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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Yemeni agreement to GCC proposal positions group as regional mediator

Protesters in Yemen will have reason to celebrate their president's departure. (File Photo)

Protesters in Yemen will have reason to celebrate their president's departure. (File Photo)
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s willingness to resign in 30 days as part of a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) proposal to solve his country’s three-month old crisis could position the Saudi-led group as a major regional power broker.

Mr. Saleh accepted to resign after 32 years in office in exchange for immunity for himself and his close relatives, according to State TV. Under the GCC-negotiated plan, Mr. Saleh would hand power to his vice president, Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi, one month after signing an agreement with the opposition. Mr. Hadi would then appoint a unity government tasked with organizing elections within two months in which members of Mr. Saleh’s ruling party would occupy half of the posts, the opposition 40 percent and the remaining 10 percent would be allotted to parties unaffiliated with the government or its opponents.

“President Saleh welcomed the proposal and has accepted it. Though President Saleh has constitutional rights to stay in power, he is willing to leave office willingly,” an aide to the president said on Saturday evening.

Addressing his supporters on Friday, Mr. Saleh refrained from hinting at his reported agreement to the GCC proposal. “We stress that we will hold on to the constitutional legitimacy, in loyalty to our people, as we categorically reject the attempted coups on freedom, democracy, and political pluralism,” Mr. Saleh said. If anything, the president appeared to signal that he intended to hang on to power until the end of his term in 2013, saying he welcomed the GCC plan but only “within the framework of the constitution.”

A day later, Mr. Saleh, in a speech to armed forces academy students, denounced former ruling party members who have joined the opposition as “symbols of corruption” who were mimicking protesters in Egypt and Tunisia. These protesters had succeeded in overthrowing their authoritarian rulers.

Mr. Saleh’s agreement to resign places the fate of the GCC plan squarely in the court of the president’s opponents, many of whom will find granting the president and his family immunity a difficult pill to swallow. The opposition is also likely to find hard to accept the plan’s stipulation that Mr. Saleh’s son and nephews would retain control of their military and national security positions for 60 days to ensure continuity of counter-terrorism operations.

The opposition is further likely to want clarification on whether the GCC plan would allow Mr. Saleh and his family to remain in Yemen. Some opposition members are moreover believed to be opposed to the plan’s granting of a veto on Mr. Saleh’s resignation to the Yemeni parliament, which is dominated by representatives of the president’s ruling party.

As a result, the proposal could spark splits among the opposition with no certainty that a sufficient majority would back it.

To be sure, Mr. Saleh’s agreement to the GCC plan puts pressure on the opposition–a motley alliance of students, women, tribal leader and military officers—to contribute to an end to the crisis. The plan is the first of a score of proposals in recent weeks under which Mr. Saleh would have agreed to resign that the president has not rejected.

The students, who have emerged as a key segment of the opposition, are likely to find acceptance of the GCC plan the most problematic. “We the youth of revolution reject any proposal that does not hold Saleh accountable for the killing of more than 140 revolutionary protesters” in recent weeks, the students' organizing committee said in a statement.

“The GCC proposal approves Saleh stepping down from power in thirty days while we ask for his immediate departure. This is against the will of the people and in favor of the oppressor Saleh,” their statement said. In what may prove to be a flaw in the GCC effort to resolve the Yemeni crisis, the students were excluded from GCC meetings in the past week with representatives of Mr. Saleh and the opposition.

If the GCC indeed succeeds in engineering an end to the Yemeni crisis, the group would likely be expected to put its clout as a regional mediator to the litmus test by seeking to negotiate an end to the mushrooming crisis in Syria.

Although dependent on the Gulf, Syria affects Gulf security to a far lesser extent than Yemen. GCC success in Syria would ride to a large extent on Saudi King Abdullah’s close ties to the country and its president, Bashar al-Assad.

The stakes for the Gulf are far higher in Yemen than in Syria. Both Saudi Arabia and Oman, troubled by mass anti-government protests of its own, feared that the situation could descend into chaos and widespread violence that would spill across their borders.

The GCC also fears that the crisis, which prompted Mr. Saleh’s family members to leave their posts in Al Qaeda-infested areas of the country to help defend the president’s official residence in the capital Sana'a, is reversing Yemeni success in fighting the jihadists. A resurgence of Al-Qaeda, which has refrained from major operations during the crisis, would threaten security in Saudi Arabia and other GCC states, which top the group’s list of targets.

The GCC plan has brought Yemen the closest to date to a resolution of the crisis that would pave the way for Mr. Saleh’s departure and the emergence of a new leadership in the country. The GCC’s most immediate challenge now is to ensure that all parties agree to walk the final mile. That is what will prove that it has the diplomatic mettle to play an increasingly powerful regional role.

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