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A Standoff in Yemen: Can Saleh Negotiate His Departure?

5 minute read
Erik Stier / Sana'a

Calm and composed in a sharp suit and dark sunglasses, Yemen’s embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh took to the podium on Friday and before a massive crowd announced that he was ready to transfer power — but only to the right people. And yet, while that may have sounded cynical to most of his opponents, Saleh also chose to address the heart of the popular movement against him, directly speaking to the young activists who had begun the calls for the collapse of his regime in January. “I am ready for your dialogue and to receive your demands, and I invite you to form your own political party.”

The President shifted from accommodating to adamant. Gesturing to his audience, he said, “I will transfer power to safe hands and not to the malicious forces who conspire against the homeland … You are the ones who will be handed power.” That audience was a crowd estimated by some at more than 100,000, loyalists from surrounding regions who had poured into the capital, Sana’a, overnight to stage the largest pro-Saleh demonstration to date, dubbed the “Friday of Tolerance” by government organizers. It was a reminder that the President continues to retain significant support in the country. “With our souls and our blood, we sacrifice for Ali,” the audience chanted in support of the man who has led Yemen for 32 years. Some waved placards of the President and signs that read, “No to chaos and no to sabotage.”

(See photos from on the ground in Yemen.)

Saleh’s stance — firm but willing to make concessions — seems to reflect the state of negotiations over a potential transfer of power that may bring Yemen’s existential crisis to an end. The talks, involving Saleh, Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar — the military’s second in command who defected from the regime on Monday — and members of the international community had stalled the night before, according to a government official familiar with the situation. “Both sides are going to have to make compromises for this to work,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak to the press. “We still have to be cautious because the situation remains fluid.”

And so Saleh was once again playing for time but trying to do it from his strengths. His relatively calm demeanor was in contrast to the defiant speeches he had delivered earlier in the week, when he declared that any attempt to unseat him would mark the outbreak of civil war. In a televised speech on Thursday night offering amnesty to top-ranking generals who had defected from his regime, Saleh derided opposition protesters, questioning their dedication to peace and accusing them of fomenting anarchy. While more sedate, Saleh was not entirely peaceable in his Friday speech either. He reiterated that he would use all the power at his disposal to fight attempts to unseat him by force.

(See “Cornered in Yemen: President Saleh Smiles and Snarls.”)

The possibility of a bloodbath has hung over Yemen all week. As top military commanders broke ranks with the government, army tanks lined the presidential palace, highlighting the potential for mass violence. For as Saleh spoke before his enormous throng of followers, tens of thousands of Yemenis opposed to his regime gathered in Tagheer Square in Sana’a to demand that he step down immediately. Many feared that the rival demonstrations dividing Yemen’s capital on Friday would lead to the same kind of bloodshed seen the previous Friday, when snipers opened fire on crowds of opposition demonstrators, killing more than 50. But the violence never came. A quick burst of gunfire rang out near an entrance to the demonstration area when soldiers dispersed an angry crowd, though no one was harmed.

The change in Saleh seemed to have caught some in the opposition off guard. “It suddenly feels like we’ve succeeded,” said Hamid al-Gadwany, 24, a demonstrator from Sana’a. Others, however, remained cynical. “The speech today was nothing more than a confabulation,” said Mohammad al-Sabri, a spokesman for the Joint Meeting Parties, a broad coalition of Yemen’s opposition parties. “He could still try to stay longer. Right now he’s studying his options and negotiating with the U.S. and the E.U.” He added, “There’s no reason he can’t step down now. We have structures in our constitution to deal with that.”

(See inside the showdown in Yemen.)

Many, however, were heartened by the peace that prevailed in Sana’a. “The fact that there was no violence today was a major achievement,” says Mohammad Abou Lahoum, a senior leader of Saleh’s General People’s Congress party. “It showed that all sides are ready and that transferring power is something that can happen.” Indeed, for the most optimistic among the opposition, the real question doesn’t seem to be so much whether Saleh will leave; it’s when he will do so. Many of the demonstrators who have been camped out in front of Sana’a University protesting each day for months feel that success is within reach. “This isn’t just a political revolution. It’s a revolution of ideas and of culture,” said Ali al-Omaidy, 33, a protester from the southwestern town of Ibb. “We all have weapons, but we’ve laid them down even in the face of bullets. And now we’ve won.”

See TIME’s special report, “The Middle East in Revolt.”

See photos of the clashes in Yemen.

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