Yemen’s opposition scoffs at early ballot proposal

Tel Aviv University expert: Ali Abdullah Saleh will be next Arab leader sent packing.

By OREN KESSLER, REUTERS
March 23, 2011 07:22
3 minute read.
Protests in Yemen

Yemen Protests 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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A coalition of Yemeni opposition groups rejected an offer on Tuesday by President Ali Abdullah Saleh, facing protester demands to resign, to leave office after organizing parliamentary elections by January 2012.

But an opposition leader said Saleh would be allowed to live a secure and dignified life in the impoverished Arabian Peninsula state if he steps down peacefully after three decades in power.

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Yassin Noman, rotating head of Yemen’s opposition coalition, said Saleh should avoid a violent fight to remain in power that could tear the country apart and lead to more instability.

“He shouldn’t follow the style of [Libyan leader Muammar] Gaddafi by destroying the country and killing people. After this long term of governing, he should say: Thank you, my people, I leave you peacefully,” Noman said.

Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University and author of the forthcoming book Yemen: The Anatomy of a Failed State, said the odds are stacked against the longterm leader, a key Western ally in the fight against al- Qaida.

“If you had to wager who is going to pay the price next in the Middle East,” he said, “I would point to Ali Abdullah Saleh.”

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Rabi noted that inspiration from the wave of unrest that has swept the Arab world, combined with the particular divisions that run through Yemeni society, make Saleh’s position virtually untenable.

“Yemen is not a state anymore,” he said. “Saleh only controls Sanaa and its surroundings, and I don’t think he’ll be able to extend that control to the entire territory.”

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said during a visit to Russia on Tuesday that Washington is worried about the escalating unrest in Yemen.

Top generals, ambassadors and some tribes have thrown their support behind Yemen’s anti-government protesters, deserting Saleh after police, including rooftop snipers, shot dead 52 anti-government protesters after Muslim prayers on Friday.

Saleh, who has called a state of emergency and sacked his cabinet after the violence, said he would hand over power by January 2012 after parliamentary elections but did not want to leave without knowing who would take over, a media aide said.

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“I know the morality of Yemeni people. If he left peacefully, they will look at him as a real leader. He will be able to live wherever he likes,” said Noman, an economist who is also head of the Yemeni Socialist Party. “They will ensure him a very nice life. His dignity will be kept.”

An opposition spokesman rejected Saleh’s offer to leave by January 2012, saying the coming hours would be decisive. Saleh had previously promised to leave when his term ends in 2013.

The mood of protesters has hardened since the violence and after a key general, Ali Mohsen, with a camp adjacent to the protest area, backed demonstrators.

Some now say they want a trial for anyone responsible for the deaths, including Saleh.

Noman, from Lahj in southern Yemen, said he was concerned that violence could spiral out of control as some generals appeared to back the protesters while the defense minister said the army remained loyal to the president.

Noman said he did not think the current crisis would descend into a fullfledged civil war. Saleh is already struggling to cement peace with northern Shi’ite rebels and quell separatism in the south, all while fighting al-Qaida terrorists who have formed an Arabian Peninsula wing in Yemen.

Al-Qaida’s Yemeni and Saudi wings merged in 2009 into a new group, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), based in Yemen.

They announced this three years after a counterterrorism drive halted a 2003-06 armed al-Qaida campaign in Saudi Arabia.

AQAP’s Yemeni leader, Nasser al-Wahayshi, was once a close associate of al- Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, whose father was born in Yemen, a neighbor of top oil exporter Saudi Arabia. Yemen’s foreign minister has said 300 AQAP gunmen might be in the country.

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