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Yemen's president agrees to step down

Ali Abdullah Saleh accepts a plan to leave office in exchange for criminal immunity for his deadly crackdown on street demonstrations. But protesters may not go along.

April 24, 2011|By Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times
  • Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh waves to his supporters earlier this month. Saleh has reportedly agreed to an international deal to step down in exchange for criminal immunity in deadly violence against protesters.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh waves to his supporters earlier this… (Muhammed Muheisen, Associated…)

Reporting from Cairo — Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has agreed to an internationally negotiated plan to step down within 30 days in exchange for criminal immunity for his deadly crackdown on protests that have tipped the nation perilously close to civil war, Yemeni officials and opposition leaders said Saturday.

But the canny Saleh has broken many promises, and the latest concession could be another maneuver by a leader who has remained defiant amid massive street demonstrations and the defections of top military and government officials.

Yemen's opposition leaders said they may accept the deal with reservations.

But hundreds of thousands of protesters are unlikely to go along. They have been calling for Saleh's immediate resignation and have voiced little willingness to grant immunity to him or his relatives, including his son, Ahmed, head of the Republican Guard.

The decision came amid pressure from the United States and Saudi Arabia for Saleh to stem unrest that has left more than 120 people dead and added dangerous overtones to a region gripped by democracy movements. Yemen is struggling with widespread poverty, secessionist tensions in the south and a persistent threat from an Al Qaeda affiliate that has plotted attacks on U.S. airplanes.

The deal speaks to the complexities and ironies of Middle East politics. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, both members of the Gulf Cooperative Council that brokered the plan, have violently put down demonstrations in their own countries. But the GCC feared that Yemen's increasing instability would spur terrorism in the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula and would be exploited by Iran.

If Saleh does step down, he would join the former presidents of Tunisia and Egypt as leaders forced out of power this year by popular revolts. But unlike Zine el Abidine ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Saleh's tenacity, sharp political instincts and control of key state institutions have so far allowed him to orchestrate the conditions for his departure, especially immunity, which was not granted to the other two.

Saleh's ruling General People's Congress and its political partners "have officially accepted the GCC proposals without any reservations," said Mohammed Basha, spokesman for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington.

The deal calls for Saleh to form a unity government and leave office within 30 days. Upon his resignation, he will hand power to his vice president, who will work with a transitional government until elections are held within 60 days. The agreement gives Saleh what he has demanded for weeks: a graceful exit that adheres to the constitution.

Saleh is also stipulating an end to demonstrations, a prospect that the opposition says it cannot guarantee because it does not control the protesters, many of whom are suspicious of any political party.

A government official briefed on the GCC talks hinted that Saleh's ruling party had adopted a pragmatic approach: "It was argued that, given the opposition's guaranteed rejection of the document in its current form, the government would appear more conciliatory in front of the international community by signing off on the plan."

That script appears to be unfolding. Opposition spokesman Muhammad Qubati said: "We cannot accept taking part in a unity government with President Saleh still as its head. We want the president to quit immediately.... The opposition cannot possibly agree with this scheme. We enter into a new government only after the president resigns."

Aidroos Naqeeb, a leader of the opposition Socialist Party, indicated a possibility for compromise on at least some provisions: "We have not rejected it, but we still have not formally agreed."

Saleh's brinkmanship has been sharp since the protests began in February. He has survived the resignation of key party and tribal officials and the defection of several top generals. The country's army is divided between the president and the protesters. Dueling demonstrations between hundreds of thousands of antigovernment protesters and Saleh supporters have clogged the capital, Sana, for weeks.

The man who has ruled Yemen for 32 years has been both steely and conciliatory. On Saturday, hours before his acceptance of the GCC plan was announced, a general strike swept the nation and Saleh blamed the opposition for "dragging the country into a civil war."

But the political ground around him has been shrinking. Saleh intimated weeks ago that he would consider stepping aside by the end of the year if he could hand the country to "safe hands" or officials he trusted. Talks intensified along those lines as the U.S. became involved and later when the focus shifted to GCC negotiations with the opposition and Saleh loyalists.

A Yemeni official, who asked not to be named, said that the U.S. wanted the Saudis to play a prominent role in deliberations. Washington's relations with the kingdom have been strained since democracy movements began to spread across the region. The Saudis were angry that the U.S. did not do more to prop up Mubarak, and tension further increased when Saudi troops helped crush protests in neighboring Bahrain.

Saleh has been a U.S. ally in fighting Al Qaeda, but his relationship with Washington has often been testy. Without Saleh, though, the Obama administration may have to rely on an untested leader in the battle against Islamic militants at the intersection of the Middle East and the Horn of Africa.

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

A special correspondent in Sana, Yemen, and Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.

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