Thursday, November 24, 2011

Analysis: Saleh, quitting or dancing on the heads of snakes

By Sami Aboudi
DUBAI | Thu Nov 24, 2011
(Reuters) - After months of evasion, procrastination and defiance, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh had one more surprise up his sleeve: he signed a Gulf accord which, on paper at least, stripped him of his powers.
Yemenis now turn to just how the deal will be implemented to secure the dismantling of the rule of the 69-year-old whose iron grip enmeshed his family, friends and allies in the nation's military, business and economy.
Ten months of political strife have already loosened state control over much of Yemen, allowing free rein to northern rebels, southern secessionists and al Qaeda, even as drastic shortages of water, fuel and jobs stalk its 24 million people.
The convulsions in this fractured Arabian Peninsula state that borders oil giant Saudi Arabia, have brought the impoverished country to the brink of civil war, causing deep concern in Riyadh and Washington.
One of the main obstacles to implementing a deal, diplomats say, is Saleh himself, who once compared his own 33-year balancing act to retain power to dancing on the heads of snakes.
"I fear there are so many gaps and that issues of implementation could spoil the whole thing," said Ghanem Nusseibeh, a UK-based analyst.
"It is the best the Yemenis could expect."
Many diplomats warn the pact that Saleh signed to appease his opponents and the big powers contains flaws that could be exploited to undermine its implementation at every stage.
Saleh is a clever operator who has survived many tussles with rivals, and skillfully used patronage to keep tribal and political backers loyal.
Any hopes the deal might bring peace were rattled just one day after its signature with at least five Yemenis killed by gunmen believed to be Saleh loyalists who attacked a protest demanding Saleh face trial. The deal provides him with immunity.
There are also no signs of the thousands of protesters on Sanaa's streets leaving their tents that have become their homes for the past 10 months.
Many are still angry that the Gulf-brokered deal signed by Saleh guarantees him immunity, as well as his sons and nephew who have controlled a nation where about 42 percent live on less than $2 a day.
Diplomats say the accord was only signed after intense pressure by the United States, Saudi Arabia and European states on Saleh and on opposition parties to reach a deal.
They say that Washington was keen to wrap up the situation in Yemen in an orderly manner before a potential messy exit for Saleh that could affect its regional ally and the world's number one oil exporter, Saudi Arabia.
The United States is also keen to resolve the crisis in Yemen while it grapples with other regional challenges, especially in Syria and Egypt, the diplomats say.
Continued mayhem in Yemen, sitting along a vital shipping strait, also raises risks for world oil supplies.
Although the agreement accords Saleh a ceremonial position as head of state with no powers, he still holds sway over the armed forces and the economy.
Even if he heads to the United States after handing over power, as he had told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon he would do to seek medical treatment, Saleh will remain leader of the long-ruling General People's Congress party.
The party will be a partner in the power-sharing government that will be set up with the opposition during an interim period ahead of a presidential election.
Apart from controlling the main branches of the security establishment, including the elite Republican Guards and domestic security services, Saleh's relatives also dominate the economy through public and private companies they run.
Under the accord, a military committee headed by the country's new ruler, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, a former army officer respected by the opposition, will oversee restructuring of the armed forces.
But analysts are skeptical that such a committee will be able to remove top commanders such as Saleh's son, Ahmed, commander of the Republican Guards regarded by the United States as a bulwark against al Qaeda.
"Ahmed Saleh's presence at the helm of the Republican Guards is a continuation of the regime," said Ibrahim Sharqiyeh, an analyst at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.
"Will the Republican Guards be ready to see Ahmed replaced? It remains to be seen."
Equally worrying to many is the fact that key players in the opposition, especially activists who had camped in downtown Sanaa and Taiz for months, are not happy with the accord that gives Saleh and close aides, including family members immunity.
"We did not go out to the street and offer sacrifices so Saleh and his relatives are accorded immunity from legal pursuit," said Fayez Ahmed, a 26-year-old demonstrator who had been camping at Sanaa's Change Square for months. "We want the killers to be tried."
Regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia, which has long bank-rolled Saleh and some of his tribal opponents, has staked its reputation on the agreement when King Abdullah oversaw the signing ceremony in his palace in Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia, which had endured three years of attacks by militants including veterans of the Afghan and Iraq wars on foreigners, security forces, members of the royal family and an oil facility, has worried that al Qaeda will exploit the chaos caused by protests to set roots in Yemen and recruit followers.
The group has seized control in parts of Abyan province, including the capital Zinjibar and the coastal city of Jaar, which is under complete control of militants allied to al Qaeda.
But analysts say the threat to the accord also comes from two other sworn enemies of Saleh -- a dissident general who broke away from the Yemeni army after the outbreak of the uprising in February and from the al-Ahmar tribal federation led by Sadeq al-Ahmar.
Reflecting the lack of trust that exists between Saleh and his opponents, Adel Amin wrote in a column posted on the opposition's sahwa website ( that the Yemeni president will find a way to spoil the accord.
"He may offer objections to the proposed prime minister or could use the restructuring of the army and the security to obstruct the agreement," Amin wrote.
"It cannot be ruled out that a man like Saleh, who has mastered deception ... comes back after the signing to put us in front of a new crisis of interpretations on how to implement the initiative and the steps to do that."

Yemen power-transfer deal fails to stop violence with 5 protesters killed

By Associated Press, Updated: Thursday, November 24, 2011
SANAA, Yemen — President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s agreement to step down failed to halt anti-government demonstrations or prevent violence Thursday as regime supporters killed five protesters demanding that the ousted leader be put on trial for crimes ranging from corruption to bloodshed during the current uprising.
Saleh signed the U.S.-backed power-transfer deal, brokered by neighboring countries, Wednesday in the Saudi capital Riyadh in exchange for immunity from prosecution. It sets in motion a number of changes designed to stop the uprising that has battered Yemen’s economy and caused a nationwide security lapse that al-Qaida linked militants have exploited to step up operations.
Saleh passed his presidential duties to his vice president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, effectively ending his 33-year rule. If the deal holds, he’ll be the fourth leader to lose power in the wave of Arab Spring uprisings this year, following longtime dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
In the coming days, the opposition is supposed to name a prime minister, who will be sworn in by Hadi. The prime minister will then form a national unity government, evenly divided between the opposition and the ruling party. Hadi also is to announce a date for presidential elections, to be held within 90 days.
Observers note that the deal does not include a number of Yemen’s biggest power brokers, including Saleh’s relatives who head elite security forces, powerful tribal chiefs and military commanders who have joined the protesters.
Many of the protesters, who have camped out in public square for months to call for sweeping democratic reforms, rejected the deal immediately, saying the opposition parties that agreed to it were compromised by their long association with Saleh.
Thousands took to the streets again Thursday in the capital Sanaa, the central city of Taiz and elsewhere, protesting the deal and calling for Saleh to be tried for charges of corruption and for the killing of protesters during the uprising.
They chanted “No immunity for the killer” and vowed to continue their protests.
Security forces and government supporters opened fire on Sanaa’s main protest camp Thursday, killing five protesters with live ammunition, said Gameela Abdullah, a medic at the local field hospital.
A video posted online by activists showed men in long robes and Arab head scarves firing assault rifles at protesters, who scramble for cover. Some throw rocks and carrying large pictures of Saleh.
“We’ll keep fighting until Saleh is tried for all the crimes he has committed against the people in his capacity as the head of the armed forces,” said activist Bushra al-Maqtari in Taiz, which has seen some of the most violent crackdowns on anti-regime protesters. Hundreds of demonstrators have been killed nationwide since January.
Abdullah Obal, a leader in the coalition that signed the deal, said the opposition intended to meet with protest leaders to address their demands.
“The agreement does not cancel the youth’s demands or go against them,” he said. “It is their right to protest.”
Some doubt that the deal marks the end of political life for Saleh, who has proved to be a wily politician and suggested in remarks after the signing ceremony that he could play a future political role in the country, along with his ruling party. He had agreed to sign the deal three times before, only to back away at the last minute.
Saleh had stubbornly clung to power despite nearly 10 months of huge street protests in which hundreds of people were killed by his security forces. At one point, Saleh’s palace mosque was bombed and he was treated in Saudi Arabia for severe burns.
“The signature is not what is important,” Saleh said after signing the agreement. “What is important is good intentions and dedication to serious, loyal work at true participation to rebuild what has been destroyed by the crisis during the last 10 months.”
International leaders who had long pushed for the deal applauded Saleh’s signature, many hoping it would help end a security breakdown that has allowed Yemen’s active al-Qaida branch to step up operations in the country’s weakly governed provinces.
President Barack Obama welcomed the decision, saying the U.S. would stand by the Yemeni people “as they embark on this historic transition.”
King Abdullah also praised Saleh, telling Yemenis the plan would “open a new page in your history” and lead to greater freedom and prosperity.
Italy’s foreign minister, Giulio Terzi, lauded the agreement and called for an end to violence.
“Now it is necessary that the accord is fully implemented and that all violence cease,” he said.

Yemen Red Cross aid workers freed unharmed

Sana'a, Nov 24, 2011
Three aid workers have been released after being held by armed insurgents for two days in southern Yemen.
The Frenchwoman and her two Yemeni colleagues were working for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
They were abducted by insurgents from the Southern Movement in Lahej province on Tuesday.
The kidnappers had demanded the release of four prisoners held by the Yemeni authorities.
A local official said the insurgents had been assured that the four detainees would be released once the hostages were freed.
A spokesman for the Red Cross said that the three workers had now returned to their base in Aden.
Restive south
The aid workers were on their way to distribute food at a camp for displaced people who have fled from another southern province, Abyan, where the army is battling Islamist militants.
The Southern Movement is demanding greater autonomy for south Yemen, which was formerly an independent country with its capital at Aden.
Yemeni tribesmen have repeatedly kidnapped foreigners to use as a way of getting concessions from the government. More than 200 have been seized over the past 15 years, with most being released unharmed.
Earlier this month, three French aid workers were freed after being held for over five months in the east of the country.

Yemen's President Condemns Deaths, Orders Probe

November 24, 2011
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh ordered a probe into deadly violence in Sana'a on Thursday, a day after he agreed to an Arab League plan that calls for him to relinquish power.
Earlier Thursday, witnesses said five people were killed after loyalists to Saleh opened fire on protesters who were upset over a provision in his power transfer deal that gives him immunity from prosecution.
The state-run SABA news agency says Saleh condemned the violence and expressed regret that "forces and elements" in the country oppose peace and stability.
On Wednesday, Saleh and opposition leaders signed a long-awaited agreement that calls for him to transfer power to vice president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The plan, brokered by the Arab League, also calls for the government to hold early presidential elections.
The agreement is designed to end months of anti-government protests that have left hundreds dead and thousands wounded.
Also, al-Qaida-linked militants have seized control of several parts of southern Yemen as the government has struggled to contain unrest in other regions.