Middle East

Saleh calls for early election as Yemenis protest

SANAA: Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has agreed to sign a Gulf-brokered power transition, called 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 transition deal, most recently Wednesday, despite diplomatic wrangling by U.S., Gulf and European officials.

Tens of thousands of protesters rallied in cities across Yemen Friday, demanding Saleh end his three-decade rule now.

A civilian was shot dead 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.”

He did not give any time frame or details on a plan for an election, leaving some skeptical 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 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.

Gulf foreign ministers are planning to meet 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 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.

In a rare meeting of Yemen’s national defense council 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 skeptical of his Friday call for a presidential poll. “This is just a new maneuver from the president because he doesn’t want to leave power,” he said.

In his widely anticipated speech on U.S. policy in the Arab world, President Barack Obama said 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.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 21, 2011, on page 9.




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