The departure of Yemen's battle-wounded president for treatment in Saudi Arabia set off wild street celebrations in the capital Sanaa, where crowds danced, sang and slaughtered cows in hopes that this spelled a victorious end to a more than three-month campaign to push their leader from power.
Behind the festive atmosphere, many feared Ali Abdullah Saleh, a masterful political survivor who has held power for nearly 33 years, will yet return - or leave the country in ruins if he cannot.
Hanging in the balance was a country that even before the latest tumult was beset by deep poverty, malnutrition, tribal conflict and violence by an active al Qaida branch with international reach.
Saleh, who was taken overnight to a military hospital in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, underwent successful surgery on his chest to remove jagged pieces of wood that splintered from a mosque pulpit when his compound was hit by rockets on Friday, said medical officials and a Yemeni diplomat.
The rocket attack, which the government first blamed on tribal fighters who in recent weeks turned against the president and later on al Qaida, killed 11 bodyguards and seriously injured five senior officials worshipping just alongside Saleh.
While Saleh is away, Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi is acting as temporary head of state, said the deputy information minister, Abdu al-Janadi. The minister said the president would return to assume his duties after his treatment, though experts on Yemeni affairs questioned whether a return is possible in the face of so much opposition.
"Saleh will come back. Saleh is in good health, and he may give up the authority one day but it has to be in a constitutional way," al-Janadi said. "Calm has returned. Coups have failed. We are not in Libya, and Saleh is not calling for civil war."
His sudden departure raised many questions, including whether his Saudi hosts would bless his return. The Saudis have backed Saleh and co-operated over the years in confronting al Qaida and other threats, but they are now among those pressing him to give up power as part of a negotiated deal.
Saudi Arabia has watched with concern the anti-government protests that have spread to other neighbouring countries like Bahrain and is eager to contain the unrest on its doorstep. The president's absence raised the spectre of an even more violent power struggle between the armed tribesmen who have joined the opposition and loyalist military forces under the command of Saleh's son and other close relatives. Street battles between the sides have already pushed the political crisis to the brink of civil war.