By MARGARET COKER and HAKIM ALMASMARI
Sana'a, Apr 23, 2011- Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has accepted a political deal brokered by neighboring Arab countries that would have him step down from power after 30 days in exchange for immunity for himself and his close relatives, according to a presidential aide.
The apparent softening of the longtime ruler's recalcitrant stance that he would remain in power until the end of his term in 2013 comes after a burst of arm-twisting and backroom diplomacy by Yemen's close allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It renews the possibility that the volatile country could see a handover of power before the volatile country descends into widespread violence, but it is unclear whether key groups who comprise the backbone of Yemen's opposition movement would accept the controversial clause of immunity for the man who has ruled Yemen for 32 years.
Yemen's key Arab allies and the U.S. have grown increasingly worried that the three-month political standoff has reversed gains made by American and Yemeni forces to weaken and destroy the entrenched Al Qaeda networks inside Yemen. In recent weeks, as protests against the president have gained traction, as many as half of the country's U.S.-trained counter-terrorism forces, which are commanded by President Saleh's son and nephews, have left their posts in al Qaeda-infested areas of the country to help defend the leader's official residence in the capital San'a.
Last week's burst of lobbying by Gulf officials, led by Saudi Arabia, sent the message to embattled President Saleh that he had lost the backing of his neighbors, but that they would ensure he received a dignified exit from office, according to two Arab diplomats familiar with the negotiations conducted over the last week.
"President Saleh welcomed the proposal and has accepted it," presidential aide Tariq Shami told The Wall Street Journal. "Though President Saleh has constitutional rights to stay in power, he is willing to leave office willingly."
The turnaround by President Saleh – who has rejected nearly a dozen other negotiated agreements to hand over power in the last month – puts pressure on Yemen's opposition which has dangerously fractured in the last few days during the extended political stalemate in which both sides have faced off in the streets of the capital backed by tanks and soldiers loyal to the opposing sides.
The latest agreement hashed out earlier in the week during talks under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council contains a divisive point for the protesters, namely the granting of immunity for the president, his close relatives who run the country's intelligence service, Republican Guard and elite Interior Ministry forces and for loyal officials who have served the president and his ruling party. It is unclear whether the leaders of the opposition movement can lobby enough of the wide-ranging anti-Saleh factions to back the plan.
Since January, motley groups of political forces have taken to the streets demanding the end of President Saleh's 32-year rule, including student groups, tribal leaders and military officers.
Mainstream opposition parties have said in principal that they agree to the terms, which would have President Saleh handing over power to the country's vice president within 30 days of the official signing of the deal. His son and nephews would retain control of their military and national security positions for 60 days to ensure continuity of counter-terrorism operations. The president's family would also receive immunity from prosecution.
However, the student groups which called for the first street protests and which have become the moral backbone of the anti-Saleh movement, have hone a tough line on the question of immunity. Thousands of these protesters marched in the capital on Saturday to show their displeasure with the GCC proposal. "We the youth of revolution reject any proposal that does not hold Saleh accountable for the killing of more than 140 revolutionary protesters" during the street demonstrations this year, said a statement released by the students' organizing committee. "The GCC proposal approves Saleh stepping down from power in thirty days while we ask for his immediate departure. This is against the will of the people and in favor of the oppressor Saleh," the statement said.
Like their counterparts in Egypt, the Yemeni student groups are a key constituent that the opposition parties have been trying to woo as they look ahead to their place in the political spectrum after the president's ouster.
The GCC proposal has been hashed out after talks hosted by the Saudi and UAE governments earlier this week. Representatives of President Saleh and the opposition political groups were invited to the meetings – but the students themselves were not.
Leading members of the opposition had sent emissaries to the students to lobby for the deal, yet they admitted it was a struggle to entice the students to change their minds and accept the GCC proposal. "The youth want Saleh to stand trial and not have immunity. This is a major issue to them and the opposition will not accept any proposal until it reaches grounds of understanding with the youth protesters," said Mohammed Qahtan spokesperson for the opposition Joint Meeting Parties, the umbrella group of opposition political parties.
Source: The Wall Street Journal