Yemen’s coalition of opposition parties reversed course late last night and accepted an initiative that would see longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh step down in 30 days, potentially breaking three months of political deadlock.
The deal, which was presented last week by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), meets opposition leaders' demand for Mr. Saleh's departure but also calls for immunity for Saleh, his relatives, and his aides. It gives the opposition a role in an interim national unity government but also requires them to end their involvement in the protests that have posed an unprecedented challenge to Saleh's 32-year rule in Yemen.
Representatives from the ruling party and the opposition are expected to sign the initiative within days, opening the way for a measure of stability to return to the fragile Arab nation. But throughout the country, protesters are united against the initiative and claim that the opposition umbrella group, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), does not represent their interests.
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Indeed, the sudden acceptance of the proposal highlights mounting tensions between the JMP and the youth movement credited with starting the antiregime movement. For months, student coalitions have claimed that their voices are being drowned out by the official opposition parties. If the Gulf deal proceeds, their role could be significantly diminished.
Primary among protesters' grievances with the GCC plan is the offer of immunity to Saleh and his family, who control many of the country’s top intelligence and security posts. At least 120 antigovernment demonstrators have been killed since protests began in January, according to Amnesty International. Clashes between demonstrators and security forces broke out yesterday in the cities of Taiz, Ibb, and al-Baida. Three people were reported killed.
“Nowhere else in the world can another country come in and grant immunity to someone. [Saleh] has committed crimes against the people and we have the right to prosecute him," says Hassan Loghman, a protest organizer. "This is not anyone else’s decision to make.”
Deep distrust of Saleh
Popular rejection of the plan is additionally fueled by a deep distrust of Saleh’s regime. Since the beginning of protests, demonstrators have said they would settle for nothing less than Saleh’s immediate resignation. Many see granting the president 30 days before his resignation as an opportunity for him to maneuver his way into keeping power until the end of his term in 2013.
Saleh is notoriously capricious. Less than 24 hours after agreeing to the GCC initiative on Saturday, the president told the BBC that he would step down only at the demand of the majority of the country.
“I will not be subjected to a minority,” he said, adding that he considered the GCC initiative to be a temporary solution.
“Anyone who tries to backtrack on the deal at this point will lose legitimacy and international support,” says Abdul Ghani al-Iryani, a Sanaa-based independent political analyst. “I don’t think anyone is foolish enough to back out now.”
Protesters vow to fight against JMP
According to the GCC agreement, the president would hand his resignation to the parliament, which could either accept or reject his offer. If it accepted his resignation, the national unity government would draft a new constitution and oversee elections in 60 days. Under the proposal, 50 percent of parliamentary seats in the interim government would be allotted to Saleh’s GPC party, 40 percent going to the JMP, and 10 percent to “other."
The JMP was initially hesitant to agree to the deal. But sensing a fleeting moment of opportunity, opposition leaders seem to have come to terms with the agreement, provided that demonstrators outside JMP control are allowed to exercise their right to demonstrate.
“At this point we’ve agreed to the initiative, but have not officially signed it,” says JMP spokesman Mohammed al-Sabri.
The vast majority of protesters who have taken to Yemen’s streets are unaffiliated with the JMP, however, and have vowed to stay in the streets and add the JMP's agreement to the GCC plan to their list of grievances.
“If the JMP continues with this agreement, we’ll stay here and protest against them too,” says Majdy al-Awaj, a demonstrator. Other demonstrators spoke of attempting to escalate protests in coming days, with the possibility of marching on the presidential palace – a move that would almost certainly result in violence.
While the initiative may lack support among demonstrators, it could be the most practical way to diminish the threat of widespread violence. Such violence is a distinct possibility since Maj.Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the country’s top commander, defected last month and ordered his soldiers to defend protesters. The capital has been divided by opposing troops since.
“The protests will certainly continue, but the military standoff is likely to come to an end,” says Mr. Iryani.