Yemenis shrug off Saleh's talk of stepping down

Reuters News

10/9/2011 8:14:01 AM - Reuters News

By Erika Solomon and Mohammed Ghobari

SANAA (Reuters) - Yemeni protesters camped out in Sanaa's central square said on Sunday that President Ali Abdullah Saleh's suggestion that he would step down in the coming days was another promise that they were sure would be broken.

Analysts mostly agree that the vow, made three times already this year by Yemen's long-time ruler, was a stalling tactic in a succession crisis that has spread turmoil through the country.

A government official said Saleh was merely indicating readiness in a speech on Saturday night to reach a deal to end months of popular unrest.

"Saleh is a liar, nothing has changed since his speech," said Mohammed al-Asl, a protest organizer. "We're used to this type of thing now. He just says anything to fool his own people, the world, and everyone. We're not paying any attention to this."

Protesters, camped out in tents in the area in Sanna now dubbed as "Change Square" were going about their usual business of buying food, cooking and chewing wads of qat, a popular mild leaf stimulant common in Yemen.

Saleh's foreign minister met the U.S. ambassador for talks on Sunday, part of what many expect to be a diplomatic push to deflect any action by the U.N. Security Council when it is briefed on the Yemen situation in the coming days.

The wily leader, who came to power in 1978, is under pressure from international allies, street protesters, armed opponents and opposition parties to make good on promises to hand over power and end a crisis that has raised the specter of a failed Arab state overrun by militants.

Confusion over Saleh's intent has been familiar fare in a conflict that has dragged on since January when protesters first took to the streets to demand reform and end the authoritarian grip of Saleh and his family.

"I reject power and I will continue to reject it, and I will be leaving power in the coming days," the 69-year-old Saleh said on state television.

He has already pulled back three times from signing a Gulf Arab peace initiative that would have seen him form an opposition-led cabinet and then hand power to his deputy before early parliamentary and presidential elections.

Officials said often during his convalescence in Riyadh after an assassination attempt in June that he would return "in days" or "soon." He flew back unannounced in late September.

"He said this to show his commitment to this plan, but there is no plan for a resignation or transfer of powers before we have agreed and signed a deal. That would just plunge the country into chaos or even war," Deputy Information Minister Abdu al-Janadi told Reuters.

"He is ready to leave power in days, yes, but whether this happens in the coming days or months will depend on the success of negotiations for a deal."

Protests against Saleh's rule have eroded government control over parts Yemen and fanned fears al Qaeda's regional wing may use the upheaval to expand its foothold near oil-shipping routes through the Red Sea.

"Everyone thinks he's just a liar," said Rani, a 19 year-old protester. "Maybe he wants to step down but just as likely he doesn't. As for us it's just a normal day."

U.N. DISCUSSES YEMEN

Saleh's comments may been aimed at forestalling intervention from the United Nations headquarters in New York.

Diplomats have said they are close to getting international consensus on a Security Council resolution, which could come as early as next week, that would call on the government to implement the Gulf plan, which has U.S. backing.

A U.N. envoy, Jamal Beomar, left Yemen to brief the council last week after a fruitless two weeks trying to mediate between Saleh's government and the opposition.

On Sunday, U.S. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein met Yemeni Foreign Minister Abubakr Abdullah Al-Qirbi and discussed the power transfer plan, Yemen's official news agency SABA reported.

"This is all an effort to calm the international community before the briefing before the Security Council," said Asl.

In Saturday's speech, Saleh repeated his condition that he will not cede power to long-time rivals from the opposition parties, who he says have hijacked the youth activists' protests and aim to subvert the constitutional process.

Saleh's presidential term ends in 2013 and he has said he will not run again, but analysts suspect he would like to outlast the crisis until then. The state of his health is not clear, though, after he was badly burned in the June attack.

"This is new propaganda from Saleh before Yemen is discussed at the Security Council," said Mohammed al-Sabri, a opposition coalition spokesman. "Four months have passed since he said he accepted the Gulf transition deal, so what is stopping him? He doesn't even need a few days to do it."

New pressure came from an unexpected quarter on Friday when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Tawakul Karman, one of the leading activists who has been on the street at "Change Square" outside Sanaa University since February.

The recognition of a Yemeni democracy activist could refocus global attention on the struggle in Yemen, an impoverished state of 23 million with problems ranging from declining water resources to al Qaeda militants taking advantage of the chaos.

Public U.S. pressure has been lacking even as he cooperates with Washington in its covert war on militants in Yemen.

A CIA drone killed American-Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen last month in what was seen as a major coup for U.S. President Barack Obama in the battle against al Qaeda.

Saudi Arabia, a vital financial backer of Saleh's government, shares U.S. concerns about al Qaeda and is as keen as Saleh is to control the succession process.

Analysts say a power transition involving Saleh stepping down and early elections will not be feasible while much of Yemen is under the military and security thumb of his relatives.

(Writing by Andrew Hammond and Reed Stevenson; Reporting by Jason Benham, Mohammed Mukhashaf, Dhuyazen Mukhashaf and Nour Merza; Editing by Mark Heinrich)