Friday, June 3, 2011

Yemen: Attack on president keeps observers guessing

By Brian Whitaker 
I started this morning planning to write a general blog about Yemen, but events took a dramatic turn this afternoon – and are still developing. Let's start with the official version. The presidential palace in Yemen was hit by shells on Friday. Government sources said at first that President Saleh was unhurt and would be giving a news conference within an hour.

The news conference didn't happen and the new line seems to be that the president has been slightly injured and is now in hospital.

At present, there is no way of knowing if this is true. Being taken to hospital could explain why Saleh hasn't given the promised news conference. So would being killed. We can't be absolutely sure that Saleh is still alive until he is seen on television talking about what happened.

If he were dead, Yemeni officials wouldn't necessarily say so until the resulting power vacuum had been filled. Similarly, if his injuries were serious, officials might still be expected to describe them as slight.

The only thing we can be sure of is that he is not uninjured – otherwise he would have been on television by now, describing his escape. Saying that he is in hospital provides the regime with a sort of holding position which in due course will allow for him to either recover or get worse.

So, what does this mean for the Yemeni uprising?

In what might be the best scenario for Yemen's future, Saleh would be seriously injured but not dead. In fact, sufficiently injured for the doctors to decide that he needs urgent treatment abroad.

Flying him out of the country for medical reasons would provide a near-perfect exit from the crisis. The vice-president could take over and Yemen could begin to calm down. It's unlikely that anyone would want Saleh back if or when he recovered.

Probably the worst scenario would be a lightly-wounded president who returns to the fray within a day or two, with renewed ferocity, to wreak his revenge.

The least predictable scenario would be if Saleh has actually been killed. In theory, his vice-president should step into the breach while new elections are arranged, but there would also be a possibility of a power struggle behind the scenes if his death were concealed for long.

Whichever of these turns out to be correct, Yemen badly needs a solution soon. It's not just the violence – which hopefully will subside once Saleh goes – but the impending economic collapse. Whatever happens on the political front, the repercussions of that will be felt for years to come.

Shops and restaurants are closing, queues for petrol are lengthening, electricity supplies are erratic and people are hoarding basic supplies (including even water) according to a report in the New York Times.

Nobody is quite sure how much money the country and its government still have left. Tax collection has come more or less to a halt. Saleh, who needs to continue paying his supporters, is said to have been demanding multi-million dollar loans from Yemeni businessmen. Diplomats have also been enquiring about rumours that he has raided the coffers of the Central Bank

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