“They must respect Ali Abdullah Saleh,” declared Hana Aldaini, 28, one of several hundred Saleh loyalists camped outside the gate in tents, some clutching Kalashnikov rifles. “He’s not just our president. He’s our father and brother.”
The takeover of al-Thawra underscores the obstacles facing the Middle East’s poorest nation as it prepares for a transition that will formally end Saleh’s 33 years in power. By month’s end, the autocrat is expected to officially transfer authority to his Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, his handpicked successor who is running uncontested in a presidential vote scheduled for Feb. 21. If everything goes according to plan, Saleh would become the fourth Arab leader ousted by the uprisings of last year.
But a year after Yemen’s revolt began, and days from the historical vote, deep divisions are still playing out visibly, in the streets, in politics, in the military and security forces, and in government institutions such as al-Thawra.
Saleh, who is in the United States receiving medical treatment, and his loyalists appear determined to play an influential role in a new Yemen, where the Obama administration is concerned about an ambitious al-Qaeda affiliate that has targeted America and controls large swaths of the south. That raises questions about how much the new coalition government can actually change in a country gripped by political and tribal rivalries, internal conflicts, and a host of economic and humanitarian woes.
“It says to me that we still have a lot of challenges in front of us,” said a senior Western diplomat, referring to what is unfolding at al-Thawra. “There are still elements on both sides that haven’t reconciled themselves to the transition and still are not fully committed to the transition.” The diplomat spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
‘Saleh is like Putin’
In conversations last week, several top opposition leaders exuded a giddy confidence that Saleh’s hold on Yemen is about to end. “You are moving from one era to another,” said Mohammed Abu Lahoum, a former ruling party official who defected and started his own party. “The scenes in Syria and Libya are not encouraging. In Yemen, we managed to reach a settlement where everyone wins in the end.”
Others, though, say Saleh has won too much. A power transfer deal, forged by Yemen’s Persian Gulf neighbors and backed by the United States and Europe, has allowed Saleh to exit on his terms. He and his family have received immunity from prosecution for their alleged role in the killings of scores of protesters. His son, nephews and other relatives remain in control of much of the military and security forces. His loyalists hold key ministries in the unity government.