Yemen in Crisis: Last Impasse Before the Storm?

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Muhammed Muheisen / AP

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh said in a BBC interview Sunday that he would only leave office after an election

UPDATED: April 24, 2011, 5:45 E.T.

The President of Yemen had been under intense pressure. First, from the U.S. and the European Union, then from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the regional military and economic powers. And so, on Saturday night, Ali Abdullah Saleh appeared to relent — more so than his previous feints and equivocations. But his previous history of reneging instilled no faith in his promises among the student protesters in the streets and their allies in the country's coalition of opposition parties — and this time, they said "no deal." And, indeed, in an interview with the BBC barely a day after his so-called concession, Saleh was saying he would only leave office after an election — not exactly what he had agreed on.

A Yemeni government official had earlier confirmed that Saleh had agreed to a plan presented by Gulf countries that would see him surrender power in 30 days in exchange for immunity for himself and his family, many members of which occupy top posts in the government. But while the move seemed to signify a reversal for Yemen's embattled leader, whose posture has oscillated between conciliatory and defiant since calls for his resignation began in January, demonstrators dismissed the deal as yet another political maneuver. "We don't trust Saleh to keep his word. He's been lying to us for 33 years — why should we trust him now?" says Noah al-Alwafi, a protester in Taiz, where thousands took to the streets on Sunday to decry the initiative. His interview with the BBC seems to have borne out their suspicions.

Saleh's mercurial nature was evident just hours prior to accepting the deal, when he accused opposition politicians of dragging the country toward civil war. The rumble of military jets over the capital, Sana'a, on Friday and Saturday lent gravity to the suggestion.

But the Gulf-negotiated offer also exposed fractures within the uneasy coalition of young demonstrators and established opposition politicians. Yemen's opposition political organization, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), had tentatively accepted the proposal, though not without reservations. The initiative called for the immediate suspension of protests, which the JMP knew was largely outside its control. "This is the most productive solution for the JMP, not for us," said Adel al-Surabi, a leader of Sana'a's opposition youth movement. "The opposition parties want to be in power. We want a technocrat government to lead the country in the transitional period. This period is going to draw the lines of the new Yemen."

According to the GCC initiative, a national unity government would be formed and Saleh would transfer power to his Vice President, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, within 30 days. Presidential elections would be scheduled two months after his departure. "Everyone is refusing this initiative. It doesn't solve anything or respond to any of our requirements or demands," said al-Surabi, before Saleh's latest flip-flop. "The protests are going to continue. If they proceed with this initiative, people are talking about demanding the overthrow of the Vice President who comes into power." Tensions between the JMP and demonstrators have been mounting for months, with the youth protesters claiming that the opposition parties, eager to gain power, do not represent their interests.

Recognizing the need to retain the allegiance of the protesters, the JMP tentatively disapproved of the deal as well. "We welcome the initiative, but we cannot participate in this government [under Saleh] and we cannot take away the legitimate right of Yemenis to demonstrate in this revolution," said JMP spokesman Mohammed al-Sabri. Demonstrators say they will settle for nothing short of Saleh's immediate departure, and, in a show of force, they started going out across the country to reject the plan. On Sunday, hundreds of thousands reportedly marched in provinces throughout the country to oppose the agreement.

Time may be running out to find a solution that satisfies all sides in Yemen. "The GCC has said that this is their final offer, that there won't be any further negotiations," says Abdel Ghani al-Iryani, a Sana'a-based independent political analyst. "If this is the end, then Yemen is facing a major crisis. After all these negotiations, we've exhausted all of our potential mediators. If we don't have a solution now, then violence will be the next logical step." Indeed, Sana'a's crisis grew considerably about a month ago when the country's top military commander, Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, defected to the anti-Saleh movement and ordered troops to protect the demonstrators. If the impasse is insoluble through negotiation and political horse trading, the crisis may have to turn to a military solution: with Yemeni soldiers trading fire with one other. Saleh appears to be building a rationale for battle: he told the BBC on Sunday that al-Qaeda was active among the protesters.