Yemen: Deal or no deal?

An anti-government protester holds up the national flag and an effigy on a noose of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa on April 23, 2011.
Mohammed Huwais

SANAA, Yemen — Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and a coalition of political opposition parties said they had agreed on a plan — put forward by other Gulf countries — for a transition of power to start taking place within 30 days.

The rest of the country, however, doesn’t seem to have noticed.

But neither the political opposition nor anyone else involved in negotiating the deal represent the diverse group that makes up the hundreds of thousands of protesters calling for a change in government. Protest leaders, in fact, in the wake of the deal’s announcement, have only promised to intensify their efforts.

The coalition of political opposition parties, known here as the Joint Meeting Parties, or JMP, was first formed in 2005 as a means to push through political and economic reforms. But since its inception, the group has been more famous inside Yemen for its persistent infighting.

Analysts said that in its decision to support the deal, the JMP has in its typical way, only muddied the waters.

“We have accepted the plan. However, we do not accept it unconditionally. Negotiations are over and many of the details of the plan must be sorted out at a later date,” said Mohammed Salem Basendwah, the JMP chairman, in a vague and rambling statement that left many protesters shaking their heads.

A fractured and fragile coalition of six different political parties — including Islamists, Cold War-era Socialists and Nasserites — the JMP has rarely, if ever, been able to find a unified political voice. Former JMP chairman and a favorite for the Yemeni presidency, Yaseen Saeed No’man, declined to comment on the coalition’s recent statement.

The JMP’s political impotency and their apparent willingness to grant Saleh immunity from prosecution after he leaves power has made them incredibly unpopular among Yemen’s various protest groups. Most protesters object to the very presence of JMP politicians in Change Square, the nerve center of the protest movement in Sanaa, the country’s capital.

“The JMP have committed political suicide,” said Hamza Al-Shargabi, a young doctor and activist that volunteers his medical services at the field hospital in Change Square.

Protesters, meanwhile, have long made it clear that any deal that does not include the president's immediate departure would be unacceptable.

Some denizens of Change Square deny the legality of Yemen’s parliament and claim that both the JMP and Saleh have no electoral mandate. Yemen’s parliamentary elections were postponed in 2009 and rescheduled for this month before demonstrations swept the country and forced a political standstill.

“I don’t know what gives the JMP the right to negotiate for the transfer of power. The current parliament is illegal. We have not held parliamentary elections and the parliament has no electoral mandate,” said Adel Al-Sarabi, a prominent youth organizer in the capital.

This divide between the popular uprising and the political opposition is likely to derail any negotiations and proposals put forth by the Gulf Cooperation Council, the regional political and economic union that includes Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait.

Although youth leaders have been trained in negotiations and organized into delegations in the hopes of being included in any talks, third party mediators have yet to reach out to them.

As news of Saleh’s and the JMP’s acceptance of the plan spread through the protest camp, many protesters said they it was obvious that the country’s leaders were not listening and promised to escalate their civil disobedience.

“They don’t understand. We won’t accept political immunity for Saleh’s crimes against the Yemeni people. We will simply hold more marches and call for more civil disobedience,” said Mohammed Bakil, a member of Change Square’s security committee.

One organization, The Council of the Youth Revolution of Change, has begun establishing “escalation” committees tasked with devising strategies for marches and general strikes across the capital.

Recognizing that Saleh and the JMP are mired in a circle of political rhetoric and stubborn, disorganized coalitions, Yemen’s protesters said they were preparing to settle in for a much longer fight.