Hani Mohammed, Associated Press
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.
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