(Updates with deserted unit’s comment in eighth paragraph. EXTRA for more on Mideast unrest.)
Nov. 24 (Bloomberg) -- Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is preparing to cede power over a country he once united and that is now spiraling toward the brink of civil war and economic collapse.
Saleh, who yesterday signed an accord to hand over control to his deputy, has kept power for more than three decades by doling out handouts to the military and tribes. That helped shore him up until the wave of Arab protests hit Yemen in January, loosening the ties he had nurtured since he became president of northern Yemen in 1978.
“He was one of the people who secured Yemeni unification and he singlehandedly destroyed that unification,” said Abdul- Ghani al-Iryani, a founding member of Yemen’s Democratic Awakening Movement, which was set up to push for a civil society. “He not only took away opportunities from this generation, he also denied us opportunities for the next generation by driving us toward civil war.”
Saleh would be the fourth leader to succumb to unrest that spread through the Middle East in 2011, after those in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The 69-year-old, who survived a bomb attack as he clung to power for more than nine months, is the only one to negotiate the terms of his departure, even as allies deserted him and a crackdown on protesters left almost 900 people dead.
“He is agreeing to go for the moment, but you don’t know if he changes his mind,” Susanne Dahlgren, an Academy of Finland research fellow with the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, said yesterday. “This isn’t the day to celebrate.”
Protesters in Sana’a rejected the accord. “Who delegated you to negotiate when the decision is ours?” read one banner at a rally late yesterday shown on Al Jazeera television. Many of the youth and activist groups who have organized protests since January say the official opposition parties don’t represent them.
The Shiite Muslim Houthi rebels, who have been intermittently fighting security forces in the country’s north since 2004, rejected an accord it described as a “betrayal of the blood of martyrs” and an effort “to protect the regime, thwart the revolution.” The office of rebel leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi said in an e-mailed statement late yesterday that Saleh and his officials have no right to the immunity granted under the agreement.
The deal drew praise from the First Armored Division, a unit that deserted the government forces, which called it “the beginning of the road” toward peaceful change, according to an e-mailed statement late today.
Saleh proved his resilience before parties agreed on the mechanisms of a Gulf Cooperation Council plan for a transition of power. He signed an accord with his opponents in Saudi Arabia yesterday before heading to New York for medical treatment, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters.
Under the terms of the agreement, Saleh will transfer power to his deputy, Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi, who has 90 days to form a new national unity government and set up a military commission, according to the UN. At the end of the period there will be a presidential election and a new leader.
“This represents an important step forward for the Yemeni people, who deserve the opportunity to determine their own future,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in a statement in Washington. “For 10 months, the Yemeni people have courageously and steadfastly voiced their demands for change in cities across Yemen in the face of violence and extreme hardship.”
Yemen is the poorest Arab country and the home of Osama bin Laden’s ancestors, cementing it as a base for al-Qaeda. The country became paralyzed by shortages of fuel, bread, sugar and milk, and suffered power cuts, even with aid from neighboring Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter.
At the start of the unrest, Saleh tried to appease the protesters with promises of reform and a pledge that neither he nor his son would run for president in 2013. In a May 25 briefing with reporters, he then described calls by protesters for him to step down as a “coup.”
On June 3, Saleh was seriously injured in an explosion at a mosque in his presidential compound. He was airlifted to the Saudi capital, Riyadh, where he was treated for burns to his face, hands and legs. The attack came amid gun battles between Saleh’s forces and fighters loyal to Sadiq al-Ahmar, a tribal leader who once formed the backbone of his regime.
To end the unrest, Gulf countries brokered a power transition accord in April that included guarantees that Saleh, his family and close aides will not be prosecuted after the president steps down. Unrest cost the economy more than $8 billion, Industry and Trade Minister Hisham Sharaf said on Nov. 13. Oil accounts for 60 percent of government revenue, according to the International Monetary Fund.
The lack of “an agreement for a peaceful transfer of power has worsened the economy, there’s no doubt,” April Longley Alley, senior analyst for the Arabian Peninsula at the International Crisis Group, said from Abu Dhabi on Nov. 10. “Protests, ongoing violence, fuel shortages, and electrical outages have wreaked havoc on an already weak economy.”
Saleh accepted the accord and came close to signing it on three occasions. He balked and was sustained in power by a fragmented opposition, army units headed by family members and the lack of authoritative institutions such as the military in Egypt. In September, Saleh gave Vice President Hadi the power to sign the agreement on his behalf.
The agreement followed pressure on Saleh from the U.S., Yemen’s Gulf neighbors and the UN. An Oct. 21 vote in the UN Security Council called on Saleh to implement the Gulf Cooperation Council accord. It came a day after the death of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, who was forced from power after months of fighting backed by a NATO air campaign.
Saleh was elected president of the Yemen Arab Republic, or north Yemen, and appointed general commander of the armed forces on July 17, 1978, less than a month after the assassination of President Ahmad al-Ghashmi.
At the time, the southern part of Yemen was a separate entity called the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, which maintained close relations with the communist countries of the Soviet Union, China and Cuba.
Tensions between the two Yemens led to several rounds of fighting before unification in 1990. Saleh became president and Ali Salim al-Bidh, south Yemen’s leader, became vice president.
A power struggle then turned into civil war in 1994. Southerners declared secession and the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Yemen, a new entity not recognized by the international community. It quickly collapsed and thousands of southern leaders and military went into exile. Saleh was elected president of united Yemen on Oct. 1, 1994.
To consolidate his power, he placed family members at the head of military units, ensuring that establishment’s loyalty.
“The military was very much a family business,” Sarah Phillips, Yemen specialist at the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney, said in a Nov. 11 telephone interview from Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland.
Saleh ruled a fractious country, one where tribes exercised total control over their turfs, southerners wanted to secede, northern Houthis fought for autonomy and water was scarcer. Phillips said Saleh played on the social divisions.
The World Bank forecast that Sana’a will be the first capital city to run out of water by 2025. More than half the country’s population of 23 million is under 20 years old and about 40 percent of the people live on the equivalent of less than $2 a day, according to the UN.
“He ruled by exacerbating these kinds of tensions, turning different elements in society against each other as a way of dividing and ruling and maintaining his head just above the fray,” Phillips said. “He left behind a very divided Yemen.”
--With assistance from Caroline Alexander in London, Glen Carey in Riyadh and Mohammed Hatem in Sana’a. Editors: Rodney Jefferson, Andrew J. Barden, Ben Holland, Karl Maier, Heather Langan.
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