Monday, 25 April 2011

Yemen opposition division delays US-backed-Saudi-led GCC plan for defusing crisis

Source: The Wall Street Journal, by By MARGARET COKER And HAKIM ALMASMARI,

Yemen's opposition is deadlocked about whether to join embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh in accepting a deal brokered by neighboring Arab countries in which the longtime leader would cede power after a 30-day period and receive immunity for himself and his close relatives.

The offer, intended to end the political stalemate that has increased the security vacuum in the volatile nation, follows a fierce bout of arm-twisting by Mr. Saleh's close allies, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, after he has tenaciously clung to power despite the towering array of politicians, army officers and tribal leaders intent on seeing him step down.

But the proposed deal so far has magnified divisions in the ranks, between the established opposition parties eager to ascend to power themselves and the student movements pushing for deep, democratic changes instead of what they see as a political life preserver thrown to the longtime leader.

Yemen's allies, including the U.S., have grown increasingly worried that the political crisis has reversed gains made by American and Yemeni forces to weaken the entrenched al Qaeda network that operates inside the Arab country. In recent weeks, as protests against the president have gained traction, more than half the country's U.S.-trained counterterrorism forces, which are commanded by Mr. Saleh's son and nephews, have left their posts in al Qaeda-infested areas of the country to help defend the leader's official residence in the capital, San'a.

The White House declined to comment Sunday. But White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Saturday that the U.S. wanted to see "a peaceful transfer of power in Yemen that is responsive to the aspirations of the Yemeni people." The White House urged all parties to move swiftly to implement the terms of the agreement.

A lengthy holdout to the new political deal by the Yemeni student groups, perceived as the moral backbone of the protest movement, provides a fresh challenge for U.S. policy makers trying to find a balance between supporting democracy movements and defending national security. Diplomats involved in the Yemeni political negotiations say they would like to see elections held before the start of Ramadan, which begins in early August. That means that a political solution to the crisis would have to be announced soon—or student concerns with the latest deal be ignored—for polls to be held within that timeline.

"If we don't have elections before Ramadan, then we lose two more months," said a diplomat familiar with the negotiations. "That [political vacuum] is bad for us and good for al Qaeda."

Overwhelmed with the instability bubbling in Syria and Bahrain, Arab Gulf officials last week pushed more forcibly to find a solution in Yemen, according to two diplomats familiar with the situation. With the backing of the U.S., the Saudis and the Emiratis lobbied both Mr. Saleh and the opposition parties to accept a plan for political transition laying out a 30-day timeline for the president to step down and allow the opposition the chance to enter government, reform the constitution and hold new elections.

In return, the deal would give legal immunity for the longtime leader and top officials in his government and give him the right to name who would take over the transitional government that would rule the country until new polls.

The two-page draft political deal, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, doesn't mention defense or counterterrorism issues. People familiar with the document say that U.S. and Gulf Arabs expect that Mr. Saleh's son and nephews—who run the country's intelligence service, Republican Guard and elite Interior Ministry forces and are key counterterrorism liaisons for American officials—would remain in their positions until new elections. Mr. Saleh accepted the deal over the weekend, according to two close aides, a dramatic turnaround from previously defiant statements that he wouldn't leave office until the end of his term in 2013 and his rejection of several agreements negotiated over the past few weeks by his allies and the opposition to end his 32-year rule.

His about-face has exposed deep fractures in Yemen's wide-ranging opposition, which spent the weekend debating whether to accept the deal, brokered under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the regional political group of Arab oil-producing countries.

The leaders of Yemen's established opposition parties, which have been denied positions of power during the three decades that Mr. Saleh has ruled, have been itching for a quick end to the crisis that began with the first street demonstrations in January. They were included in the negotiations with the GCC during the drafting of the current plan—but the student groups weren't.

The opposition is concerned about two major issues in the deal. The first is a clause that calls for immunity for the president and "his cohorts in rule," which opposition leaders say is meant to include Mr. Saleh's son and nephews and all key officials who have been associated with the regime.

The students have insisted on seeing the president prosecuted for the deaths of the more than 140 protesters who have died since the start of the national uprising, something the immunity clause would prohibit. "The revolution cannot be complete if corruption is not uprooted. Giving immunity to all [Mr. Saleh's] regime is helping the spread of corruption and destroying the revolution," said Adel Rabayee, one of the student committee leaders. "The youth are looking at the matter from a logical point of view, while the international community is looking at it from political interests."

The second divisive issue is the clause that would obligate the opposition to join a unified transitional government with Mr. Saleh's ruling party for the 30 days between the time that the agreement is signed and the leader must step down. Opposition figures both within the political parties and outside their ranks see that as objectionable because they would have to swear loyalty to the leader they have been trying to kick out of power.

Opposition parties sent emissaries to the student groups to try to negotiate a way forward. U.S. and European diplomats also met with the student groups, urging them to bend their demands and accept apolitical compromise. But by Sunday night, the student movement was strategizing further civil-disobedience campaigns against the regime.

In Washington, the U.S. State Department said that there must be "genuine participation by all sides, including youth, in an open and transparent process" that addresses Yemenis' legitimate concerns. These include "their calls to quickly bring all perpetrators of violence against protesters to justice" as well as their political and economic aspirations. "We will not speculate about the choices the Yemeni people will make or the results of their political dialogue," it added.

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