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Yemeni president hands over power, but little changes

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SANAA, Yemen — More than a week after President Ali Abdullah Saleh handed over authority to his vice president, the autocrat still exerts enormous presidential power, issuing decrees and engaging with world leaders. His family still controls the security forces, which activists say have continued to kill and arrest protesters. His portrait still hangs ubiquitously around the capital.

“Nothing has changed,” declared Waleed al-Ammari, 30, a Web designer and a leader of the protest movement demanding an end to Saleh’s 33-year rule. “He’s still the one giving the orders.”

Even as the Obama administration and its allies applaud the power transfer deal they pushed for as a major step toward a peaceful political transition, violence and mistrust continue to grip Yemen. The activists who spearheaded Yemen’s 10-month-old populist revolt view the agreement as the latest attempt by Saleh to extend his rule over this Middle Eastern country, plagued by poverty, a determined al-Qaeda franchise and an emerging humanitarian crisis.

“When we look at his history as president, he always maneuvers,” Ammari said. “What he’s doing now is rearranging his cards to play another game.”

If Saleh remains influential, in whatever capacity, it could further divide Yemeni society and plunge the nation deeper into chaos. The United States fears al-Qaeda might take advantage of the turmoil and create a safe haven from which to target the West.

On Saturday, violence again erupted in the south-central city of Taiz, a cradle of the rebellion, as government forces killed two civilians during a third straight day of shelling, which threatened to derail the agreement. In recent days, street battles between anti-government tribesmen and government soldiers have forced dozens of families to flee and left more than 15 people dead, according to medical workers and local officials.

Mohammed Basindwa, an opposition politician who was appointed prime minister and tasked with forming a unity government, warned that “the continuous criminal shelling on the people of Taiz is an intentional act to foil the agreement.” Basindwa called on Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, to whom Saleh has transferred his powers, to order an immediate end to the killings or else “we will reconsider our stances.”

‘Guarantor of security’

Saleh’s loyalists insist he is sincere about ceding presidential authority but say he will be influential in Yemen in the months and years ahead. Even if the agreement holds, Saleh will remain head of the ruling party, with Hadi as his lieutenant.

“Ali Abdullah Saleh is a guarantor of security and he brings balance in the Yemeni society,” said Aref Alzouka, a senior ruling party official. “He has a right to play an influential role.”

Alzouka blamed the opposition for the violence in Taiz and accused it of trying to sabotage the agreement, which was brokered by Yemen’s Gulf neighbors. Three times, Saleh backed out of signing the deal. But after being threatened with sanctions and a freezing of his and his family’s assets, he signed on Nov. 23 in Riyadh in a ceremony witnessed by Saudi King Abdullah and Western and Arab ambassadors.

The deal allows Saleh to retain his title until elections, which are scheduled for February. But it also called for Hadi to immediately take over as interim leader. For the moment, the opposition and ruling party have agreed that Hadi will be the only candidate and would run the country for two years as a transitional figure until the next elections.

The agreement, though, was signed without input from Yemen’s street activists or powerful regional groups. Both have rejected the deal because it gives Saleh and his family immunity from prosecution and does not require a complete government overhaul.

“We will remain in the streets until we eliminate the whole regime,” said Ali Saif Al Duba’i, 52, a merchant turned activist.

If the agreement holds, Saleh would become the fourth Arab autocrat to be ousted from power this year.

But since giving up formal authority, Saleh has sent telegrams to world leaders and ordered an governmental probe into an attack on protesters. He has also declared a general amnesty for those who committed “stupidities” during the revolt, with one exception: those behind the June bombing inside his presidential compound that seriously wounded him.

Even if he retires after the elections, many Yemenis are convinced Saleh will hold onto power behind the scenes. And many question whether Hadi has the strength to break away from Saleh and his family.

“Saleh will not let anybody make decisions freely,” predicted Abdulla Almutareb, a businessman. “He will interfere with everything. For 33 years he’s been involved in everything. It will not be easy for him to step down and keep quiet.”

So far, the unity government has amounted to a reshuffling of political elites.

On Thursday, officials announced the composition of the unity government. The ruling party would remain in charge of key ministries such as defense, foreign affairs and oil, while opposition figures — many of whom have held posts in Saleh’s government — would get interior, finance and education ministries.

Protesters say the leaders of Yemen’s traditional opposition have hijacked the uprising for their own gains. “It disappointed a lot of hopes,” said Ammari, referring to the agreement. “They have divided the power. Now, the opposition is sharing power with the gangsters and the militias.”

Senior opposition figures say they want significant changes in a post-Saleh Yemen, but are deeply concerned Saleh will seek to remain in control. A smooth transition of power, they say, is possible only if the United States, Europe and Saudi Arabia apply constant pressure on Saleh.

“They need to send two clear messages. The first is to Hadi: ‘Go ahead. Do not hesitate. The international community is behind you,’ ” said Sakhr Alwajeeh, a senior opposition leader. “The second message is to Saleh and his family: ‘If you play from behind the scenes, there will be consequences for you.’’ ’

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