SANAA, Yemen — President Ali Abdullah Saleh on Saturday agreed to step down in exchange for immunity from criminal prosecution for himself and his family, the strongest indication yet that the embattled leader was willing to give up his 32-year grip on power if the opposition accepted his terms of exit.
Under a proposal by neighboring Arab states, Saleh would resign from office 30 days after a formal agreement has been signed. If Saleh, a vital U.S. counterterrorism ally, keeps his pledge, it would mark a rare negotiated transfer of power in a region where autocrats are increasingly resisting calls for their ouster by using violence and repression to suppress populist rebellions that are transforming the Middle East and North Africa.
(Muhammed Muheisen/AP) - Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, shown here at an April 15 rally, agreed to step down in exchange for immunity from criminal prosecution for himself and his family.
Middle East and North Africa in turmoil
Yemen’s political opposition said that while it had officially accepted the deal with reservations, it was negotiating conditions that could still derail a final agreement. It is also unlikely that youth and human rights activists who spearheaded Yemen’s uprising in late January would accept any agreement that allowed Saleh and his family to escape prosecution for crimes committed by the regime.
The activists particularly hold Saleh responsible for the deaths of 52 protesters in the capital, Sanaa, killed last month by snipers loyal to the regime.
“Not one person will accept that Saleh will be granted immunity,” said Adel al-Sarabi, a youth organizer. “He’s killed us. He’s killed hundreds of us. He must pay for his crimes.”
Saleh’s offer comes as former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak waits in detention facing possible prosecution for his role in the deaths of protesters this year and, along with his two sons, for alleged corruption during his rule. Saleh’s advisers and ruling party officials have said that what he fears most is sharing Mubarak’s fate and darkening his historical legacy.
Saleh is a shrewd political tactician, and it was unclear whether his offer was a genuine effort to stop this impoverished Middle East nation’s slide toward chaos or a calculated move to remain in power or blame the opposition for the political turmoil.
The state news agency Saba News reported Saleh as saying he had accepted the proposal only to prevent the opposition from forcing the country into a bloody and protracted civil war.
Yemen is gripped by multiple emergencies, including a rebellion in the north, a secessionist movement in the south and rapidly depleting resources such as oil and water. U.S. officials fear that al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch could take advantage of the political turmoil and deepen its presence here. The branch was behind two attempted attacks on U.S. soil: a failed plot to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner in December 2009 and last year’s attempt to send parcel bombs to Chicago.
The Obama administration has been quietly pushing for a peaceful transfer of power but has not publicly called for Saleh to step down.
Saleh’s offer comes amid pressure to relinquish power from Yemen’s neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia, who have long feared that Yemen’s instability could spill into their territories. He had apparently accepted a power transfer plan put forth by the Gulf Cooperation Council, which comprises Saudi Arabia and neighboring states, said Muhammed al Basha, a spokesman in the Yemeni Embassy in Washington.