In Yemen, the Opposition Negotiates But Saleh Hedges

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Muhammed Muheisen / AP

An anti-government protestor, left, sprays foam to cool off other demonstrators shouting slogans during a demonstration demanding the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in Sanaa, Yemen, Wednesday, March 2, 2011.

Clarification Appended: March 2, 2011

After outright rejecting an offer by President Ali Abdullah Saleh to form a unity government, key members of Yemen's political opposition have presented a plan for Saleh to leave power in the next nine months, throwing the ball straight back into the longtime leader's court. Meanwhile, the demonstrators, who are mostly students and activists, are frustrated. They had been encouraged by the fact that many opposition Members of Parliament publicly stated on Monday that they would join with the cause of the street protests. Now, the message is decidedly mixed.

Indeed, on Wednesday evening, there had been conflicting reports as to whether Saleh had accepted the opposition's proposals. But, after some confusion, a government official told TIME that "the plan proposed to the ruling party was favorably received" by the regime and that "it is working on a formal response." However, the official also said: "Sheikhs and scholars had a meeting with the opposition parties today. Everything that was published in the media on the plan was incorrect, and a new plan has been formulated." The oppostion coalition then released this statement: "The president agreed to determine the series of steps that he will take to leave power with no inheritance during a period of time that will not extend beyond this year." The sitaution is once again back to what Saleh has always said: that he is agreeable to leaving power — eventually.

Yemen's main opposition coalition, the Joint Meetings Party (JMP), is a mishmash of Socialists, Islamists and smaller groups of parties with diverse political leanings. Although fragmented, the coalition has played a valuable role over the past few years to pressure the president for political reforms. But the JMP has infuriated protesters with its willingness to negotiate with Saleh. Outside Sana'a University on Wednesday morning, where antigovernment protestors have camped out for weeks, most demonstrators had not yet heard of the JMP's new offer. "Why? What is the good of that," asked protester Saleh Dhamari, after he was told about the new offer. "Nine more months for Saleh to leave power, why not elections now?"

"The opposition doesn't represent us, we are all individuals," says Adel al-Surabi, a protester in his late 20 who is in charge of rallying people on social networking websites. "Only yesterday they said they don't want any dialogue with the president and today they are negotiating with him," he adds. Surabi says the protesters will now form a committee so they can speak with one voice and not be represented by opposition members of parliament.

It was quite a surprise for the young protesters. Late on Tuesday, Mohammed al-Sabry, a spokesman for Yemen's umbrella opposition coalition, had released a press statement denying the opposition was in dialogue with the president. He nonetheless said the coalition was trying to find a bloodless resolution for his departure. But that was already a shift from its position on Monday when al-Sabry said the opposition was going to join the demonstrations. "The opposition decided to stand with the people's demand for the fall of the regime, and there is no going back from that," he said then. The opposition leaders then asked for the president to leave immediately.

Then on Wednesday — unbeknownst to protesters — some leading members of the opposition met with tribal sheikhs and religious leaders to formulate an offer for the president. Al-Sabry told Reuters that the opposition had "presented a road map for departure within a time frame of a month or two, or six months." Dr. Muhammed al Mutawakil, a prominent opposition leader, said on Wednesday morning that the opposition had agreed with clerics and sheikhs to "enter dialogue with the ruling party." He said the five-point plan would allow the president to leave power by the end of this year and all political parties in Yemen would confer on the best means to transfer power democratically.

The plan also stated that Yemenis should be allowed to protest peacefully without fear of violence, a committee should be formed to investigate attacks against protesters, and that the families of all protesters killed or injured should be compensated for by the State. Twenty-seven demonstrators have died since protests started, according to London-based Amnesty International. A government official told TIME that "mediators met with members of both the ruling and opposition parties" today and talks were "productive." There has not yet been a response to the offer from Saleh himself.

Khaled al-Anesi, a human rights lawyer and protester leader, said that the JMP will lose their reputation on the street if they continue to "stand against the public." He told TIME: "[The demonstrators] make it clear that this is a civilian movement, there is no political solution. The regime must leave immediately." According to al-Anesi, two JMP Members of Parliament he had spoken to said they had not even been aware of the offer and were not invited to the discussion.

Regardless of differences in the JMP, Wednesday's offer puts the president, who has already said that he wants to step down peacefully, in a difficult position — if he accepts, there will be huge pressure for him to step down this year, if he doesn't, he risks losing the opposition again to the street protests. That'll be twice this week.

An earlier version of this story quoted a government source claiming President Saleh had agreed to a five-point proposal circulated by the opposition. That proposal included his stepping down within nine months. However, the source later said that the proposals that the regime looked favorably on were not the same as those circulated earlier in the day.