Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh gestures during a speech at Sana University,… (Mohammad Huwais / AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Sana, Yemen, and Cairo — Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh has tentatively agreed to a five-point plan from opposition leaders that includes the demand that the man who has ruled the troubled Arabian Peninsula nation for more than three decades step down by the end of the year, according to the president's office.
Update, March 3, 1:23 p.m.:
The office of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh said Thursday that the president will not step down by the end of this year.
Opposition figures and Saleh have reached "an initial agreement," said presidential spokesman Mohammed Basha. It is unclear, however, whether Saleh, who was meeting with opposition leaders Wednesday night, would attempt to modify the proposal in order to remain in office until a presidential election in 2013.
Saleh's departure would dramatically alter Yemen's political landscape. The country has been struggling with a secessionist movement in the south, rebels in the north and an active Al Qaeda network. The U.S. has long been concerned about Islamic militants exploiting a political vacuum in a country dominated by tribes and plagued by corruption, poverty and malnutrition.
It is uncertain whether Saleh leaving his post in nine months would calm tens of thousands of protesters who for weeks have been calling for his immediate overthrow. The president has already made a number of concessions, including a promise that he would not seek reelection, that his son would not succeed him, and that he would stem widespread government corruption.
Saleh has broken similar promises in the past and his assurances have largely fallen on deaf ears. But he is under increasing strain as tribes, religious leaders, students, workers and others have not relented in pressuring him to resign.
The opposition plan would also require that Saleh take indirect responsibility for the deaths of nearly 30 protesters killed by security forces and government loyalists during the last three weeks, but he has repeatedly balked at making such an admission.
The five-point plan additionally calls for the peaceful transition of power in the next nine months and stipulates that all Yemenis, including those living outside the country, should be involved in discussions to form a new government.
It also would ensure Yemenis' right to protest peacefully, create a committee to investigate the attacks against protesters and require government compensation for the families of those who died.
The president made a conciliatory gesture to the opposition Monday, calling for a power-sharing government until the presidential elections. The opposition rejected that proposal, saying any feasible road map for a peaceful transition of power must require that the president step down immediately.
Wednesday's opposition plan, however, sidestepped that demand, a move that may limit its support among protesters.
"I think it's a big mistake," said Khaled Anesi, a human rights lawyer involved in the protests. "The opposition will lose the people on the street, who will not be satisfied until Saleh announces he will step down from power. The opposition will kill its future."
Ahmed Fakhil, a Sana University student, was upset too.
"Haven't we suffered long enough? We can't begin to build a new democracy while he is still at the head of the regime," he said. "We are the ones out here in the sun, not the opposition. Saleh must listen to us."
In Washington, the White House released a statement saying Saleh had called John Brennan, the top counter-terrorism advisor to President Obama, "to convey his regret for misunderstandings related to his public remarks that Israel and the United States have engaged in destabilizing activities in Arab countries."
Saleh, who has been assisting U.S. officials in the war against the extremist group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, had given a fiery speech Tuesday blaming the U.S. and Israel for the turmoil in the Arab world and saying that the anti-government protests in his nation were being "run by the White House."
"Mr. Brennan expressed appreciation for the call," the White House statement read, "and said that any comments that seek to attribute blame for recent developments in the region are unhelpful, as they ignore the legitimate aspirations of people in the Arab world."
Special correspondent Edwards reported from Sana, Yemen, and Times staff writer Fleishman from Cairo.