Published in NY TIMES.
SANA, Yemen — As his tenuous grasp on power eroded further with more public figures defecting to the opposition, President Ali Abdullah Saleh has accepted a proposal by his adversaries to plan his departure from office by the end of the year, a government official said on Tuesday. Previously he had offered only to leave by 2013.
It was not clear whether his offer would appease protesters who have been incensed by a bloody assault on a demonstration last Friday that killed at least 45 people. The Yemeni leader shifted ground after a wave of high-level officials, including the country’s senior military commander, an important tribal leader and a half-dozen ambassadors abandoned him and threw their support behind protesters calling for his ouster.
The latest of the departures came on Tuesday when Abdel-Malik Mansour, Yemen’s representative to the Arab League, told Al Arabiya television he had thrown his support behind the protesters. Abdul-Rahman al-Iryani, the minister of water and environment, who was dismissed with the rest of the cabinet on Sunday, also said he was joining “the revolutionaries.”
A government official, who spoke in return for anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters, said on Tuesday that the details of Mr. Saleh’s proposal were not yet clear and were “still in the works.” The opposition proposal urged Mr. Saleh to complete arrangements for his departure by the end of the year. But since then, the opposition has backed away from the offer, initially made at the beginning of March, saying they want Mr. Saleh to quit immediately.
As the country girded for the next stage of a deepening crisis, military units appeared to take sides in the capital on Monday, with the Republican Guard protecting the palace of President Saleh and soldiers from the First Armored Division under the defecting military commander, Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, protecting the throngs of protesters in Sana. Despite a celebratory mood among the demonstrators, the standoff prompted the United States Embassy to urge Americans in Yemen to stay indoors on Monday night because of “political instability and uncertainty.”
In his letter of resignation on Tuesday, the former water minister declared: “It is becoming ridiculous that every member of the regime is now joining the revolution, when in fact they should surrender themselves to the revolution for trial for crimes that they committed against the people or looked the other way while these crimes were perpetrated on the people. Also, they should pledge not to occupy any public office in the future.”
Therefore, he wrote, “Having served as Minister of Water and Environment since 2006, hereby declare that I surrender to the Youth of the Revolution for fair accounting of any wrongs I may have committed against the people of Yemen and pledge not to hold any public office in the future.”
The defection of General Ahmar, who commands forces in the country’s northwest, was seen by many in Yemen as a turning point, and a possible sign that government leaders could be negotiating an exit for the president. But the defense minister, Brig. Gen. Muhammad Nasir Ahmad Ali, later said on television that the armed forces remained loyal to Mr. Saleh.
That suggested the possibility of a dangerous split in the military should Mr. Saleh, who dismissed his cabinet late Sunday night in the face of escalating opposition, decide to fight to preserve his 32-year rule. His son Ahmed commands the Republican Guard, and four nephews hold important security posts, and their ability to retain the loyalty of their troops in the face of ballooning opposition has yet to be tested.
The Obama administration has watched Mr. Saleh’s eroding position with alarm, for fear of both escalating violence and a power vacuum that might allow the branch of Al Qaeda in Yemen greater freedom to operate. Mr. Saleh has been a crucial ally in operations against the affiliate, called Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which since 2009 has mounted multiple terrorist plots against the United States.
General Ahmar and more than a dozen other senior commanders who followed his example said they had decided to support the protesters after a bloody assault on a demonstration on Friday in which more than 45 people were killed. “I declare on their behalf our peaceful support for the youth revolution and that we are going to fulfill our complete duty in keeping the security and stability in the capital,” General Ahmar told Al Jazeera on Monday. He said that violence against protesters was “pushing the country to the edge of civil war.”
General Ahmar is sometimes described as a rival of the president, and he has long opposed the possible succession to the presidency of Mr. Saleh’s son Ahmed. But the general is from the same village as the president and has mostly been a pillar of support for Mr. Saleh. By Monday afternoon, soldiers directed by General Ahmar stood among the demonstrators with black, white and red ribbons, the colors of Yemen’s flag, draped over their chests. “We are with the people,” said a group of soldiers guarding the main entrance of the protest.
At the same time, one of the country’s most important tribal leaders, Sheik Sadeq al-Ahmar, said Monday that he would join the country’s protest movement. He is the head of the Hashid tribal confederation, to which the president belongs, and his support for antigovernment demonstrations is another serious blow to Mr. Saleh. “Yemen is not the property of Ali Saleh or the Hashids,” Sheik Ahmar told protesters in Sana as he endorsed their movement.
By swinging the weight of the Hashid tribes behind the protests, Sheik Ahmar joined his brother, Sheik Hussein al-Ahmar, who resigned from the ruling party last month to join the demonstrators. Tribes from across Yemen have historically been embroiled in conflicts, but so far few squabbles have taken place among those who have joined the main protest in Sana, their leaders and other protesters said.
The shift in support by the tribal leader and military commanders came amid a stream of resignations by Yemeni officials on Monday, including the mayor of the restive southern city of Aden, a provincial governor and more than half of the country’s foreign ambassadors. The French foreign minister, Alain Juppé, said in Brussels on Monday that Mr. Saleh’s resignation was now “unavoidable.” “This is a replicate of the changes that have happened in Egypt,” said a high-ranking Yemeni diplomat in Europe who spoke on the condition of anonymity. But, he added, it was still too soon to tell where events would lead.
The atmosphere was jubilant at the demonstration, which had grown to its largest size in weeks of rallies, with some men breaking into song. “The army knows that its correct place is to protect the people,” said Fawaz al-Muthlafy, an engineer from the central city of Taiz who has spent weeks at the sit-in protest. “The citizens are now receiving support from across the entire nation, and all our voices have been united.”
On a stage in front of the main gates of Sana University, an announcer welcomed a series of sheiks who voiced support for the demonstrations. The country’s formal political opposition, which for the first time on Saturday joined street protests as a group, also welcomed the support of the commanders. “President Ali Abdullah Saleh will now see that change is a must,” said Mohammed Qahtan, the spokesman for the Joint Meetings Parties, Yemen’s coalition of opposition groups.
Benjamin Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser, told reporters aboard Air Force One on Monday that violence against demonstrators was “unacceptable.” “I think our view is that there’s clearly going to have to be a political solution in Yemen that includes a government that is more responsive to the Yemeni people,” Mr. Rhodes said. “That has been our consistent message to President Saleh.”
Gregory D. Johnsen, a Princeton University expert on Yemen, said the defection of General Ahmar, known popularly as Ali Mohsin, could well prove a lethal blow to Mr. Saleh’s rule. “Many people were waiting for him to make his move,” Mr. Johnsen said. “It’s opened the floodgates.”
General Ahmar, who is widely believed to hold the conservative religious views of the Salafi school, was responsible for helping Yemeni men who had fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan reintegrate into Yemeni society after their return in the 1990s and has since been an important government liaison to militant factions. American officials said that history is no indication of sympathy or tolerance for Al Qaeda. But they are uncertain about what an increase in General Ahmar’s influence might mean for Yemen and counterterrorism.
Abdullah Alsaidi, Yemen’s ambassador to the United Nations, became one of a growing list of senior diplomats to resign after Friday’s violence. “I appeal to the president and to all others to work for a peaceful transfer of power,” Mr. Alsaidi said in an interview with Al Jazeera on Monday. “Yemen is a poor country,” he added, saying it could ill afford further bloodshed.