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Yemenis Celebrate as President Saleh Flees to Saudi Arabia, Transfers Power to Vice President

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Thousands of people in Yemen are rejoicing at the departure of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The embattled leader is reportedly in Saudi Arabia for medical treatment after being injured in a rocket attack on his presidential compound. Saleh temporarily ceded power to his vice president on Saturday night. His nephew remains in command of the Central Security paramilitary forces, and his son, Ahmad Ali Abdullah Saleh, still heads the elite Republican Guard. To discuss the implications of Saleh’s departure, we’re joined from Sana’a by Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani, a political analyst and co-founder of the Democratic Awakening Movement. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Thousands of people in Yemen have been rejoicing at the departure of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The embattled leader is reportedly in Saudi Arabia for medical treatment after being injured in a rocket attack on his presidential compound Friday. Yemenis set off fireworks and danced in the streets on Sunday to celebrate the possible end to his 33-year rule.

In the southern city of Taiz, opponents of the Saleh regime held a news conference, where activist Wassem al Gorashi applauded the work of anti-government forces.

WASSEM AL GORASHI: [translated] This is an important statement for the great Yemeni people. On behalf of the free revolutionaries and all the noble people of the nation, we send you our sincere congratulations. We start with all of our martyrs, and then we congratulate all the rebels in different squares and all the Yemeni people. We congratulate you for the departure of the head of the arrogant regime. This day will be marked in history as one of the greatest days in Yemen.

AMY GOODMAN: That was activist Wassem al Gorashi speaking at a news conference in southern Yemen Sunday. But there were also explosions and gunfights in Taiz, as well as in the capital city Sana’a. Some analysts predict President Saleh will not be able to come back to the country, but Yememi officials say the president will return as soon as he is well.

ABDOU AL-JANADI: [translated] The president will return to the capital Sana’a after he has recovered from his injuries and the burns that he suffered. He will return back with God’s will, and he will come back to resume his duties according to the constitution.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Yemeni deputy information minister speaking on Sunday. Saleh temporarily ceded power to his vice president Saturday night before leaving for Saudi Arabia. Saleh’s nephew remains in command of the Central Security paremilitary forces. And his son, Ahmad Ali Abdullah Saleh, still heads the elite Republican Guard.

According to Reuters, more than 370 people have been killed since a popular uprising against Saleh began in January.

To discuss the implications of Saleh’s departure, we’re joined on the phone from Sana’a by Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani. He is a political analyst, co-founder of the Democratic Awakening Movement.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! Can you explain what is now happening in Yemen, Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani?

ABDUL-GHANI AL-IRYANI: The country is still, of course, in a state of shock as a result of the attack on the president. The vast majority of people are happy that he is gone. They believe that he will not come back, despite the government propaganda that he will be back in two weeks, which is impossible. I think that the political process is now beginning to take — to pick up steam. The acting president has now been able to contain the violence in Sana’a and hopefully will be able to contain the violence in Taiz. And there is an agreement to withdraw combatants from the city and maintain the ceasefire. I think things are going the right way.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain how seriously injured Saleh is and what is happening in Saudi Arabia? Do you think that in the end he will be forced to sign the Gulf Cooperation Agreement?

ABDUL-GHANI AL-IRYANI: Well, there’s no need for him to sign the agreement. He has now delegated his powers to his VP, who is now acting president. It is within his authority to sign the GCC agreement and proceed with a peaceful transfer of power. President Saleh is apparently quite substantially hurt, nothing life-threatening, but it will keep him in a hospital for quite a bit of time. And my guess is that by the time he is ready to go home, he will be ex-president.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the vice president, who he’s handed power off to, and the fact — I was speaking to a Yemeni friend yesterday who says his family is still in power, with his son in charge of the Republican Guard, his nephew in charge of the paramilitary forces.

ABDUL-GHANI AL-IRYANI: They are. Some nephews assumed very critical positions in the police and security and the military. However, they cannot defy their political leadership, especially given the fact that the acting president is quite respected by all parties. And the fact of the matter is, the political protest is the only option for everyone now. The resort to violence did not work when the president, Saleh — in Sana’a, in his full capacity, and with all the top lieutenants beside them. Now they’re gone. The prime minister is badly injured. The speaker of parliament is injured. The speaker of Shura Council is injured. Two deputy prime ministers are injured. So, how could the son and the nephews continue the violent confrontation without the support of a political arm?

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting, a report just coming out of Yemen via Voice of America: “Opposition tribesmen in Yemen say government snipers in the capital, Sana’a,” where you are, “have killed three supporters of [the] tribal leader Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar.”

ABDUL-GHANI AL-IRYANI: There are still skirmishes here and there. You’re talking about a confrontation between thousands of fighters from both sides. Even with a ceasefire holding, there will still be skirmishes here and there.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the thousands of people that have been displaced by the recent violence in Abyan, in the south of Yemen?

ABDUL-GHANI AL-IRYANI: It’s a very unfortunate situation. The violent extremists who took over the city are known allies of the regime. They have been receiving regime assistance and support for many years. The regime decided to hand over this territory to them to underline the risk of terrorism in the eyes of the west. That didn’t really work, except that it created a very dangerous situation for the population. So, the regime hands over the land, the territory, to the extremists and then starts bombing them with all kinds of weapons, including the air force. That dislocated the people. I think that this is going to stop, given that the president is gone and people are trying to de-escalate.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you, Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani, the U.S. should do? The U.S. has long been working with Saleh. Just in December, Secretary of State Clinton went back to apologize on the release of the WikiLeaks documents that showed that Yemen was covering for the United States in their drone attacks. What should the U.S. do now? And what about these drone attacks?

ABDUL-GHANI AL-IRYANI: Well, the drone attacks have been, overall, negative. They have not really promoted the cause of understanding between the people of Yemen and the U.S. The number of civilian casualties has been very large. It cannot be possibly justified, given the fact that those terrorists that had been struck could have been reached otherwise. But the government has not been cooperative. They have given lip service to fighting terrorism, and they haven’t done much, which forced the hand of the U.S. to use the drones. And I hope that they will stop using the drones and they will start dealing with a democratically elected president in a way that is sensitive to the people of Yemen.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, the power of Saudi Arabia here, wanting not a progressive government to emerge but one tied, like so many of the leadership of Yemen are, to Saudi Arabia?

ABDUL-GHANI AL-IRYANI: The Saudis [inaudible] Yemen [inaudible] —

AMY GOODMAN: Ah, we’re having trouble understanding you. If you moved your position, if you could move back to where you were.

ABDUL-GHANI AL-IRYANI: I am saying that the Saudi leverage in Yemen is quite substantial. And they have [inaudible] roles in producing [inaudible] —

AMY GOODMAN: Sorry, we can’t quite hear you.

ABDUL-GHANI AL-IRYANI: I’ll see if I can move. Do you hear me now?

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, if you talk directly into the phone.

ABDUL-GHANI AL-IRYANI: I am talking into the phone. It’s the line that’s bad. Saudi Arabia has played a positive role in brokering peaceful transfer agreement, and they are now continuing to [inaudible]. Hopefully, they will succeed, along with the U.S. and other sons of Yemen. And —

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, because we’re having so much trouble with the line breaking up. But Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani, thank you very much for being with us. We felt it was key to reach you in Sana’a. He’s a political analyst there and co-founder of the Democratic Awakening Movement.

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