Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed on Saturday to step down in weeks in return for immunity from prosecution but it was unclear if the move, also agreed by opposition heads, would stem a tide of street protest.
Scores of protesters demanding Saleh’s overthrow after almost 33 years in power have been killed in months of unrest among young Yemenis inspired by the wave of rebellion in the Arab world. The formal opposition coalition’s influence over them is limited.
They accuse him of corruption and mismanagement of an impoverished state of 23-million people that analysts say could descend into anarchy.
After years of backing Saleh as a bulwark against instability and the activities of al-Qaeda’s active Yemeni branch, powerful neighbour Saudi Arabia and the United States had begun pressing him to negotiate to hand over power.
A plan drawn up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) grouping of Gulf Arab states including Saudi Arabia proposes that Saleh hand over power to his vice-president a month after an agreement is signed with the opposition, and be granted immunity from prosecution for himself, family and aides.
“The president and the [ruling] GPC party agree with this initiative with all its items,” Deputy Information Minister Abdoh al-Janady told reporters. “Under this final approval, there are no reservations.”
There was no immediate comment from the GCC.
But the United States welcomed the announcements.
“We encourage all parties to move swiftly to implement the terms of the agreement so that the Yemeni people can soon realize the security, unity and prosperity that they have so courageously sought and so richly deserve,” White House spokesperson Jay Carney said in a statement.
Opposition leaders agree
The opposition coalition said on Saturday it would now agree to the main elements of the plan. It had previously rejected the idea of immunity for Saleh.
“The opposition welcomes the initiative with the exception of the formation of a national unity government,” said the current chairperson of the opposition, Yassin Noman.
Opposition spokesperson Mohammed Qahtan told al-Jazeera television that a necessary basis of trust was lacking for the opposition to join a national unity government, but made clear the opposition did not see this as a fundamental obstacle to the implementation of the plan.
“The vice-president will take over for a certain period and then we will see what happens,” he said.
But the opposition coalition has only loose influence over the turmoil on Yemen’s streets.
“I’m not optimistic that the problem will end,” said activist Mohammed Sharafi.
“There is still one month until the president resigns and we expect him at any moment to change his mind.
“We will not leave the arena until Saleh goes and we achieve our goals of setting up a modern, federal state.”
Ibrahim al-Ba’adani, an opposition activist in the city of Ibb, said he was “surprised” at the formal opposition’s acceptance of the principle of immunity for Saleh.
“We will continue sit-ins until the president goes,” he said.
Yemen is an aid-dependent state overwhelmed by rapid population growth, the shrinking of its oil reserves and an apocalyptic water crisis.
It is threatened by a separatist movement in the south and rebellion in the north as well as the activities of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has used Yemen as a base to launch attacks on the United States.
Earlier on Saturday, Saleh called on young people to form a political party according to the constitution.
“They [the opposition] want to drag the area to civil war, and we refuse to be dragged to civil war,” Saleh said. – Reuters