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Yemen's President Accepts Deal To Step Down

Tens of thousands of protesters chant slogans during a demonstration calling for the ouster of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, following Muslim Friday prayers in Sanaa on Friday.
Gamal Noman
AFP/Getty Images
Tens of thousands of protesters chant slogans during a demonstration calling for the ouster of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, following Muslim Friday prayers in Sanaa on Friday.

Yemen's president has agreed to a proposal by Gulf Arab mediators to step down within 30 days and hand power to his deputy in exchange for immunity from prosecution, a major about-face for the autocratic leader who has ruled for 32 years.

The protest movement demanding President Ali Abdullah Saleh's immediate departure reportedly said Saturday that it also accepted the latest draft of the deal but with reservations.

A day earlier, protesters staged the largest of two months of demonstrations, filling a five-lane boulevard across the capital with a sea of hundreds of thousands of people. A deadly crackdown by government forces and Saleh supporters has killed more than 130 people and prompted key allies to abandon the president and join the protesters.

The opposition movement, fed up with poverty and corruption under Saleh, took inspiration from the toppling of leaders in Tunisia and Egypt.

The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes powerful Saudi Arabia, has been seeking to broker an end to the crisis in the fragile and impoverished nation on the southern edge of the Arabian peninsula.

The White House issued a statement applauding the deal and urging 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."

Under the latest draft, Yemen's parliament would grant Saleh legal protection from prosecution. The president would submit his resignation to lawmakers within 30 days and hand power to his vice president, who would call for new presidential elections.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh waves to supporters during a rally in Sanaa,Yemen, on April 15.
Muhammed Muheisen / AP
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh waves to supporters during a rally in Sanaa,Yemen, on April 15.

Speaking to All Things Considered host Linda Wertheimer from Saudi Arabia, NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson said the details "are still murky."

"There are a lot of 'ifs' and caveats here that make this tenuous at best," she said.

The problem, she notes, is that the opposition isn't one entity; there are youth groups and groups of more established people like Major Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a senior general who was a close confidant of Saleh before defecting.

"So some people are saying yes, they agree to this, but there's some reservation as well, because the family ... walks away with immunity from prosecution, and not necessarily everyone in Yemen is happy with that," Nelson said.

Opposition spokesman Mohammed Kahtan said, however, the leaders of the opposition parties have all agreed on the Gulf council's initiative.

He listed several reservations, though. He said the opposition rejects the draft proposal's call for the formation of a national unity government within seven days of the signing of a deal and wants to see Saleh step down first.

"We would have to swear an oath to Saleh, who has already lost his legitimacy," he explained.

The opposition is also against giving Yemen's Parliament dominated by Saleh's party the power to approve or reject his resignation, which opens to the door to allowing the president time to stall.

State TV reported that Yemen's foreign minister delivered the government's acceptance to mediators on Saturday.

The foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, met in the Emirati capital Saturday with his Yemeni counterpart, Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, and urged him to accept the GCC plan, the official UAE news agency WAM reported.

Saudi Arabia had lost patience with Saleh some time ago and had been trying to broker a deal, Nelson said.

"I think it just go to the point where they were telling him, 'Hey, look, you don't have support here anymore. We certainly don't support you, and you need to do this.' The fact that there would be immunity from prosecution obviously made this deal sweet enough," she said. "It's also important to note that the protests were growing. It really was unclear how much longer Mr. Saleh could hold on."

Protests continued throughout the day and expanded to include a general strike.

Schools, government offices and private companies shut their doors in response to the Yemeni opposition's call for a strike aimed at putting more pressure Saleh to step down.

Thousands of protesters kept up sit-ins at city squares in at least five provinces, while Saleh accused the opposition of "dragging the country into a civil war" in a televised speech to a military academy.

"He's certainly been a very hard-line ruler," Nelson said. "He's been very vicious with any opponents, and, like many other dictators or rulers in the region, he felt like 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 Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the Arab world, the rampant unemployment and corruption, and not a whole lot of oil reserves or wealth going to the people, she said.

"So the tensions just kept building and building, and as the Arab Spring ... was emerging across the region, certainly Yemeni young people started to join in," Nelson said. "The protests began there at the universities."

Saleh has over the past two months used violence to try to quell the unrest. He has also offered concessions, including a pledge not to run again for president when his term is up in 2013 or allow his son to succeed him, but to no avail.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff and Wires