdom. But the Saudis also don't want democracy in the neighboring country: A reform virus could be just as dangerous for Saudi Arabia's sclerotic monarchy as a war would be on the other side of its 1,000-kilometer-long (621 miles) border with Yemen. As such, Saudi negotiators will attempt to forge an agreement between the rebellious tribes and Saleh's followers."

"They are likely to have the support of the US. The Americans have only limited influence in Yemen, but they are afraid of the country's status as a stronghold of militant Islamism and of al-Qaida fighters. The democratic reforms that youthful protesters have for months been demanding could very well get left behind in the backroom diplomacy."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"The West must not blindly trust that demonstrators in Yemen will now find success. ... The mountainous, poverty-stricken and austerely Muslim country is already virtually ungovernable. ... Absent a halfway orderly transition of power, Yemen could completely collapse. ... This political chaos would play into the hands of Islamist terrorists, as happened in Afghanistan at the beginning of the 1990s."

"Via Saudi Arabia, the Western countries must now do whatever they can to exert pressure on all those involved to quickly agree on a clear transition of power. The Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf has already worked out an acceptable plan. It calls for power to be initially transferred to the vice president prior to the creation of a unity government under the leadership of the opposition. Elections would then follow. It is the best chance that Yemen has. Saleh himself should recognize that. As such, he should not return home from Saudi Arabia."

The left-leaning daily Die Tageszeitung writes:

"At a time when the Saudi kingdom is essentially encircled by unrest -- and even sent troops to Bahrain to put down popular demonstrations there -- the rulers in Riyadh have apparently come to the realization that Yemini President Saleh is more of an obstacle to than a guarantee for stability."

"As such, the Saudi leaders will be interested in seeing an 'orderly transfer of power,' a formulation which in Egypt, for example, meant that as many officials as possible managed to hold on to their positions in the new regime. Activists that have camped in public squares in Yemen will not be among them. Rather, the ruling family will do what it can to create a government out of the remnants of the old regime and some of those who defected to the opposition. The result may be a leadership with a broader foundation of support, thus splitting the opposition, but it will not be focused on introducing real change."

"Saudi Arabia, after all, has never been a champion of democratic reform. There are good reasons for the activists to remain vigilant."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"It could be that the celebrations in Yemen will soon come to an end. The forces for freedom which began protesting against the rule of President Saleh more than four months ago could fall victim to a power struggle between those who remain loyal to Saleh and those who defected. ... The most recent 'revenge' attack carried out by government opponents on the presidential palace in Taiz in addition to explosions in the capital show just how close Yemen is to the abyss of violence."

-- Charles Hawley


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