DUBAI (Reuters) - Burned, wounded and forced into medical exile in Riyadh, Ali Abdullah Saleh had seemed down and out, but a bravura speech by the Yemeni leader suggests he might yet return home to a country convulsed by months of unrest, violence and economic misery.
Saleh, visibly healthier than the gaunt, scarred figure who appeared in a televised speech five weeks ago, vowed in his address Tuesday to come back, hinting he will track down those behind an attempt to assassinate him in June.
In a touch of melodrama, he signed off with “See you soon in Sanaa” -- delighting several thousand supporters who had gathered to watch him live on television in the Yemeni capital.
Even Yemeni critics who had written him off acknowledged that they might have jumped the gun.
“It was a surprise to all of us,” said Abdul Ghani al-Iryani, a political analyst and co-founder of the Democratic Awakening Movement, referring to Saleh’s resilience.
“Saleh’s weakness in the early stages of the revolution was exaggerated. We were all at fault in seeing him losing his grip,” he said.
“I think the new position of the president will be ‘I will transfer power only if the culprits of the assassination attempt leave the country simultaneously’.”
Saleh’s foreign minister told Reuters last month the government wanted to transfer power via new elections but that the timetable for the president to step down was not realistic.
The veteran leader’s tenacity has dismayed many Yemenis who hoped he was gone for good when he flew to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment following a bomb blast at his palace mosque.
Yemen, an impoverished country of 23 million at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula has been in turmoil since January when protesters took to the streets demanding Saleh leave office.
He has ruled since 1978, overseeing the unification of north and south Yemen in 1990 and installing many relatives in top posts, especially in the military and security forces. Saleh may be weakened, but he remains a powerful player.
“He won’t be able to continue to rule as he did in the past, but he still has a significant base of power in which to come back to the country and, if not able to rule the country entirely, he’s certainly able to prevent anyone else from ruling it,” said Yemen scholar Gregory Johnsen of Princeton University.
Disparate opposition parties and youth activists, as well as tribal forces which clashed with loyalist army units just before Saleh left, have failed to capitalize on his absence.
A Gulf Arab plan backed by Saleh’s former allies, Saudi Arabia and the United States, called for him to hand power to his vice-president while opposition parties formed a new cabinet in a transitional process. But Saleh thrice reneged on the deal.
He now seems bent on wresting back the initiative. This week his ruling party even named Hamid al-Ahmar, a tribal leader and business tycoon, as prime suspect in the attempt to kill Saleh.
“The opposition hasn’t really managed to create an environment that would prevent him from coming back,” said Gala Riani, at London-based IHS Global Insight Middle East.
“If anything, the situation on the ground has been such that Saleh is almost proving his point that without him they can’t really agree on any alternative structures for governance and that the country will pretty much descend into chaos.”
Sources close to Saleh in Riyadh say he has not clarified his intentions. They suspect his extended family, including his son Ahmed who heads the presidential guard, is pressing him to return and hold onto power to safeguard their own interests.
Khaled al-Dakhil, a Saudi politics professor, said Saleh seemed to hope he could retain power until his term ends in 2013 and avoid the undignified exit of other Arab presidents such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who is in detention in Cairo, and Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, in exile in Saudi Arabia.
“His aim at this point is not to continue being president for 10 or 20 years, he wants to finish his term in 2013,” said Dakhil. “If that’s not possible, he wants some sort of guarantee about his future and the future of his cronies and sons.”
The Gulf initiative offered that guarantee, but Saleh may put more faith in his own proven political survival instincts.
“I think he would like to go back to Sanaa, this man is so stubborn. Over 30 years he established a huge network of interests. And I have been surprised that he still has popular support inside Yemen,” Dakhil said.
Saudi Arabia, which has in the past funded Saleh’s government as well as many Yemeni tribal leaders, including some who have turned against him, has yet to take a clear stance.
A Saudi official, who asked not to be named, suggested Saleh was bluffing in his latest speech, calling the vow to return “political maneuvering.” But he said the Saudi government was not stopping Saleh going home if he wanted to.
Many Yemeni politicians say they are frustrated that Saleh’s Saudi hosts have apparently not induced him to implement the Gulf initiative, whether he stays in Riyadh or not.
“Perhaps the paralysis in Yemen reflects division within Riyadh,” said Yemen specialist Sheila Carapico.
Saleh’s allies and supporters in Sanaa, where runaway inflation, electricity cuts and chronic water shortages have made life barely tolerable, were ecstatic about his speech.
“The president’s return is certain and there is nothing to prevent him coming back. I saw him yesterday and his health is much better than before. It was wonderful,” said taxi driver Muhammad al-Jamali.
Additional reporting Asma Alsharif in Jeddah, Mohammed Ghobari in Sanaa; Editing by Alistair Lyon