As Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh recovers from surgery in Saudi Arabia to remove shrapnel from his chest following an attack on his palace, there's a lot of talk about who will fill the country's dangerous power vacuum. Yemen's official opposition is calling for a transfer of power to Vice President and interim leader Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi or, absent that, a transitional government. But the talk could be premature. The Saudi state-run Ekhbariya TV station says Saleh will return to Yemen, according to CNN, and Vice President Hadi himself tells Reuters that Saleh will be back in a few days. U.S. officials add that Saleh's bureaucratic maneuvers in recent days suggest he's trying to maintain his authority as he would if he left the country on vacation or official travel, according to The Wall Street Journal. In Yemen itself, Reuters notes, Hadi lacks a power base and Saleh's relatives still control key military units and security forces.
Many analysts weighing in on the news today, however, are skeptical that Saleh can return even if he wants to do so. Middle East expert Christopher Boucek, for example, tells NPR that Saudi Arabia, concerned about security in the Gulf, most likely offered to treat the president on the condition that he not return to Yemen. U.S. officials, meanwhile, are leaning on Saudi Arabia to persuade Saleh to resign, according to UPI.
Given the uncertainty surrounding Saleh's departure, opposition figures are rushing to set a political transition in motion. "We are going to move forward with our plans and by the time Saleh is back he will be a private citizen," one official tells the Journal. Who will step into the void? Besides Hadi, Reuters writes, "other contenders in a possible power struggle include the well-armed Hashed tribal federation, breakaway military leaders, Islamists, leftists and an angry public seeking relief from crippling poverty, corruption and failing public services." In the meantime, deadly clashes today in the capital, Sanaa, are threatening a tenuous truce between two of those contenders: Hadi and opposition tribal fighters.