Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh yesterday bowed to pressure after a month of violent protests, but his pledge to devolve power to parliament was swiftly rejected as too late by the opposition.
In a major speech delivered in a gravelly voice to tens of thousands of people at a stadium in the capital, Sana’a, the veteran leader of the strategic US ally promised to hold a referendum on a new constitution later this year.
He also ordered his security forces to ensure the safety of anti-government protesters after weeks of unrest in which some 30 people have been killed, part of a wave of popular unrest that has rewritten the rules of Arab politics.
“I propose a new initiative to avoid sedition,” he announced in the nationally televised address, a day after fresh political violence saw police open fire on demonstrators near Sana’a University, killing one protester.
He said he would hold a “referendum before the end of the year on a new constitution clearly stipulating the separation of powers” between the president and the parliament.
The new charter would “install a parliamentary regime giving all executive powers to a government elected by parliament,” he added.
On the surface the announcement amounts to a political earthquake in an impoverished, deeply tribal country that has been smothered by Saleh’s suffocating political embrace for 32 years.
But the autocratic leader said he expected his offer to be rejected by the opposition, which on Sunday said dialogue was at an end and vowed to step up protests after Saleh refused demands to resign this year.
Within an hour of the announcement, a spokesman for the main parliamentary opposition group rejected the promised reforms as “too late,” signaling political unrest will continue.
“The president’s initiative is too late and constitutes the last breath of the political regime which protesters demand and end to,” opposition spokesman Mohammad al-Sabri said.
Yemen is a crucial partner of the US in the fight against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has plotted attacks against US targets from its redoubts in the country’s unruly tribal regions.
Washington has expressed concern about violence against demonstrators, but US President Barack Obama’s administration has not pressured Saleh to leave office in the way it leaned on then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak before his ouster last month.
US Department of State spokesman Mark Toner urged the government to investigate the use of “excessive force” in Wednesday’s deadly police raid on protesters at Sana’a University.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Tuesday that Washington wanted the Yemeni leadership to focus on political reforms that would respond to the “legitimate aspirations” of its people.
Saleh has lashed out at Obama for his repeated calls for restraint by Arab regimes that had long been key allies and his support for the popular protests that ousted veteran leaders in Egypt and Tunisia.