Yemen’s president under new pressure

March 2, 2011

Yemen’s leader came under new pressure Wednesday as influential clerics, tribal leaders and some members of Yemen’s opposition presented a plan for a peaceful transition of power.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh earlier pledged that he would not seek reelection in 2013. But some protesters who have taken to the streets here in recent weeks have demanded that he step down immediately, and the opposition’s proposal Wednesday marked an attempt to find a middle ground.

By late Wednesday, there had been no official response to the plan. But one government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the developments, said that the country’s political leadership and representatives of the opposition had reached “common ground” during a Wednesday meeting and that Saleh had reacted favorably to the proposal.

The precise details of the road map remained unclear, but an earlier version presented by the opposition coalition called for the president to agree by the end of the year to the terms of transition and for a full investigation into the recent deaths of protesters and compensation for their families.

The proposal could intensify divisions between protesters, who, inspired by the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, have demanded Saleh’s quick departure, and the country’s established political opposition, which until recently has largely stressed the need for reform.

Saleh, a close U.S. ally, called the White House on Wednesday to apologize for accusations he had made the day before. He had said that the United States and Israel were fomenting the wave of unrest spreading through the Middle East.

Saleh also had charged that opposition members regularly met with the U.S. ambassador in Yemen, Gerald Feierstein, and admonished President Obama for criticizing Arab leaders in Egypt and Tunisia. “What do you have to do with Egypt? Or with Oman?” Saleh said. “Are you president of the United States or president of the world?”

In a Wednesday phone conversation with John O. Brennan, Obama’s top counter-terrorism official, Saleh affirmed his commitment to meaningful reform in Yemen and to reaching out to the opposition, according to a White House press statement.

Saleh is seen as an important U.S. partner in combating the threat of al-Qaeda in the region. Last year, Yemen received $300 million in aid from the United States.

At the ongoing popular demonstrations in Sanaa, news of the proposed road map for Saleh’s departure was met with skepticism. “The opposition coalition are not part of our revolution,” said Mohammed Jahaf, 40, a teacher who was reading a newspaper inside one of the many tents pitched outside Sanaa University. “They can deal with each other, but we are not going to leave this place until the regime allows us to rule ourselves.”

Since the Feb. 11 resignation of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, there have been daily demonstrations in Sanaa and other cities across Yemen, including Aden and Taiz .

On Monday, the opposition coalition rejected the president’s offer of a unity government and urged supporters to join the anti-government demonstrations held throughout the country Tuesday.

Walker is a special correspondent.

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