Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 March - 6 April 2011
Issue No. 1041
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Saleh stalls as Yemen unravels

The Yemeni crisis has reached a dangerous turning point, with Al-Qaeda the unknown third party, warns Nasser Arrabyee

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Anti-government protesters salute during a rally demanding the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa

The opposition and President Ali Abdullah Saleh's government traded charges about the murder of more than 150 people on 28 March in the explosion of an ammunitions factory in Jaar Abyan in the south of the country, an area which has come under total control of Al-Qaeda.

The majority of victims were civilians who went to loot the factory in Al-Husn after the disappearance of the army and security forces.

The Islamist-led opposition coalition which includes Socialists and Nasserites, accused the embattled Saleh of colluding with Al-Qaeda to attract more attention and support from the west and to stay in power. The government accused the opposition and separatists of helping Al-Qaeda.

Before the Monday massacre, the two sides failed to reach a deal to transfer power and guarantee a safe and honourable exit for President Saleh to avoid a possible bloody conflict between two huge rival army groups deployed in the capital Sanaa and other places.

President Saleh said Sunday 27 March he would not offer any more concessions after the opposition refused all his initiatives which met all their demands except "the immediate ouster" of Saleh.

His ruling party, in an exceptional meeting on the same day, Sunday, said explicitly that President Saleh would leave power only at the end of his constitutional current term on 20 September 2013.

These two statements from Saleh and his party violate a deal made between them and Saleh in cooperation with the American and British ambassadors in Yemen on 23 March, in which Saleh agreed to leave power in 60 days.

General Ali Muhsen, the most powerful general to defect to the opposition, vowed publicly to topple Saleh and his regime after these two statements from Saleh and his party.

The retraction of Saleh came after successful and peaceful rallies on Friday 25 March, when Saleh confidently and defiantly told a crowd of his supporters, "This is the legitimacy of my regime" declaring that he would only hand over the power to "safe and clean" hands not to "conspirators", in obvious reference to the opposition leaders.

More than one million supporters assembled around Saleh in Parade Square in the capital Sanaa on Friday which was called the "Friday of Tolerance" in response to the "Friday of Departure" called by the opposition. The opposition media estimated them at more than a million and a half, though others say there were far less.

Many smaller rallies were held in the other cities on the same Friday to support Saleh. Saleh's supporters were extremely angry after the spokesman of the opposition called on their supporters to march to the Presidential Palace and even to Saleh's "bedroom".

Such a call by the Islamist leader, Mohamed Qahtan, seemed to backfire, as President Saleh used it to incite the tribesmen who considered "marching into bedrooms" as a "big shame" and socially unacceptable.

Although talks have stopped, and the two sides are betting only on the streets, sources from both sides and from Western diplomats confirmed Tuesday that talks are going on to find a safe and honourable exit for Saleh and a way to transfer power peacefully and smoothly.

"These conflicting statements are just manoeuvring from both sides to reach a reasonable and acceptable deal," one of the sources said on Tuesday.

The fate of Saleh and his sons and nephews after handing over power is the most difficult and controversial point. Saleh wants concrete guarantees he would not be charged by anybody after stepping down.

"No one would hand himself over to be hanged," Saleh said in a meeting held Sunday by the permanent committee, the highest authority of his party. Saleh asked the leaders of his party to stop making statements to media and writing proposals to him and go to their people in their areas all over Yemen and help security and army forces maintain security and stability.

"You are the legitimate majority, and you should show it to the world, and should go to your people in your areas," Saleh said.

Saleh is still receiving international and regional support. The United States is very interested in finding a peaceful and smooth transfer of power. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said earlier this week the US would be facing additional challenges if the current regime collapses in Yemen where Al-Qaeda is getting stronger and stronger.

Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council Abdel-Rahman Al-Atyah, and Secretary-General of the Organisation of Islamic Conference Ikmal Al-Deen Ogli said in a joint statement in the Saudi capital on Monday that they support the security and stability of Yemen and respect the choice of the Yemeni people for avoiding any bloody conflict.

The young people and opposition leaders who protest in the streets demanding the ouster of Saleh are awaiting a clear-cut position towards President Saleh from the US.

Opposition leader Mohamed Al-Sabri accused the US Defense Ministry of colluding with Saleh. The young people demanded that the US administration declare its position about the ouster of Saleh.

Undoubtedly, Al-Qaeda is taking advantage of the worsening situation in Yemen. The four provinces where Al-Qaeda is believed to be hiding and strengthening, Abyan, Shabwa in the south, Mareb and Al-Jawf in the northeast, are out of the control of the central government in Sanaa.

It's only the tribesmen who run their affairs in Al-Jawf after the governor and military and security commanders quit and returned to Sanaa earlier this month.

To add insult to injury, Saada in the north came under full control of the Shia rebels of Al-Houthi after the governor also returned to Sanaa earlier. The Saada people and Al-Houthi rebels agreed to let opposition leader Fares Manaa act as governor. A businessman, Manaa is Yemen's most famous weapons trader.

The governors of Mareb, Shabwa, and Abyan have not quit -- yet.

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