(Updates with Taiz fighting in fifth paragraph.)
Dec. 1 (Bloomberg) -- Last week, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh pardoned those who committed “stupidities” during pro- democracy protests. He also sent telegrams to world leaders and ordered the Interior Ministry to investigate an attack on demonstrators. All that came after he agreed to give up power.
The uncanny resemblance between the Saleh who ran Yemen for 33 years, and the one who’s now on paper only an honorary ruler, underscores how the peace accord brokered by Gulf countries may fail to halt Yemen’s slide toward civil war. That risks destabilizing Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil producer, which has taken the lead in efforts to pacify its neighbor.
Left out of the accord signed in the Saudi capital Riyadh last week were the activists who have occupied the streets of Sana’a and other cities for 10 months to drive the president out. They have been targeted by attacks even after the accord’s signing, yet the activists refuse to retreat. They demand that Saleh quit immediately, that he stand trial over the deaths of hundreds of protesters this year, instead of being granted the immunity offered by the accord, and that his relatives should be sacked from key army posts.
It was a “big, serious mistake” to exclude the young activists from the agreement, said Ibrahim Sharqieh, a Yemen expert and deputy director of the Brookings Doha Center. It adds to the risk that the accord may collapse during the 90-day period envisaged before elections, and “if that happens, the situation in Yemen could spiral toward civil war,” he said.
There were clashes overnight in the southern city of Taiz, where 12 people were killed and more than 50 wounded, according to Tarik al-Shujaa, head of a field clinic there, and the state- run Saba news agency. Among the dead are five soldiers who were killed in a battle with tribal forces near the city, Saba said. Thousands of protesters braved the artillery fire to denounce the military attack on Taiz and demand Saleh’s trial.
The accord brokered by Gulf Cooperation Council members and signed on Nov. 23 involves Vice President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi taking over as interim leader, before Feb. 21 elections in which Saleh’s party and the official opposition would both support Hadi. Mohamed Salem Basindwah, chosen to lead a national unity government, said Nov. 29 that his Cabinet would be formed within days, and pledged to tackle issues including fuel shortages.
The signing ceremony in Riyadh was televised by international broadcasters and attended by Saudi King Abdullah, Gulf ministers and Western and Arab ambassadors.
‘Blood of Martyrs’
Abdul-Karim al-Eryani, Saleh’s political adviser, said the president deliberately sought such high-profile gathering and told Jamal Benomar, special adviser on Yemen to the United Nations, that he wanted to sign “in the limelight and not in a dark corner or a police station.”
The presence of those dignitaries offered “an added guarantee for Saleh’s future,” Eryani, who was present at the meeting with Benomar, said in a Nov. 25 interview in Beirut.
The agreement wasn’t welcomed by protesters in Sana’a or other opponents of Saleh’s rule. Thousands rallied in the following days, and army units who had defected to join the protesters continued to clash with security forces.
“The blood of martyrs that forced you out is the blood that will take you to jail,” Fuad al-Himiri, a preacher at Friday prayers near the protest camp in central Sana’a, told the crowds on Nov. 25, addressing Saleh.
“Where are the features of the civil state? Where’s the participation of the youths in power?” said Fuad Alsalahi, a professor of sociology who lectures regularly at the protest camp in Sana’a, criticizing the Gulf agreement. “We have reaped a quarter of the rewards of the revolution,” he said in an interview.
Shia Houthi rebels in the north, who have been fighting the government since 2004 in a conflict that drew in Saudi troops, said they rejected a settlement with Saleh’s “criminal regime” that offered “immunity for the horrible crimes it has committed against the people.”
At their camp in Sana’a yesterday, the protesters sat in tents stretching along Change Square, discussing the accord as they chewed qat leaves, a mild narcotic.
“We will not move from here until we achieve the objective we set out for, which is the complete downfall of Saleh’s system,” said Abdulnaser al-Fuhaidi.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, with backing from the U.S., have sought to resolve the Yemeni conflict to reduce instability. Saudi Arabia shares a border with Yemen and has been targeted in the past by Yemen-based militants from al- Qaeda, as well as getting drawn in to the war with the Houthis.
The unrest has cost Yemen, the poorest Arab nation, more than $8 billion, Industry and Trade Minister Hisham Sharaf said Nov. 13. Attacks against the country’s pipeline network have disrupted exports and caused nationwide shortages. Last month, Yemen LNG, the country’s liquefied-natural-gas exporter, halted production after an attack on a gas pipeline.
Anti-Saleh protests began with small rallies in January that swelled into massive demonstrations a month later. Saleh’s crackdown has left almost 900 people dead, according to the Yemen Students’ Union, while Saleh has put the death toll on the government side at 1,150.
Last week’s agreement nominally adds Saleh to the list of Arab leaders forced out by protests this year. His conduct of government duties last week shows how little he has in common with Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak or Muammar Qaddafi.
Fled, Jailed, Killed
The Tunisian president fled to Saudi Arabia and is being tried in absentia on multiple counts of corruption. Mubarak is in an Egyptian prison on trial for killing protesters, while the Libyan leader was killed soon after capture.
Saleh kept maneuvering, frequently coming close to signing the GCC accord and then backing away again, until he got a deal with international consensus that protects him, his family and close aides from prosecution, and provides the honorable exit he has long demanded. “He proved to be the smartest president of all of them, he managed to survive,” said Sharqieh.
While it’s not too late for Yemen to bring the young activists and protesters into the agreement, improving its chance of success, it’s also too early to be sure that Saleh is sincere about ceding power, Sharqieh said.
“The coming 90 days will determine whether he is going to be completely out or whether this will turn out to be another one of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s moves,” he said.
--With assistance from Mohammed Hatem in Sana’a, Yemen. Editors: Ben Holland, Andrew J. Barden, Carli Lourens
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