SANAA, Yemen — A U.S.-backed deal for Yemen’s authoritarian president to step down fell far short of the demands of protesters who fought regime supporters on the streets of Sanaa Thursday in clashes that left five dead.
The agreement ending President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year rule provides for only the shallowest of changes at the top of the regime, something the U.S. administration likely favored to preserve a fragile alliance against one of the world’s most active al-Qaida branches based in Yemen.
The plan drawn up by Yemen’s oil-rich Gulf neighbors does not directly change the system Saleh put in place over three decades to serve his interests.
“It gives an opportunity for regime survival,” said Yemen expert Ibrahim Sharqieh at the Brookings Doha Center. “The only one we’ve seen changing here is the president, but the state institutions and everything else remain in place. Nothing else has changed.”
Saleh signed the agreement Wednesday in the Saudi capital Riyadh, transferring power to his vice president within 30 days. If it holds, he will be the fourth dictator pushed from power this year by the Arab Spring uprisings.
But the deal leaves much more of the old regime intact than the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya — something that will almost certainly translate into continued unrest. Protesters who have been in the millions for nearly 10 months were out again Thursday, rejecting a provision that gives Saleh immunity from prosecution.
Throughout his rule, Saleh consolidated power through wily tactics that included exploiting tribal and regional rivalries and putting close relatives and confidantes in key security positions. For years, he accepted funds from the West to fight Islamist militants, then turned around and used some of those militants to help fight his enemies.
Ruling party and opposition members say Saleh signed the deal under heavy pressure from the U.S. and Saudi governments and that he feared possible sanctions against him and his family, who are suspected of having huge fortunes stashed in foreign banks. Some doubt that the deal marks the end of political life for the president, who has proved to be a wily politician and suggested in remarks after the signing ceremony that he could play a future political role in the country, along with his ruling party.
Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world and even before the uprising, the government exerted only weak authority over most of the country. The uprising led to a collapse in security that created a vacuum al-Qaida militants exploited to gain a firmer foothold in the country. The militants even seized some territory in the south.
The U.S. has long considered Saleh a necessary though unreliable partner in fighting terror, training and funding his special forces to fight Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which has been linked to plots against U.S. targets.
Sharqieh, the Yemen expert, said both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia had reasons to ease Saleh’s departure while not calling for deeper regime change. Saudi Arabia, a deeply conservative hereditary monarchy, fears the pro-democracy uprisings sweeping the Arab world will spread to its shores and worries that collapsing security in Yemen will also spill trouble over its borders.
With this deal, the U.S. may want to appease the protesters while ensuring it can still count on Yemen to fight al-Qaida.
“Saudi Arabia does not want to see a successful youth revolution on its southern border, and Washington does not want security in Yemen to be in the hands of those protesting in Change Square,” said Sharqieh, referring to the Sanaa square that is the center of the protest movement.
Likewise, the U.S. stood by its ally Hosni Mubarak, the longtime authoritarian leader of Egypt, throughout much of the uprising against him in January and February. For the U.S., Mubarak was a valued counterweight to Islamists in the Middle East and a staunch support of Arab-Israeli peace.
Saleh is transferring power to Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. In the coming days, an opposition group that signed the deal will name a prime minister, whom Hadi will swear in. The new prime minister will then form a national unity government, evenly divided between the opposition and Saleh’s ruling party. Hadi will also announce a date for presidential elections, to be held within 90 days.
The deal ensures that Saleh’s party will play a large role in the country’s future. More importantly, it does not mention Saleh’s son, Ahmed, who commands the elite Republican Guard, or his other relatives and associates who command security forces. These units are often the enforcers of Saleh’s regime and could remain more loyal to him and his associates than to a new coalition government.
Under the plan, the new government will also appoint a committee to “restructure” the security forces, including the army, the police and the intelligence services. But it remains unclear what powers it will have to push through its suggested reforms.
Inside Yemen, many of the protesters who have braved lethal government crackdowns to demonstrate for democratic reforms rejected the deal.
Thousands marched Thursday in the capital Sanaa, the central city of Taiz and elsewhere, protesting the deal and calling for Saleh to be tried for charges of corruption and for the killing of protesters during the uprising.
Security forces and pro-Saleh gunmen opened fire on a protest march in Sanaa, killing five protesters, said Gameela Abdullah, a medic at the local field hospital.
A video posted online by activists showed men in long robes and Arab head scarves firing assault rifles at protesters, who scrambled for cover. Some hurled rocks and carried large pictures of Saleh.
“We’ll keep fighting until Saleh is tried for all the crimes he has committed against the people in his capacity as the head of the armed forces,” said activist Bushra al-Maqtari in Taiz, which has seen some of the most violent crackdowns on anti-regime protesters. Hundreds of demonstrators have been killed nationwide since January.
Abdullah Obal, a leader in the opposition coalition that signed the deal, said his group would meet with protesters to try to address their demands.
“The agreement does not cancel the youth’s demands or go against them,” he said. “It is their right to protest.”