SANAA, Yemen — When embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh abruptly left over the weekend for Saudi Arabia, he handed the reins of government to his vice president. But the real power remains in the hands of those Saleh trusted most to protect his 33-year rule: his eldest son and nephews.
The son, Ahmed Ali, has moved into the presidential palace, while Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, the acting head of state, remains in his office and rarely visits the palace, U.S. and Yemeni officials said. Neither Ahmed nor his three cousins, who together control much of Yemen’s military and security forces, have left their positions to visit Saleh in Saudi Arabia, where he is being treated for severe burn and shrapnel wounds sustained from an attack on the palace Friday.
For many Yemenis, that has sent a clear signal that Saleh and his relatives are intent on preserving his rule in his absence, even as calls mount from opposition groups and the international community for a swift transition of power.
“Power, wealth and intelligence are all in the hands of the president’s son and nephews,” said Muhammed Qahtan, a senior opposition leader. “They are the reasons that are preventing the vice president and the government from firing the president.”
The rising profile of Ahmed and his cousins has handcuffed Hadi’s ability to run Yemen at a critical and volatile time, forcing the vice president into a delicate balancing act to avoid overstepping boundaries set by Saleh’s family.
“The president’s son’s move into the office sends a signal to both the opposition and loyalists that Saleh’s regime will not cede power,” said Katherine Zimmerman, an analyst with the American Enterprise Institute’s critical threats project in Washington. “Any attempt to challenge the regime will likely provoke a military response.”
Ruling party officials said that before he left for Saudi Arabia, Saleh instructed his son and nephews to follow Hadi’s orders, adding that they were complying with those directions. “The state follows the orders of the vice president,” said Ahmed al-Sufi, a spokesman for Saleh. “And that includes the son and nephews of the president.”
But Yahya al-Arasi, a media adviser for Hadi, said the vice president had a good relationship with the president’s son and nephews and that they listened to him. But Arasi also conceded that there would be real limits to the vice president’s power if he wanted to accede to growing calls by opposition leaders to move Saleh aside by creating a transitional presidential council.
The president’s many backers would make any such transition very difficult, Arasi said. “If we go in this direction, his supporters will burn everything.”
Before the political upheaval that broke out in Yemen this year, Saleh had been postioning Ahmed to take over as his successor, a plan that the Yemeni leader has since renounced.
But Ahmed remains head of the country’s Republican Guard and special forces. Amar, Saleh’s nephew, is deputy director for national security, while Yahye, another nephew, is head of the central security forces and the counterterrorism unit. Yet another nephew, Tarik, leads the Presidential Guard. Other relatives are in charge of the air force and in key political and diplomatic posts.
The influence of Saleh’s son and nephews can be seen all around this sprawling capital, where Republican Guards and other security units stand watch at checkpoints and patrol neighborhoods. On Wednesday night, a barrage of fireworks and gunfire, including heavy weaponry typically used by soldiers, pounded the sky for two hours celebrating a report that Saleh’s health was improving. The falling bullets injured scores of people.
The celebration was widely seen by Western diplomats and analysts as ordered by Ahmed Ali as a show of strength. But Arasi called it a “spontaneous expression of support for the president.”
One Yemeni security official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said all military and security affairs were now being run by Ahmed and his cousins as well as Ali al-Anisi, the chief of national security. Hadi was handling the administrative issues of the government, the official added.
Ahmed Ali Saleh is widely seen as having a good relationship with senior ruling party leaders; Tarik is also seen as very influential and is considered a hard-liner. They have urged ruling party leaders not to discuss a transfer-of-power proposal by the Gulf Cooperation Council, consisting of Yemen’s neighbors led by Saudi Arabia, until Saleh returns to Yemen, according to Yemeni officials.
The GCC proposal, which calls for Saleh to officially hand over power to the vice president who then will create a transitional unity government until elections can be held, is widely seen by the United States and its allies as the best option for a peaceful transfer of power. Saleh has thrice agreed to sign the proposal but has reneged every time.
Some opposition leaders say that have yet to receive any response from Hadi regarding the GCC proposal, suggesting that leaders of the ruling party will not take such a step without the approval of Saleh’s sons and nephews, who in turn await instructions from him, said opposition leaders and diplomats.
“The president’s son and nephews want the situation to remain unchanged until the president comes back,” said Abdulqawe al-Qaisi, a spokesman for the Ahmar family, who lead Yemen’s largest tribal confederation and are Saleh’s main opponents.
Qahtan, the senior opposition leader, said drastic measures are needed to press forward. “The international community should tell the sons and nephews that the vice president is now the legitimate authority and that if he asks for international support, it will come, even military support,” he said. “And so they will be targeted.”
Staff writer Walter Pincus in Washington and a special correspondent in Sanaa contributed to this report.