Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has finally found himself an honourable exit that might not completely throw him out of politics despite a year-long uprising against his 33 years in power, analysts say.
Saleh finally left his country on Sunday heading to the United States, his ally in the “war on terror” that has supported the Arab Spring which swept the region last year.
The United States said it will receive the 69-year-old who travelled there for medical treatment for a “limited time” after which Saleh would return to Yemen where he will continue to lead his General People’s Congress party.
“It is the end of Saleh as a president, but his political role is linked to future political developments,” said Yemeni analyst Ali Seif Hasan.
For Hasan, “Ali Saleh is pragmatic with excellence. He knows that he got himself the best settlement” from a Gulf-brokered power transfer deal by which he handed power over to his deputy in return for immunity from prosecution for himself and his aides.
Yemen’s parliament on Saturday adopted a law giving him complete immunity from prosecution in return for stepping down.
The law, which also grants limited immunity to his aides, has drawn wide condemnation from young protesters, who have seen hundreds of their compatriots killed by Saleh’s security forces and loyalists since the uprising against his rule broke out in January 2011.
It has also been strongly criticised by Western rights groups and the United Nations.
The man, who has compared ruling Yemen to “dancing on the heads of snakes” has proved to be a smart tactician, portraying himself as a “saviour” after he signed the Gulf deal he had stalled during months of unrest that threw the country into chaos and left its economy in shambles.
On Sunday, he appeared on television in a dramatic farewell speech in which he appealed for forgiveness from the Yemeni people for “any shortcomings” during his rule.
Saleh’s political future “will depend on his opponents’ errors,” Hasan said.
For analyst Ibrahim Sharqieh of the Doha-based Brookings Centre, “Saleh is not yet over.”
According to the analyst, the immunity that Saleh has obtained might not protect him in case he was wanted by international courts.
Any victims will also continue to have the right to demand compensations, said Sharqieh.
For Sharqieh, it was international pressure that forced Saleh to cede power, in addition to the fact that he has “achieved his goal during the latest phase of the crisis by being granted an honourable exit” compared to fellow Arab leaders who were ousted or killed last year.
Saleh has escaped the fates of his three counterparts — Tunisia’s Zine El Abdine Ben Ali who was exiled, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak who is facing trial, and Libya’s dictator Moamer Kadhafi who was killed during his capture.
The thousands of protesters who have been camped out at Sanaa’s Change Square, the epicentre of a pro-democracy movement calling for Saleh’s ouster, cautioned it was too early to celebrate with the leader’s relatives still in charge of Yemen’s military and security apparatus.
The protesters reject the Gulf deal and insist on Saleh’s trial.
Mohammed Qahtan, a leader in the influential Islamist Al-Islah (reform) party, the main opposition group during Saleh’s rule, said: “It is definitely Saleh’s end.”
This will fully take effect after the February 21 elections by which Saleh’s deputy Abdrabuh Mandur Hadi will be officially elected as a president of consensus.
Saleh got a “very good” deal because the “settlement was achieved through negotiations and because the opposition did not push things towards the edge and accepted the agreement out of their fear for the country,” Qahtan said.
The role of Saleh’s sons and relatives will meanwhile diminish with the restructuring of security and military forces, as per the Gulf plan, especially with the redeployment of Republican Guard troops.
“The political agreement has ended the conflict in Sanaa but has on the other hand, thrown it fully open for other major political problems such as the south (the site of a powerful secessionist movement) and the Huthis,” Zaidi Shiite rebels in the country’s north, said Hasan.
He projects however, that Saleh’s GPC party, that holds a majority in parliament, “will continue to have a say” in the country’s political scene.
But the role of Saleh himself “will remain open to all options,” says Hasan, adding that the veteran has “left with his head held up high.”