SANAA, (Reuters) – Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has agreed to sign a Gulf-brokered power transition, called on Friday for early elections to prevent bloodshed as three months of protests raged on in the fractious country.
Saleh has twice backed out of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) transition deal, most recently on Wednesday, despite diplomatic wrangling by U.S., Gulf and European officials.
Tens of thousands of protesters rallied in cities across Yemen on Friday, demanding Saleh end his three-decade rule now.
Washington and Riyadh, both targets of foiled attacks by al Qaeda’s Yemen-based wing, are keen to end a stalemate that has pushed Yemen further to the brink of chaos and could give the militant network more room to operate.
A civilian was shot dead on Friday as gunmen clashed with the army at security checkpoints around the flashpoint Abyan province, believed to hold al Qaeda militants.
“We call for an early presidential election to prevent bloodshed, to protect our family dignity and for a smooth democratic path,” Saleh told a crowd of tens of thousands of supporters in Sanaa, waving flags and signs that read: “You won’t leave.”
Saleh in March called for a presidential election by the end of this year, but in his Friday speech he did not give any time frame or details on a plan for an election, leaving some sceptical it may be a tactic to buy time.
“I think it is a ploy to further delay the inevitable, to make it look like he is trying to leave power, but I don’t think that is his full intention,” security analyst Theodore Karasik, of the Dubai-based INEGMA group, said.
Saleh is a clever operator who has survived many tussles with rivals, and skilfully used bribes and favours to keep tribal and political backers loyal.
Even before the wave of pro-democracy protests against his rule, Saleh was struggling to quell a separatist rebellion in the south and a Shi’ite insurgency in the north.
Saleh appeared to lay groundwork for his followers to prepare to relinquish some control over government.
“Your General People’s Congress will remain both in power and out of power and they will educate them (the opposition) in how to be a responsible opposition. No cutting roads, no cutting tongues, no treachery.”
Protesters are increasingly frustrated their three months of daily protests have failed to dislodge Saleh. They have begun blocking roads and staging mass strikes that have ground commerce to a halt in several cities.
Yemen also faces severe power and fuel crises since tribesmen blockaded the oil- and gas-producing Maarib province a few weeks ago. Loss of its exports, the government’s main source of income, are likely costing Yemen some $3 million (1.8 million pounds) a day.
More than 40 percent of Yemenis live on less than $2 a day while a third face chronic hunger. Dwindling water and oil supplies are also problems.
GULF BLOC MEETS SUNDAY
Gulf foreign ministers are planning to meet on Sunday to discuss Yemen’s political crisis, but have made no mention of another deal signing, although Yemeni officials in the opposition and government said they may try again to sign the twice-thwarted deal on Sunday.
In the capital Sanaa and Taiz, to the south, protesters called on Saleh to end his nearly 33 years in power.
“Zayani, Zayani, we need another president,” they shouted, referring to Abdullatif al-Zayani, the GCC’s secretary general, who has headed mediation efforts.
In a rare meeting of Yemen’s national defence council on Friday, military leaders praised what they said was Saleh’s “positive response” to the GCC initiative but also said they discussed ways of confronting “outlaws and any efforts at a coup on democracy and constitutional legitimacy.”
They also blamed the opposition for the political crisis.
Saleh first refused to sign the GCC deal in April when he said he would only sign in his capacity as ruling party leader, not president. Last Wednesday he backed out in objection to the opposition’s inclusion of a politician he did not want to be among those who would sign the deal.
Sanaa protester Abdulrahman Saleh said Saleh’s unwillingness to sign made him sceptical of his Friday call for a presidential poll. “This is just a new manoeuvre from the president because he doesn’t want to leave power,” he said.
Yemen, where half the 23 million people own a gun, and already facing regional rebellions, has become a concern for regional stability among its Gulf neighbours, particularly neighbouring oil giant Saudi Arabia, and the United States, which has seen Yemen as an ally against al Qaeda.
In his widely anticipated speech on U.S. policy in the Arab world, President Barack Obama said on Thursday that Saleh needed to “follow through on his commitment to transfer power.”
On the streets of Sanaa, Obama’s words received mixed reviews. Some protesters were optimistic that his call for a transition meant the U.S. president was on their side. Others argued he did not go far enough in confronting Saleh.
“The American position is still weak towards President Saleh. We were waiting for Obama to call on Saleh to leave immediately,” Samir Abdullah said.