Huge crowds celebrated on the streets of Yemen on Sunday after president Ali Abdullah Saleh fled to Saudi Arabia—saying he needed medical treatment.
“The people have brought down the regime,” chanted the crowds in University Square at the heart of the capital, Sana’a. Protesters have renamed it Change Square and camped there since February.
Saleh, who has held power in the country for 33 years, was injured in an attack on the presidential compound on Friday of last week. Other leading members of his regime were also hurt.
Throughout Friday and Saturday, members of Saleh’s regime insisted that the injuries were minor.
However on Sunday morning it was announced that Saleh had left to have surgery.
Although Saleh’s supporters still say he will come back “in a few days”, that was looking increasingly unlikely.
“The squares have been filling up with people celebrating, and that in itself makes it harder for the dictator to return,” Abubakr Al-Shamahi, a Yemeni activist based in Britain, told the British Socialist Worker newspaper.
“My cousins celebrated right through Saturday night in Change Square. It was such a relief that the crackle of gunfire was replaced by the sound of fireworks.”
But he is nervous that while a lot of Saleh’s family have fled, some have stayed. The Central Security Forces are still under the command of Saleh’s eldest nephew, Yahya, for example.
“I want some sort of official statement that Saleh has gone for good before I’m happy to celebrate,” he added.
This sort of uncertainty about the situation is common.
The revolt has seen mass demonstrations across the country, and the establishment of Change Square camp.
Inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the movement has been gaining strength. It has rocked the rulers of what is one of the poorest counties in the world, with an unemployment rate of 35 percent.
Strikes in the south of the country had begun to spread to the north, with airline workers in Sana’a walking out on Saturday. These mass strikes have been key to the revolt.
The movement had also gained support from key tribal leaders in northern Yemen, who had previously supported Saleh.
On 22 May, 10,000 heavily armed members of the Hashid tribal federation entered Sana’a, and street fighting between them and forces loyal to Saleh began.
They seized a number of key government buildings, and members of Saleh’s army, including a brigade of the elite Republican Guard, defected.
The Western media and governments are now arguing that there is a “power vacuum” in Yemen, or that it is a “failed state”.
This should come as no surprise. Saleh’s regime has been supported by Western governments for decades. They have handed him money, weapons, and military training.
Many in the West also claim that, with Saleh gone, Al Qaida will increase its influence. The Sun newspaper this week went as far as calling Yemen “the new republic of Al Qaida”.
But the fact is that the movement in Yemen is a mass revolt from below—like the others across the Middle East and North Africa.
The real risk is that the Yemeni protest movement does not continue after Saleh resigns.
But Abubakr Al-Shamahi thinks it will.
“Yemenis are very stubborn people,” he said. “They’ve suffered 800 dead. People won’t let things go back to ‘normal’. People want change.”