Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh signed a power-transfer agreement with his opponents that was brokered by the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, an initiative aimed at ending months of bloodshed.
Saleh and an opposition delegation from Yemen signed the accord in the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh, at a meeting with King Abdullah that was televised by international broadcasters. Under the agreement, Saleh will transfer power to his deputy, Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi, and presidential elections will be held in 90 days, Jamal Benomar, special adviser on Yemen to the United Nations secretary-general, told reporters in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a. Saleh will remain honorary president.
“Today, we are circumventing the constitution,” Saleh said after signing the document. “We hoped that the peaceful power transfer could have happened smoothly and through democratic means.”
Saleh is the fourth leader to succumb to the popular unrest of the so-called Arab Spring, following those toppled in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. His crackdown on protesters left almost 900 people dead even as he tried to end the demonstrations with promises of political change. In remarks today, he put the death toll on the government side at 1,150.
Tens of thousands took to the streets of the southern city of Taiz now to denounce the agreement, Ammar al-Kinani, a protest activist, said by phone. Protesters marched and chanted “the deal is treason to the revolution,” he said.
The U.S. and Gulf countries have wanted to resolve the Yemeni conflict to reduce instability along the border with Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter. Increasing social unrest may strengthen al-Qaeda as it seeks to use Yemen, the poorest Arab nation, as a base from which to destabilize Saudi Arabia.
“This is a good step in getting out of the current situation in Yemen,” Mohamed Salem Basendwah, chairman of the National Council for Peaceful Revolutionary Forces, said today in an interview in Riyadh. “We hope that both sides abide by the iniative and the mechanisms of the agreement. We assure you that we will abide by everything.”
Rallies against Saleh started in January and escalated with defections by military and tribal leaders.
The GCC transition accord reached in April includes guarantees that Saleh, his family and close aides won’t be prosecuted after the president steps down. Saleh accepted the agreement three times, then refused to sign it.
“We will be cooperative,” Saleh said today. “It is not the signing that is important; what matters is the good will and the start of serious and faithful work for real partnership to rebuild.” He said he’s looking to Yemen’s “brothers,” including Saudi Arabia, the GCC and the UN, “to monitor, help and be witnesses to the implementation of this Gulf initiative.”
Saleh told UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that he will travel to New York for medical care, according to a UN transcript of Ban’s remarks to reporters today. Saleh was injured during an attack on his compound during the unrest and had been treated in Saudi Arabia.
“He told me clearly that he will hand over all power, but I understand the arrangement and agreement is that he will still remain as president,” Ban said. “He told me that he will come to New York to take medical treatment immediately after signing this agreement.”
Blasts Rock Sana’a
Earlier today, Benomar urged all parties to “avoid provocation and violence,” warning that the UN Security Council will take “firm action against any party who violates the agreement.”
A series of blasts rocked parts of Sana’a, the Yemeni capital, and gunfire echoed through the streets after Saleh’s departure for Riyadh today. Thousands of Yemenis demonstrated today in Sana’a and the city of Taiz to denounce the agreement and demand the prosecution of Saleh and his associates over the killing of protesters.
“What happened is a deal between the opposition and Saleh and this does not mean anything to us,” protest activist Ahmed al-Wafi said by phone. “We have revolted to get rid of the political, military and tribal oppression and not against Saleh. Both the government and the opposition should go.”
Saleh’s agreement with the deal came after “pressure from the Gulf group and external powers has become too great,” Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, said in phone interview today before the signing. “This has nothing to with ending the violence but more to do with demands that he step down from power. There are too many grievances on the ground to resolve everything at once.”
The conflict in Yemen has raised concern that a weak central government in Yemen risks mirroring the situation in Somalia, across the Gulf of Aden, where there hasn’t been a functioning administration since 1991. Somalia has become a staging post for pirates who attack shipping lanes.
Unrest has cost the economy more than $8 billion, Yemeni Industry and Trade Minister Hisham Sharaf said on Nov. 13. Attacks against the country’s pipeline network have disrupted exports and caused nationwide shortages. Last month, Yemen LNG, the Arab country’s liquefied-natural-gas exporter, halted production after an attack on a gas pipeline.
Yemen will “count on” the Gulf, the U.S. And the European Union “to help in rebuilding our country,” Basendwah said after signing the agreement as part of the opposition.
Saleh became president of North Yemen in 1978, after the assassination of President Ahmad al-Ghashmi, and assumed the presidency of the Republic of Yemen when the north and south united in 1990.
Yemen ranks 15th out of 60 countries in the 2010 Failed States Index created by Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund for Peace, behind only Iraq in the Middle East. The U.S. has backed Saleh, a key ally in the fight against al-Qaeda, with $300 million a year of military and economic aid.
“We have been on tenterhooks waiting the president to sign and put an end to our suffering for 10 months,” said Enas Mohammed, a school teacher in Sana’a. “I am relieved and happy, but I am worried of what happens next.”