Under pressure from protesters and regional allies, Yemen’s president said he would sign a deal yesterday to step down after 32 years in power. Still, he condemned the proposal as “a coup” and warned the US and Europe that his departure will open the door for al-Qaeda to seize control of the fragile nation on the edge of Arabia.
The mixed signals from embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh followed two earlier promises by him to sign the proposal. Both times he backed away at the last minute, adding to the opposition’s deep mistrust of a leader known for the adept political maneuvering that has kept in power for decades.
In a sign that he may be ready to sign this time, the coalition of opposition political parties involved in the talks with Gulf Arab mediators was persuaded to sign the deal on Saturday, a day ahead of Saleh, based on what it said were guarantees that the president would follow through.
“We accept the initiative to stop bloodshed,” Saleh said in a televised speech, and an official statement earlier in the day said he would sign the deal yesterday.
The proposal, mediated by a six-nation regional bloc called the Gulf Cooperation Council, grants him immunity from prosecution if he leaves office within 30 days. However, it is far from certain whether it would satisfy all of the many different groups protesting his rule in the streets.
The proposal — first put forward in March by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates — gives a clear timetable for a transfer of power.
One week after Saleh signs, the opposition takes leadership of a national unity government that will include representatives of Saleh’s party. Parliament will then pass a law granting him legal immunity and a day later — 30 days after the deal is signed — he is to step down and transfer power to his deputy.
A month after that, presidential elections are to be held.
An official at the Yemeni foreign ministry said representatives of the opposition signed the agreement on Saturday in the presence of US and EU ambassadors, along with the chief mediator, the Gulf council’s secretary-general, Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the press.
Mohammed al-Sabri, the opposition coalition spokesman, said they received assurances from Gulf and Western countries that Saleh would also sign.
Saleh has managed to cling to power in the face of near daily protests by hundreds of thousands of Yemenis fed up with corruption and poverty. Like other anti--government movements sweeping the Arab world, they took inspiration from the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
The president has swung between offering concessions, taking them back and executing a violent crackdown that has killed more than 150 people, according to the opposition, which says it compiled the tally from lists of the dead at hospitals around the nation.
The bloodshed triggered a wave of defections by ruling party members, lawmakers, Cabinet ministers and senior diplomats. Saleh’s own tribe has joined those demanding his ouster. Most importantly, several top army commanders, including a longtime confidant who heads a powerful armored division, joined the opposition and deployed their tanks in the streets of the capital, Sana’a, to protect the protesters.