Arabs see Yemen as turning point for uprisings

CAIRO Sun Jun 5, 2011 9:47am EDT

CAIRO (Reuters) - Many ordinary Arabs claimed another scalp on Sunday in their quest to oust the region's autocrats and dismissed the idea that Yemen's president would ever return to power after treatment in Saudi Arabia.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh, wounded in an attack on his palace in the Yemeni capital last week, underwent surgery to remove shrapnel on Sunday. A party official said he would return to Sanaa to resume his duties. Few believe he will.

"This signifies the fall of the third Arab authoritarian regime and will give a massive boost to those fighting in Syria and Libya," said 27-year-old Egyptian banker, Hussein Khalil, who was among protesters who brought down Egypt's president.

In January, Tunisia's Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia after stepping down. About a month later, on February 11, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak quit amid protests. He vowed not to leave Egypt and now faces graft and murder charges.

Protests have spread, notably to Yemen, Syria, Libya and Bahrain, where other Arab rulers have been in power for decades. But protesters in these states have come up against rulers determined to hold on and ready to use military might.

Some now hope that could change.

"The departure of Saleh is a turning point not just for the Yemeni revolution but also is a huge push for the current changes in the Arab region and is the start of the real victory," said Zaki Bani Rusheid, a leading figure in Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood.

Saleh was wounded when shells struck his palace in Sanaa, killing seven people and wounding the president, the prime minister, his deputy and the parliament speaker. He left for Riyadh on Saturday to receive treatment.

"This is a face-saving move to let him abandon power. Maybe he realized that in the next attack he will not be able to save his life," said Alfred Samaan, the head of Iraqi Writers Union.

'ARAB SPRING'

Saudi Arabia has headed off restiveness in its own population with huge cash handouts. But it has been involved in the 'Arab Spring' in other ways: providing a haven for Ben Ali, sending troops to support Bahrain's rulers and now treating Saleh.

"If they want to get Saleh an exit based on his injuries, they have to first address the issues of demonstrators and opposing tribes," said Sami Alfaraj, president of Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies.

Yemen, a mountainous country where possessing a gun is commonplace, is riven by tribal rivalries that Saleh had for 33 years proved adept at juggling to stay in power. That changed as protesters rallied against him, inspired by the 'Arab Spring'.

"It is in Saudi Arabia's interest to end the events in Yemen because it does not want the trouble spilling across the borders," said Abdel-Rahman Hussein, 30, an Egyptian journalist.

Saudi Arabia, the world's top oil exporter, shares a 1,500-km (1,000-mile) border with Yemen. Until recently, with the United States, it had backed Saleh as an ally against a Yemen-based arm of al Qaeda.

Egyptian political scientist Hassan Nafaa said Saudi Arabia would not face criticism from Arab people for giving refuge to ousted leaders provided the deposed rulers did not use the kingdom "to interfere in their countries from there."

"The 'Arab Spring' will continue, Arab people are in a state of total rejection of their current ruling systems ... The only challenge is what the new rulers and political systems will be like," he added.

(Additional reporting by Amran Abocar in Dubai, Suleiman Khalidi in Amman and Waleed Ibrahim in Baghdad; Writing by Edmund Blair; editing by Myra MacDonald)

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