Yemen's president agrees to step down, with conditions

Tens of thousands of Yemeni anti-government protesters chant slogans during an anti-regime demonstration calling for the ouster of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh following the weekly Muslim Friday prayers in Sanaa on April 22, 2011.
Gamal Noman

SANAA, Yemen – After more than three months of fierce pro-democracy protests, which began in the capital and spread throughout the country, Yemeni President Ali Abullah Saleh agreed on Saturday to relinquish his 32-year hold on power, according to a government official.

The deal, however, which came with certain conditions – including immunity for the president and his family – is unlikely to satisfy the protest movement. In the wake of the deal’s announcement, in fact, youth protesters in major cities across the country pledged to instead “escalate” their demonstrations to include more marches, general strikes and civil disobedience.

The thousands of protesters camped out in what is now being called “Change Square,” did not budge and did not celebrate at the news.

The deal was reached after weeks of diplomatic wrangling by the Gulf Cooperation Council, which was led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the president and the political opposition. Protest leaders and other groups were not included in the discussions.

President Saleh was quoted by Saba News, the country’s state news agency, saying he accepted the proposal only so that the political opposition would not force the country into a bloody and protracted civil war.

According to the proposal, Saleh would hand over power to his vice president, Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi, in 30 days. Elections would be held another 30 days after than. And once a new president is elected, the new head of state in Yemen will oversee the drafting of a new constitution, according to the plan.

Yemen’s political opposition, a fractured coalition of six different political parties, said that despite some concerns, it welcomed the plan.

"We have officially accepted the plan. However, we take some issue with the interim government being sworn in before Saleh himself. Ideally, we would like the interim government to be formed after Saleh leaves power,” said Mohammad Qahtan, a spokesman for the opposition.

Yemen analyst Gregory Johnsen is skeptical that the proposal by the Gulf countries would change the situation on the ground.

"It is far from clear exactly what Saleh's ‘acceptance’ of the plan means,” he said. “Many of the details appear to be unacceptable to protesters who have been camped out for more than two months. A lot can happen in 30 days.”

One of Saleh’s demands is an end to the demonstrations. But the political opposition does not represent the protesters and has little control over whether or not they continue their movement. It appears unlikely that protest leaders, who have from the beginning demanded Saleh’s immediate departure and have little faith in the political opposition, will view the agreement as anything but more political maneuvering by the president.

Protesters have also long said that they would not accept immunity for Saleh and his family in exchange his resignation.

“It has been our position since the massacre on March 18 that immunity for the murderer Saleh and his murderous family members is absolutely unacceptable,” said one youth movement leader, Adel Al-Sarabi, referring to the day when Yemeni security forces opened fire on protesters in front of Sanaa University.