Pressure for Yemen’s Saleh to step down builds

Outside Sanaa University, almost every inch of Justice Street is packed with tents, as is nearby Freedom Street. Doctors, teachers, students — anyone, it seems, who is against Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh — stay in tents, calling for his ouster day and night.

Only a week ago, many protesters were cleared from here by snipers and bloodshed. But they returned, emboldened, and now there is a collective feeling in this crowded patch of the capital that Saleh’s rule has entered its last days. Reports Thursday that Saleh was discussing the terms of his departure with a top military officer who recently joined the opposition only heightened that mood.

On Thursday evening, hundreds of once pro-Saleh tribesmen arrived in what is known as “Change Square” from Marib Province and marched through the boisterous crowds, the latest group to announce their defection to the populist revolution. “Welcome, Welcome,” an activist yelled over loudspeakers.

Pressure is building, seemingly from every corner of Yemen, for Saleh to step down immediately, even as the United States and its allies appear to favor a more gradual transition of power in a fragile nation beset by multiple emergencies, including a potent al-Qaeda presence.

But Saleh, one of the wiliest politicians in the modern Middle East, has survived for 32 years. Although many here hope he will step down peacefully, some fear he will stay and fight, further weakening Yemen and perhaps bringing civil war.

Officials align with foes

Over the past week, influential generals, tribal leaders, diplomats and ministers have either resigned or aligned themselves with his opponents. On Thursday, a prominent leader of Yemen’s largest tribe, the Baqeel, added his support for the uprising, joining Saleh’s Hashid tribe, which also backs the opposition.

In response, Saleh has received parliamentary approval to install emergency law for a month, a move that could give him wide powers to crush his opponents. He has also offered numerous concessions, including a promise to step down after a presidential election at the end of year, instead of in 2013, when his term ends. But on Thursday, Yemen’s major opposition bloc snubbed his offer, sensing that the embattled leader is losing his grip on power.

Outside the university, the engine of the uprising, tens of thousands from all walks of life have been protesting daily, unwilling to compromise.

“We will not accept any negotiations,” said Mustafa Ali Magudi, a student who traveled here from the northern city of Amran. “We will not accept any concessions from Saleh. He must go now.”

Late Thursday night, Saleh promised a peaceful transfer of power according to a statement by him on the al-Jazeera news channel, although he did not provide a timeline or conditions for stepping down. But on Yemeni state television, Saleh accused the opposition of refusing to negotiate a power-sharing deal. He also offered to pardon military officials who defected, suggesting that he had no plans to hand over power soon.

“I announce a general amnesty for those who committed foolishness before and after Monday,” Saleh said. “We consider it foolishness and a reaction to what happened on Friday.”

Last Friday, government security forces and Saleh’s loyalists fatally shot 52 protesters steps from the entrance to the university. That triggered the wave of defections from key political and military positions, a list that included Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, Saleh’s half-brother, who is widely seen as the second-most powerful man in Yemen.

Reports swirled around Sanaa that Saleh and Mohsen were in negotations to step down. Yemeni officials with knowledge of the talks said that one possibility would be for the two men to resign simultaneously, perhaps in the coming days, and hand over power to a civilian-led transitional governing council.

Mohsen told Reuters that he had served for 55 years and had no desire for any power. “I have no more ambition left except to spend the remainder of my life in tranquility, peace and relaxation far from the problems of politics and the demands of the job.”

Psychological turning point

The violence was a psychological turning point, too. Within days, the tents on the streets outside Sanaa University multiplied to include dozens from the tribes, villages and families of the victims, considered martyrs by the protesters. Large banners rose up, depicting graphic images of the dead.

The al-Faqih tribe lost two of its sons, Nisham and Awad. So tribe members arrived in scores on Justice Street and erected their tent. They had a lot to lose: Many of their tribesmen were employees in the government apparatus.

“It didn’t matter anymore,” said Mohamed Hamid al-Faqih, a cousin of Nisham. “Now, we all support the revolution.”

He added that when the government, as per tribal custom, tried to compensate the tribe for the loss of its sons, it refused.

On Freedom Street, Abdul Rahman Guzeika, the grandson of a tribal leader whose subtribe is a member of the Baqeel federation, stood near its tent. He said that “70 percent of tribes in Yemen supported Saleh before Friday, but after the bloodshed, everybody turned against him.” They included his tribe.

Saleh has traditionally gained tribal loyalty by showering jobs, money and government positions on tribal leaders. That won’t happen again, Guzeika said.

“We have principles,” he said. “Our people will not be bought by money.”

Special correspondent Hakim Almasmari in Sanaa contributed to this report.

Sudarsan Raghavan has been The Post's Kabul bureau chief since 2014. He was previously based in Nairobi and Baghdad for the Post.
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