The United States and Gulf Arab countries including Yemen’s key financial backer, Saudi Arabia, now appear ready to push aside a long-time ally against al Qaeda’s Yemen-based wing to avoid a chaotic collapse of the poorest Arab state.
Saleh’s at times violent response over the past two months to mass protests against his 32-year rule, inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, has tried the patience of Washington and Riyadh, both of which have been the target of attempted attacks by al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch.
The Gulf proposal for talks in Riyadh was presented to Saleh and a coalition of opposition parties this week. Saleh welcomed it, and Gulf sources said it envisaged handing power to an interim council of tribal and political leaders who would help appoint a national unity government ahead of elections.
An opposition source said the proposal would give Saleh and his family, whose control over key posts has long irked Yemenis, immunity from prosecution for corruption.
The proposal would also see Saleh hand over power to a vice-president, the source said. Current incumbent Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi has said he does not want such a role, which suggests Saleh would appoint a new figure.
“They informed the opposition that their vision is based on Saleh leaving power after handing authority to his deputy and then forming a national unity government that will prepare a new constitution … and parliament elections,” he said.
“The Gulf vision is also based on Saleh’s proposal that both he and General Ali Mohsen … leave Yemen, and the Gulf countries have committed to guarantees that Saleh and his family will not face prosecution after they leave,” the source added.
Mohsen was one of a string of generals, diplomats and tribal leaders who turned against Saleh after snipers killed 52 protesters on March 18.
Though Mohsen’s army wing is protecting protesters camped out in Sanaa, he is widely mistrusted as a kinsman of Saleh who was for years a loyal pillar of his rule.
Talks in recent weeks, which had included the U.S. ambassador in Sanaa, had become bogged down over Saleh’s demand for assurances that he and members of his family would not face prosecution — a demand of the street activists, who may object to any deal the Gulf Arabs or the opposition come up with.
U.S.-SAUDI POLICY SHIFT
This week Washington began to shift its policy of public support for Saleh, who has rallied large numbers of supporters and insists he should stay until elections late this year.
Saleh stepped up rhetoric over the weekend, telling a crowd of supporters he would defend Yemen with “blood and soul.”
Even before the wave of pro-democracy protests against his rule, Saleh was struggling to quell a separatist rebellion in the south and a Shi’ite insurgency in the north.
Frustration with Saleh’s intransigence may push Yemenis, many of them heavily armed and with experience of wars and insurgencies, closer to a violent power struggle that could give al Qaeda’s regional wing more room to operate.
All of these factors spark concern for stability in a country that sits on a shipping lane through which more than 3 million barrels of oil pass each day. Reuters