Yemen’s president agrees to resign in tentative deal

Muhammed Muheisen/AP - Yemeni anti-government protestors called for the resignation of their president in Sanaa on Saturday.

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
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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.

According to the proposal, seven days after it is formally accepted, a transitional government comprising ruling party and opposition groups would be formed to oversee election preparations. The current parliament would adopt a law that grants Saleh, his family and aides immunity from prosecution for acts committed during his rule. Within 30 days, and after his immunity is assured, Saleh would hand over authority to his vice president, Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi and resign; Hadi would become acting president. Then, within 60 days, elections would be held. The new president would oversee the drafting of a new constitution.

The Obama administration reacted cautiously to reports of Saleh’s acceptance of the Arab proposal. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the United States welcomed the attempt by the Gulf Cooperation Council to resolve Yemen’s political crisis but added that the ultimate solution must enjoy broad support.

“There must be genuine participation by all sides, including youth, in an open and transparent process that addresses the legitimate concerns of the Yemeni people, including their political and economic aspirations and their calls to quickly bring all perpetrators of violence against protesters to justice,” Toner said in a statement released in Washington.

“We will not speculate about the choices the Yemeni people will make, or the results of their political dialogue,” he continued. “It is ultimately for the people of Yemen to decide how their country is governed.”

Mohammad Qahtan, a spokesman for Yemen’s main coalition of opposition of groups, said the leaders of all the parties have “officially accepted the plan.” But he said the interim government must be formed only after Saleh resigns and leaves office. The opposition is also against giving the country’s parliament — dominated by the ruling party — the power to approve or reject Saleh’s resignation. That, activists fear, would allow Saleh to politically maneuver and extend his rule.

The coalition was planning to make a counterproposal late Saturday or Sunday.

The question of giving Saleh immunity could prove to be a deal breaker. For decades, Saleh has run Yemen as a family enterprise, greased by rampant corruption. He gave his sons, nephews and tribesmen key positions in the security forces, and they, in turn, ruthlessly kept him in power. Through a system of patronage, Saleh bought loyalties and used a divide-and-rule strategy to pit tribes against one another.

If Yemen’s political opposition agrees to give Saleh and his family immunity from prosecution, it is likely to create a significant rift between the parties and the activists who have taken to the streets, camping out 24 hours a day in several cities.

Shatha al-Harazi, one of five protesters who have spoken with Saleh on behalf of the youth movement, said demonstrations would only continue with greater fervor.

“Of course we don’t accept this,” she said. “There will be an escalation, there will be more marches. Expect to see something big.”

Boone is a special correspondent. Raghavan reported from Nairobi. Staff writer Joby Warrick in Washington contributed to this report.

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    World Digest: April 21, 2014