Yemen's Saleh promises to step down; skeptical West mulls sanctions

In an interview with French TV, Yemen's President Saleh promised to step down – again. Western nations may try sanctions to compel his departure as conditions in Yemen worsen.

Khaled Abdullah/Reuters/File
Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh points during an interview with selected media, in Sanaa, Yemen, in this May 25 file photo. Saleh said in a recorded interview aired Monday night that he will leave office within 90 days of reaching a deal on a formal process for implementing a Gulf initiative aimed at ending the nine-month-old crisis in his country.

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Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh said in a recorded interview aired Monday night that he will leave office within 90 days of an agreement by the regional economic bloc the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

In the France24 interview, Mr. Saleh said that when the structure of a power transfer is settled and elections happen, he would leave, CNN reports. "I know the difficulties, the negatives, the positives, I will not hang onto power," said Yemen's president of 33 years. "Whoever hangs onto power I think is crazy."

However, there is deep skepticism in the West that Saleh is sincere, since he has reneged on similar promises repeatedly since Yemen's antigovernment uprising began in February. The United States, United Nations, and other international powers have urged him to step down for months to no avail. Now, with security and humanitarian conditions dramatically worse, Western leaders are reportedly considering sanctions against him and his relatives, a number of whom have powerful positions in his regime.

The UN envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, arrived in Sanaa this week to push for a transfer of power according to the terms laid out in a US-backed plan crafted by the GCC, the Associated Press reports.

In the chaotic months since the uprising began, Yemen's security has collapsed. Pacified tribes and local and Al Qaeda-linked militants have taken up arms throughout the country, the Associated Press reports. Militants have taken over sections of cities in the south, currently holding swathes of the city of Zinjibar, and antigovernment tribesmen have taken up positions in the northern part of the country.

Saleh critics say that the president has intentionally allowed security to deteriorate to shore up his argument that he is the only one who can control Yemen.

“Saleh has used war and chaos to suppress the protests. He is trying to say that his presence is the only way for Yemen’s stability and so he allowed al-Qaida and fighters to run free in southern Yemen,” said Al-Galil Waddah, a spokesman for the Yemen Observatory for Human Rights, according to AP. 

The months of unrest have also created the risk of a humanitarian crisis. Vice President Abdu Rabu Mansour warned Saturday that a "hunger revolution" was looming, Xinhua reports. According to a report from Al Arabiya, earlier this year Yemen was the fourth lowest country in the Arab world on the UN human development index – and that was before the uprising began, disrupting access to water, food, and electricity. Almost half of Yemenis live below the poverty line, about a third don't get three meals a day, and more than a third are unemployed.

… Relief supplies from the international community are not guaranteed to reach civilians, the looming humanitarian crisis is largely ignored by officials as the political situation take the spotlight on policy. Many areas remain inaccessible to aid organizations because of running battles. …

Persisting poverty, shortages of fuel, rising prices of food and water, and breakdown of public services have surfaced in various guises across the country over the last nine months.  … The prevailing political crisis has indeed led to an economic burden at large ─ the currency has crashed, and many well established businesses have shut off their operations, while others have raised their prices due to the shortage of goods. On the other hand, hospitals can’t operate at full capacity, as patients with intensive healthcare requirements cannot be admitted to hospitals due to electricity power cuts.
 Add to this the fact that the government has been forced to import almost entirely its fuel from neighboring countries, due to oil shortages after an antigovernment blew up oil pipeline in March.

In the absence of cooperation from Saleh, Western countries are considering sanctions on Saleh and his son Ahmed, who leads the Republican Guard, according to an unnamed diplomat interviewed by Agence France-Presse. The sanctions are intended to pressure them into agreeing to a peaceful solution.

In a piece for Foreign Policy, Jeb Boone, a freelance journalist in Sanaa until earlier this year, argued for the international community to freeze Saleh's assets. The international community's delay in exerting pressure on Saleh is "directly contributing to prolonging conflicts in Yemen's rural areas," writes Boone.

To stop further economic and political deterioration as well as reinstituting stability across the country, the international pressure on Saleh will have to increase. Freezing his assets is a good place to start, as many Yemeni protesters have harped on since February, but it may take much more. Members of his family are still deeply entrenched in positions of power in the military and other branches of the government. For a solution to be found, international pressure must also be exerted on them to relinquish their positions of power as well.

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