Thursday, March 31, 2011

Yemen Opposition in Standoff With President

By MARGARET COKER in Abu Dhabi and HAKIM ALMASMARI in San'a, Yemen

Mar 31, 2011

Yemen's political opposition is at a stalemate with President Ali Abdullah Saleh over his latest demands that he says must be met before he steps down from power peacefully: guarantees that multiple male relatives will retain military and political opportunities as the country charts a new democratic future.

Mr. Saleh has clung to power for weeks amid an intensifying array of opponents—including the country's leading general, tribal sheikhs and political leaders—protesting to end his 32-year rule. In the past 10 days, amid often acrimonious political negotiations, the president has rejected at least seven separate deals offered in hopes of heading off possible civil war in the strategically important Arab country, according to Mr. Saleh's family members and aides and members of the opposition's negotiating team.

Now, heading into another Friday in which hundreds of thousands of Yemenis are expected to protest in the capital and other cities, nerves are raw and patience with the longtime leader is thin, increasing the likelihood for violence in the capital. Tanks and soldiers who have defected to the opposition have faced off for days against troops and tanks still loyal to the government.

"Saleh must leave while he still has a chance. Time is not on this side. He needs to know that we will not bear anymore of his games," said Nasr Ahmed, a senior official in the Joint Meetings Party, an umbrella group of political opposition parties.

It remains unclear if President Saleh's intentions are to give up power or not. Last week, he said in a nationally televised address that he would willingly give up power only to responsible individuals. He has also publicly criticized the opposition leaders and Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar as being "emotional" and "corrupt."

Given the uncertainty and tension looming over Yemen, one of the world's most heavily armed populations and a key al Qaeda stronghold, diplomats observing the negotiations have been surprised that the crisis hasn't descended into widespread violence. Tanks are deployed around central San'a, but clashes in the capital have been minimal since a crackdown by security forces two weeks ago that killed more than 50 unarmed demonstrators.

Some opposition leaders believe that their dedication to a negotiated solution has backfired. They see Mr. Saleh's gaining leverage in talks because he knows the opposition is reluctance to use force to bring him down.

A fundamental factor complicating a political solution to the crisis is intense lobbying by President Saleh's family urging him not to not leave office without guarantees for their political and financial future, according to one of his relatives and two people close to the family.

Mr. Saleh and his close relatives hold virtually all levers of power in Yemen. In addition to his three-decade uncontested rule, Mr. Saleh's eldest son, Ahmed, commands the U.S.-funded and trained Republican Guard, and two nephews, Yahya and Ammar, head the internal security forces and another elite counterterrorism unit. The three are the leading counterterrorism liaisons for the U.S. At least half a dozen other family members control other military commands.

Last weekend, the president and the opposition appeared close to finalizing a deal in which both the president and Gen. Ahmar—a former longtime ally and now political rival—would resign; power would shift temporarily to a civilian government, most likely headed by the current prime minister; and elections would be held without any Saleh official running for office. That deal also stipulated that Ahmed and the two nephews would retain their military roles in efforts to keep continuity with international counterterrorism relationships—but other family members weren't mentioned.

When other relatives got wind of the deal, they caused a ruckus in the presidential palace, shouting and accusing the president of abandoning them, according to the family member and two people close to the family. "They went crazy" and confronted the president, said the family member. They told Mr. Saleh that he was acting "selfishly and thinking only about himself and his son Ahmed."

It remains unclear how much pressure—if any—international counterterrorism allies such as the U.S. or Saudi Arabia are putting on Mr. Saleh to break the stalemate.

The president has long been comfortable using brinksmanship politics to stay in power, a Western diplomat said. Without a show of force against him, President Saleh may try to capitalize on any new street violence as a way to pressure international countries to keep him in power longer, the diplomat said.

"No one wants chaos in Yemen. A compromised and de-legitimized Saleh is better than chaos," the diplomat said.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

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