Yemen’s Leader Says He Will Step Down in 2013

Sana (Keydmedia) - In another reverberation of the popular anger rocking the region, the longtime president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, announced a series of concessions on Wednesday that included suspending his campaign for constitutional changes that would allow him to remain president for life and pledging that his son would not seek to be his successor.
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“No extension, no inheritance, no resetting the clock,” Mr. Saleh said Wednesday during a legislative session that was boycotted by the opposition. “I present these concessions in the interests of the country. The interests of the country come before our personal interests.”

He ordered the creation of a fund to employ university graduates and to extend social security coverage, increased wages and lowered income taxes and offered to resume a political dialogue that collapsed last October over elections. In answer to opposition complaints that voter records are rife with fraud, he said he would delay the April parliamentary elections until better records could be compiled.

But it remained to be seen whether Mr. Saleh, whose current term ends in 2013, was simply trying to siphon vigor from the antigovernment protests planned for Thursday. Those demonstrations are intended to build on gatherings last week that turned into the largest protests against Mr. Saleh, who was ruled for 32 years. He promised in 2005 not to run again but changed his mind the next year.

“The president didn’t say anything new,” said Muhammad al-Qutabi, a spokesman for the opposition. “What he offered today didn’t even meet he opposition’s old demands.”

Khaled al-Anesi, the leader of an opposition group called the National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedom, said, “He is going to put the amendments in the freezer and take them out when he needs them.”

Opposition lawmakers, an eclectic group dominated by Islamists, were likewise not impressed.

“He’s been making promises for 32 years and never kept one,” said one, Shawki al-Qadi. “When he promised to fight poverty, we got poorer. When he promised to leave office, he made amendments to stay forever.”

Governments around the region have been shaken as momentum has gathered across North Africa and the Middle East for deep, even radical, change in countries with leaders long backed by the United States.

Tunisia’s president has been ousted, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt remains embattled even after declaring that he would step down after finishing his term in September and King Abdullah II of Jordan has fired his government. And in Syria, calls for a “day of rage” this weekend against the government of President Bashar al-Assad were spreading on Facebook, which is formally banned in the country, and on Twitter.

Yemen’s stability has been of increasing concern to the United States, which has provided $250 million in military aid in the past five years. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, on a visit to Sana, the capital, in January, urged Mr. Saleh to establish a new dialogue with the opposition, saying it would help to stabilize the country.

Mr. Saleh has been seeking to stave off unrest, recently promising to raise salaries for civil servants and the military, in a country where many people live on less than $2 a day. On Tuesday, the state news agency, Saba, reported that the president had ordered retailers to stop charging the military and security forces for food and gasoline.

The Yemeni opposition, which has promised to hold protests every Thursday for the next month, has not demanded Mr. Saleh’s ouster thus far, but rather reforms and a smooth transition of power through elections. Fears of violence run high in this country, where the potential for strife is difficult to overstate.

The poorest of the Arab countries, Yemen is troubled by a rebellion in the north and a struggle for secession in the formerly independent south. In recent years, an affiliate of Al Qaeda has turned parts of the country into a refuge beyond the state’s reach, from which it has launched terrorist attacks against the West. A remarkably high proportion of citizens are armed.

“It is still possible to make changes peacefully because the opposition is still leading the Yemeni street,” said Mr. Qadi, the opposition lawmaker. “Once it starts leading itself, then the situation will be very difficult.”

But there were signs that the government intended to make sure there was a significant counterforce to the opposition on Thursday. It has been helping transport hundreds of rural Yemenis from the outskirts of the capital, and from the pro-Saleh province of Khowlan, into the city. About 500 pro-government people gathered in a central square in Sana, setting up large white tents with the intention of holding the area through the night.

Dozens of protesters and antigovernment activists were arrested and beaten later in the day.

Some in Sana expressed cautious optimism that peaceful change might be possible.

“As long as we have started, we are on the right track for democracy,” said Sheik Mohammed Abulahoum, a prominent tribal leader and politician. “This way, it will be a safe, secure and permanent transition of power, without casualties, and a low cost.”

Ahmed Shelaly, 41, who works as a taxi driver and as the media director for a local nonprofit group, said: “When the next elections come, change is necessary. The president decided not to run out of fear. He’s scared because of Egypt, and people here have weapons, much more so than Egypt.”

Source: NYTimes

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