Yemen’s Saleh Agrees to Transfer Power: Will His Country Find Peace?

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A protestor with Yemeni, Egyptian, Libyan, and Syrian flags painted on his face chants slogans during a demonstration against proposed immunity for Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh under a deal for his resignation in Sanaa, Yemen, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2011. (Photo: Hani Mohammed / AP)

Combative to the end, embattled Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh signed an agreement in Riyadh today that will see him transfer power to his vice president, launching a new chapter in a 10-month saga that has seen some 1,300 killed in near daily street clashes and tens of thousands wounded. With hands stiffened and deformed by scars resulting from a failed bombing attempt on his life in June, Saleh flourished his pen, smiled, and clapped briefly before launching into a tirade against his opponents. “Zionists,” he called them, hinting darkly at “foreign agendas” and a democratic constitution betrayed, no small irony for a leader who has held power for more than 32 years.

Under the Gulf Community Cooperation-brokered agreement, Saleh will stay on in a ceremonial role until his vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, launches national elections within 90 days. In return, Saleh will have immunity from prosecution. Reactions were mixed in Yemen. Rocket fire and gunshot, which have dominated the urban Yemeni soundtrack for months, reached a crescendo as Saleh signed, apparently a signal of displeasure from militaryunits still loyal to his regime. Nor were all his opponents pleased.  Yemeni youth opposition leader IbrahimMohammad al-Saidi, speaking to al Jazeera television, said that the revolution was not over. Echoing the complaint of the many young revolutionaries who started the protests back in January, and who suffered the most casualties, he said that the offer of immunity was a parody of justice. “We want to see Saleh tried… that is crucial for the martyrs.” In Change Square, the locus of Sana’s protest movement, demonstrators made no move to dismantle their tents. “This agreement doesn’t’ solve the real problem in Yemen,” says Dr. Tariq Noman, a cardiac surgeon who established the protest movement’s field hospital in a nearby mosque. “It does nothing to stop the corruption and the power abuses.” The agreement made no formal mention of Saleh’s cronies and family members who together control the bulk of Yemen’s economy, media, armed forces and government services. “If these people stay, nothing will improve,” said Noman. He was speaking over the phone, and though Saleh is technically out of power, still hesitated to give his location. For months Noman and his family have received threats for supporting the protestors; they have little faith that peace will come anytime soon. “We want things to move forward for real democracy. And we need peace in Yemen.  But I don’t expect it.”

Saleh, who famously likened ruling Yemen to “dancing on the head of snakes,” leaves behind a corrosive legacy. His strategies for staying in power varied from pitting tribes against each other to looking the other way while al-Qaeda gained a foothold, in order to use the threat of the terror group’s expansion to shore up western support for his reign, and funding for his armed forces. As the protest movement gained momentum he neglected an insurgency in the country’s north and a growing secessionist movement in the south. Al Qaeda’s most virulent franchise, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has taken two towns on the coast. Yemen, already the poorest country in the Gulf, is predicted to run out of oil within the decade, and out of water within two. Both the leader of an army battalion that defected in favor of the protesters and the head of a tribal militia who vowed to support them will surely seek positions of power in any new government, setting the stage for yet another showdown.

Saleh has long been known to carry grudges. Stepping down may have been a blow to his infamous ego, but the poisoned chalice he leaves behind will surely bring him a comforting sense of revenge well wrought.