Yemen's president moves to head off unrest, vows to leave office in 2013

Groups staged rival protests in Yemen's capital Sanaa. Thousands of supporters and opponents of Yemen's government are demonstrating a day after the president pledged he wouldn't seek another term. (Feb. 3)
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 2, 2011; 8:08 PM

SANAA, YEMEN - President Ali Abdullah Saleh, moving to head off the kind of unrest roiling Egypt and Tunisia, announced Wednesday that he would not run for office when his term ends in 2013 or anoint his son as his successor.

"I present these concessions in the interests of the country," Saleh said of his pledge. "The interests of the country come before our personal interests."

But Yemen's opposition, a mix of Islamists, socialists and human rights activists, remained skeptical. Saleh, who has ruled this impoverished but strategically important Middle Eastern nation for 32 years, promised in 2005 not to seek another term, only to change his mind a year later. Ahmed, his eldest son, heads Yemen's powerful Republican Guard, and many of Saleh's critics still fear Ahmed could take over.

"I don't believe him," said Tawakkol Karman, a prominent activist and member of Islah, the major Islamist party. "I think all the parties must continue their struggle until he leaves our country. He has promised things before, but he didn't act on his promises."

Saleh, 64, a vital U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, made the statement to Yemen's parliament, a senior council of leaders and members of the military, which has remained loyal to him. "No extension, no inheritance, no resetting the clock," he said, referring to a proposal by his ruling party to change constitutional term limits that would have allowed him to run again.

Saleh's announcement came a day after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced that he would step down after his present term ends and King Abdullah II dissolved Jordan's government as he sought to prevent the populist turmoil spreading across the Arab world from engulfing his country. Saleh also appealed to opposition parties to call off a demonstration planned for Thursday in the capital, Sanaa.

But the opposition said it would go ahead with its "Day of Rage," echoing the slogan of Egypt's protesters, in hopes of gaining the sort of popular momentum seen in Egypt and Tunisia. Unlike those movements, however, Yemen's opposition is seeking reforms rather than regime change.

Some analysts said it was unlikely Saleh could renege on his pledges and welcomed his remarks as a step toward preventing Yemen from sliding into chaos.

"I think it's a historic moment, and he is trying to seize the moment," said Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani, a Yemeni political analyst. "The opposition is skeptical and think he's trying to buy time. But I think President Saleh is more sophisticated than that. He knows the situation and that the rules of the game have changed completely. There's no way he can backtrack from this."

It remained to be seen whether Saleh's promises would satisfy Yemenis. If so, they would lower tensions in a country that is already grappling with entrenched poverty and unemployment, a rebellion in the north, a secessionist movement in the south and an increasingly ambitious al-Qaeda affiliate.

Over the past 10 days, Saleh has pledged to raise the salaries of soldiers and civil servants and to hire more college graduates; slashed income taxes; and called for price controls. He has also extended welfare payments to 500,000 more Yemenis and exempted students from paying school fees this year.

But Wednesday's concessions went far deeper. Saleh pledged to delay parliamentary elections scheduled for April in order to implement reforms that would give members of the opposition time to prepare and convince them that the voting would be free and fair. He also agreed to reopen voter registration in an apparent concession to the opposition, which has complained that about 1.5 million Yemenis have been unable to sign up.

In addition, Saleh indicated that he would be open to the creation of a unity government that would share power.

"We will not allow chaos," he said. "We will not allow destruction."

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