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Deal Could End Saleh Presidency In Yemen

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

The ruling party in Yemen has agreed to a deal that could end the presidency of Ali Abdullah Saleh. The deal comes after months of mass protests against the man who has ruled Yemen for 32 years and so far has resisted all calls for his resignation.

Joining us now is NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson.

Welcome, Soraya.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Hi.

WERTHEIMER: What can you tell us about this deal?

NELSON: Well, some of the details are still murky. But from what we understand, basically what happens is as soon as the opposition agrees to this deal that's been put forth by six Gulf Arab states, then the agreement will be signed. Thirty days later, the president steps down, hands over power to his vice president, and then supposing the elections as early as 60 days after that. But there are a lot of ifs and caveats here that make this tenuous at best.

WERTHEIMER: So do you have any reason to believe the opposition has agreed to this deal? Could this signal the possibility of a real election?

NELSON: The problem is the opposition isn't like one entity. There are many groups. You have youth groups. You have more established people. Even one of Mr. Saleh's closest confidants, Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who was a senior general, a very important person, he's walked away too. So technically, he's part of the opposition.

So some people are saying, yes, they agree to this. But there are some reservation as well, because the family, Mr. Saleh and his sons and the rest of his family, walk away with immunity from prosecution. And not necessarily everyone in Yemen is happy with that.

WERTHEIMER: Well, maybe help us understand why. Could you tell us a little about 32 years of life under the presidency of this man and what it's been like?

NELSON: Well, he's certainly been a very hard-line ruler. He's been very vicious with any opponents. And like many other dictators or rulers in the region, you know, he felt he knew what was best. And he treated with some level of condescension the people that he was ruling over.

Add to that the fact that you have, this is, I mean, the poorest, one of the poorest countries, if not the poorest country, in the Arab world. And you -there was rampant unemployment, not a whole lot of oil reserves or wealth there that was going to the people anyway. And a lot of corruption, like you, again, see in other places in the Arab world. So the tension just kept building and building.

And as the Arab spring, if you will, was emerging across the region, certainly Yemeni young people started to join in. The protest began there at the universities.

WERTHEIMER: Saudi Arabia is a major political power in the region. And it's had a great influence in Yemen's affairs. Can you tell me what role the Saudis played in this agreement?

NELSON: Well, certainly as the large neighbor and, I mean, a very powerful player here in the region, as you noted, they had lost patience with Mr. Saleh some time ago and, in fact, have been trying to broker a deal. They were a key proponent of this deal and of certainly of about a half dozen others that were trying to force Mr. Saleh to step down. So I think it just got to the point where they were telling him, look, you know, you don't have support here anymore. We certainly don't support you, and you need to do this.

And the fact that there would be immunity from prosecution, obviously, made this deal sweet enough. It's also important to note that the protests were growing. It really was unclear how much longer Mr. Saleh could hold on.

WERTHEIMER: Yemen has been a key ally in the fight against al-Qaida. What does this deal mean for the United States and U.S. efforts to resist al-Qaida?

NELSON: Well, certainly while initial statements from the Obama administration welcome this deal, there's a lot of uncertainty, because who is going to be in charge of the military? It's a very divided entity or unit in Yemen right now with some of the forces still loyal to Mr. Saleh's son and nephews and others to opposition members.

And not everyone is as concerned about al-Qaida as perhaps the United States and Mr. Saleh were. And so it's - there must be some level of uneasiness about what this will mean.

WERTHEIMER: Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson speaking to us from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia.

Soraya, thank you.

NELSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.