Yemen Without President Ali Abdullah Saleh

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 23

Following the bombing of a mosque located within the walls of the Presidential Palace on June 3, Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, along with five other ranking government officials who were also injured, was flown to the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh for surgery. [1] The president suffered burns to his face and reportedly had shrapnel from the mosque’s pulpit lodged in his chest. The President’s departure for Riyadh set off celebrations across Yemen in which anti-government protesters declared victory in their four month campaign to unseat the president. Yemeni Vice President Abed Rabbu Mansur al-Hadi became acting president and supreme commander of the armed forces pursuant to article 116 of the Yemeni Constitution (Yemen Times, June 5).

While some members of the opposition and the masses of anti-government protesters, who remain encamped in Yemen’s major cities, celebrate the end of the Saleh regime, their celebrations and declarations of victory are most likely premature. President Saleh has left Yemen, at least temporarily, but his sons, nephews, and other relatives, who hold key positions within the Yemeni armed forces, remain. President Saleh’s departure is likely the first act in what will be a protracted drama in which the remnants of the Saleh regime use their considerable military assets to secure concessions from the opposition and exact revenge on those groups, most notably the al-Ahmar family, which they believe to have carried out the attack on the president (al-Jazeera, June 4).

Acting President Abed Rabbu Mansur al-Hadi is a marginal figure within the regime. As a southerner and former general officer within the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) Army, al-Hadi was never a member of Saleh’s inner circle. President Saleh, who could write a treatise that would rival Machiavelli’s The Prince, made sure that the positions with real power, military power, were filled by family members or loyal members of his tribe, the Sanhaan. Al-Hadi, who was appointed to the position of Vice President after the 1994 civil war, was merely a token appointment to assuage the anger of defeated southerners. As a member of the Saleh regime who has no tribal ties and as a southerner who is regarded by many southerners as a traitor, al-Hadi has no base of support within Yemen. Al-Hadi’s future will likely be limited to that of a placeholder – though the importance of that position is not to be underestimated. The opposition and large numbers of anti-government protesters are backing the handover of power to al-Hadi. They are already framing the handover as a first step towards the formation of a transitional government (Mareb Press, June 4). Al-Hadi could play a pivotal role in the negotiations between the opposition, anti-government demonstrators, and what remains of the Saleh regime.
While al-Hadi may be the titular acting president, it is almost certain that President Saleh’s sons, nephews and half-brother are continuing to head up what is left of the Saleh-led government. Brigadier General Ahmed Ali Saleh, the President’s eldest son and commander of the Republican Guard, has reportedly moved into the Presidential Palace. Ahmed Ali Saleh is arguably the most capable of Saleh’s sons and his Republican Guard troops, which for the most part have remained loyal, are the best equipped and trained in Yemen. Ahmed Ali Saleh was long regarded as the heir apparent but despite his father’s efforts, he has never enjoyed much support beyond the troops he commands and some members of the Sanhaan tribe. [2] Brigadier General Yahya Saleh, Saleh’s nephew, who commands the now much reviled Central Security Service (CSS), has retained his command and the loyalty of his troops. The CSS was at the forefront of many of the early crackdowns on anti-government protesters. Many of the CSS troops fear reprisals from the opposition and anti-government protesters and as a consequence feel they have little to lose. Most importantly, President Saleh’s half-brother, Muhammad Saleh al-Ahmar, remains in control of the Yemeni Air Force. Apart from the presidential bodyguards, air force pilots are among the most closely vetted members of the Yemeni armed forces due to the service’s importance to the regime’s grip on power. As individuals, the president’s relatives have limited bargaining power and could most likely be neutralized, but as a unified block they have considerable power – though not enough to retain control of Yemen. Nevertheless, it is unclear as to how unified the Saleh family is. There are some indications that there are splits between what can be termed the old guard, the President’s half-brother and other first generation family members, and the new guard, represented by the President’s son, Ahmed Ali Saleh.

Government spokesmen have variously vowed that President Saleh will return to Yemen in a few days or within two weeks pending his recovery from surgery (SABA, June 6). In response, military forces that have sided with the opposition promised to shoot down Saleh’s plane if he dared return – not an empty threat, given the military hardware commanded by some of those officers who have defected. While the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has stated that Saleh’s visit to the Kingdom is humanitarian in nature rather than political, it seems unlikely that Saudi officials would not exert considerable pressure on President Saleh to remain in Riyadh (al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 5). The likelihood that Saleh will return to Yemen appears to be limited. However, his return is not necessary for the fight to continue. His sons and relatives will use all means available, largely military, to save face (an important factor in Yemen), exact revenge, and attempt to secure some role for the Saleh family, however limited, in Yemen’s future.


1. Saleh’s Presidential Palace in Sana’a is a sprawling compound surrounded by high walls designed to foil snipers and deny views of the compound to anyone outside. Given the high walls and number of buildings in the compound, it would seem that someone within the palace who knew the President’s movements had to have tipped off whatever group carried out the attack. Published photos of the mosque and accounts of the attack indicate that a bomb may have been planted within the mosque rather than the early reports of a rocket attack.
2. Despite the non-doctrinal tradition of hereditary rule established by Yemen’s later Zaidi imams, many Yemenis find hereditary rule undesirable.