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Saleh must leave now, Yemeni youths say

Youth protesters refuse to accept deal to allow Yemen president to stay for another month; rift developing with largest opposition group over proposal.

A Yemeni woman takes part in anti-government protests calling for the ouster of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the capital Sanaa on Sunday
A Yemeni woman takes part in anti-government protests calling for the ouster of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the capital Sanaa on Sunday

SANA'A // Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis protested yesterday against a Gulf Cooperation Council deal that would allow President Ali Abdullah Saleh to cling to power for at least another month and shield him from prosecution.

The Revolution Coalition of Peaceful Change, a coalition of dozens of youth groups that led the street protests, yesterday denounced the GCC plan that allowed Mr Saleh 30 days to step down in exchange for an end to the nationwide protests and legal immunity for himself, his family and aides.

"We reject any dialogue with the regime as this would give [Mr Saleh] a chance to buy time and manoeuvre. We have no trust in this regime and the president who has been lying to us for more than three decades," said Abdullah al Shalif, an activist leader at the sit-in protest at al Tagheer Square outside Sana'a University and a spokesman of the Revolution Coalition.

The proposal, which also states that a "unity" government be established within a week, was accepted in principle on Saturday by Mr Saleh and Yemen's largest opposition group, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), but the president has yet to sign the agreement. Despite welcoming the plan, the JMP said it would not take part in the mandated transitional government with the ruling party, and could not force protesters to stand down.

But the street protesters want more. Speaking at a press conference yesterday, protest leaders threatened more civil disobedience if president does not quit at once and stand trial for the more than 125 protesters killed by security forces since February 11, as well as other alleged crimes.

"We will intensify our protests and the regime will be surprised by our escalation," said Mr al Shalif at the press conference in Sana'a, refusing to give details.

The strong rejection of the GCC-brokered plan by the mostly youth-led street protesters signals a division within the anti-Saleh movement that analysts believe could be potentially exploited by the embattled leader to delay a transfer of power. Mohammed al-Sabri, a JMP leader, attributed the seeming fault line in the opposition to miscommunication.

"There is a misunderstanding of our position by the protesters and it was this point of ending street protests that we rejected in the plan. We have stuck to the right of the people to protests," Mr Sabri said yesterday.

Even so, the Revolution Coalition released a statement yesterday that the JMP represents only itself and that the street protesters were not obliged to honour any agreements made by the opposition parties.

The JMP has also been criticised by the Saleh government for failing to live up to its end of the GCC agreement.

"The JMP accepted the plan with reservations in order not to lose sympathy of the GCC while they continue to support their members at the protests who reject the plan," Mr Saleh's press secretary, Ahmed al-Sufi, told the National.

"They were asked to say whether they accept the plan or reject it as a whole. They cannot accept some parts and leave the important part which is the end of protests and taking part in the government at this critical time of power transfer," Mr Sufi added.

The threat of a stalemate looms, said Yemeni political analyst and author Ahmed al Zurkah, in which the apparently divided opposition would stay in the streets and Mr Saleh would use this as an excuse to hold on to power under the terms of the GCC agreement.

"There is no big difference between the JMP and the street protesters and I think if there are guarantees that the president will have no control over the army, security, public money or ruling party supporters during the 30 days, the people will accept it," said Mr al Zurkah.

He continued: "But the people are afraid that Saleh will seize the time and overthrow the deal as he did previously with his opponents. He must be stripped of any time that allows him to reorganise his allies."

Mr Zurkah said it was a mistake to exclude the youth organisations from the GCC negotiations and claimed that the proposal will only work if Mr Saleh is serious about allowing a complete transfer of power to take place.

"The plan sees the fall of Saleh and not his regime. This will hamper any social or political transition to take place because this revolution is much more about social change than political change," Mr Zurkah said.

This mass appeal of the anti-Saleh campaign was evident again yesterday as hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered in multiple cities to call for an end to the president's three decades of autocratic rule and the resultant poverty. Tens of thousands protested yesterday in the city of Taiz and, in the southern province of Lahij, gun battles between armed tribesmen and government forces killed five people, four of them soldiers, police said. Witnesses said there were at least 100,000 protesters in Sana'a, and there seemed no let up in intensity.

malqadhi@thenational.ae