The events, five days after President Obama called on Saleh to “follow through on his commitment to transfer power,” underscored how volatile and violent a transition of power could become in a Middle East nation the United States sees as a vital ally in the battle against al-Qaeda.
Saleh has twice before reneged on promises to step down, but his refusal Sunday appeared to mark a breaking point in the diplomatic effort to end a three-month-old crisis that has plunged the country into chaos.
Diplomats arrived in the UAE Embassy on Sunday afternoon, expecting that Saleh and other senior Yemeni officials would sign the agreement. At approximately 4 p.m., a crowd of armed men gathered outside the embassy, proclaiming their support for the president and decrying the deal.
Two hours later, as concern for the safety of the diplomats grew, the Yemeni military dispatched helicopters to the compound to whisk out the diplomats. Some diplomats reportedly were carried out in the aircraft. U.S. Ambassador Gerald M. Feierstein left the embassy by car, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy said Sunday night.
Feierstein and the other ambassadors met later at the presidential palace, where members of Saleh’s General People’s Congress party signed the agreement as Saleh watched, according to the official Yemen News Agency. Then, to the dismay of the diplomats, the president indicated he had some reservations about the deal, and refused to sign.
Yemen experts said the protests and their aftermath were the latest in a series of crises orchestrated by Saleh as part of his ongoing effort to retain his grip on power.
“This crisis was manufactured in a way so that Saleh could come in and solve it and hope he could distract everyone from the issue at hand,” Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton University, said in telephone interview.
Johnsen said reporting from the region indicates that Saleh henchmen had been directing the protests that converged on the UAE Embassy and have been seeking to exploit divisions among factions of the protest movement in Yemen for months.
Saleh believes that the longer he can draw out the transition, the better his chances of manipulating the process or subverting it altogether, Johnsen said. Yemen’s history, and the fractious nature of the protest movement, suggest that Saleh may still prevail. The opposition is united by disdain for Saleh and frustration with his rule, but little else.
Late in the day, Saleh appeared on state television to say he had refused because leaders of the country’s political opposition, who had signed the deal the day before, had not done so in his presence.