x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Saleh calls for early elections as tens of thousands of Yemenis protest

President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power for 33 years, stopped short of setting a date for the elections.

SANA'A // Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh told thousands of supporters gathered in the capital yesterday that he would hold early elections to transfer power.

The announcement came less than 24 hours after an official from the ruling party told Reuters that Mr Saleh and opposition leaders would sign a GCC-brokered deal as early as tomorrow to end nearly four months of protests and the president's 33 years in power.

Mr Saleh stopped short of setting a date for the elections. "We call for an early presidential election in a democratic way, in order to avoid bloodshed," he said.

Under the GCC deal, Mr Saleh would hand power to the vice president 30 days after an agreement is signed, and he and his aides would be granted immunity from prosecution by parliament. GCC ministers are expected to meet in Riyadh on Sunday with the council's chief scheduled to arrive in Sana'a the same day for the signatures.

In a keynote Middle East policy speech on Thursday, US President Barack Obama said Mr Saleh "needs to follow through on his commitment to transfer power".

Both sides had been expected to sign the deal on Wednesday but Mr Saleh refused to sign it, saying three of the five people who were to sign from the opposition were lower-level figures who could not be held accountable

The continued delay in reaching a deal means the security situation in Yemen is likely to get worse the longer the stalemate continues, said Abdulghani al Iryani, an independent analyst.

"We are heading straight to what could escalate into confrontations if the ruling party goes on in its rhetoric inciting a civil war," Mr al Iryani said.

He said the youths are considering escalating their protests by expanding the protest sites and marching on presidential palaces. In the city of Taiz last week demonstraters ratcheted up the demonstrations by closing some government buildings.

Mr al Iryani said any expansion of the protests would be met by an increased use of force from the government. "It is possible friction will start in the countryside and will spark an all out confrontation," he said.

As Mr Saleh told supporters of his plans for an early election, tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Sana'a's Al Siteen street reiterating their demand for his immediate departure.

"The GCC initiative is already dead but we hope the Gulf States will not give up and will keep trying to pressure the regime to sign the deal," Mr al Iryani said.

Mr Saleh also chaired a meeting of the Supreme National Defense Council yesterday, the state Saba news agency reported. It is the first time Mr Saleh's son and nephews, who hold key military and security positions, have been seen on state TV together. The meeting discussed the current turmoil and praised the positive response to the GCC initiative, Saba reported.

Abdulatif al Zayani, secretary general of the Gulf Co-operation Council, left Yemen on Wednesday evening after he failed to convince the president to sign the deal following four days of negotiations between Mr Saleh and the opposition.

The ruling General People's Congress (GPC) and the main opposition coalition, the Joint Meeting Parties, blamed each other on thwarting the agreement.

The GPC said in a statement on Thursday it is still ready to sign the deal at any time, blaming the JMP for failing the deal by naming signatories who have no legal status.

According to ruling party and opposition sources, Mr Saleh wanted Yassin Noman, the rotating head of the JMP, to sign the deal. The opposition preferred Mohammed Basindwa, the person who led the opposition delegation in the first round of GCC talks in Riyadh last month. The opposition agreed to have Mr Noman as the first opposition signatory, but also wanted Mr Basindwa to be on a list of five signatories. Mr Saleh refused, saying three of the five people were lower-level figures who could not be held accountable and the deal fell through, according to Abdu al Janadi, the deputy information minister.

"The president is responsible for the failure of the agreement. He wanted us to reject it to gain the favour of the GCC but we made several concessions," said Hasan Zaid, a JMP leader.

Both the government and opposition initially accepted the GCC plan, which called for Mr Saleh to resign and hand power to his vice president within 30 days of signing the proposal. The deal began to unravel, however, when the president said he would only sign as a head of the party rather than as head of the state.