Saleh calls for early election as Yemenis protest

Thousands rallied for and against Yemeni Prez Saleh`s three-decade rule.

Updated: May 20, 2011, 18:33 PM IST

Sanaa: Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh called on Friday for early elections in an apparent bid to stave off Gulf and Western pressure to leave office, as thousands rallied for and against his three-decade rule.

Saleh has twice backed out of a Gulf Arab-brokered transition deal, most recently last Wednesday, despite diplomatic wrangling by US, Gulf and European officials.

Washington and Riyadh, both targets of foiled attacks by al Qaeda`s Yemen-based wing, are keen to end a stalemate that has pushed fractious Yemen further onto the brink of chaos and could give the militant network more room to operate.

Saleh in March called for a presidential election by the end of this year, but in his Friday speech he did not give any time frame or details on a plan for an election, leaving some skeptical it may be a tactic to buy time.

"We call for an early presidential election to prevent bloodshed, to protect our family dignity and for a smooth democratic path," he told a cheering crowd of tens of thousands of supporters waving his picture and Yemeni flags.

Security analyst Theodore Karasik, of the Dubai-based INEGMA group, said: "I think it is a ploy to further delay the inevitable, to make it look like he is trying to leave power, but I don`t think that is his full intention."

But Saleh appeared to lay the groundwork for his followers to prepare to relinquish some control over government.

"Your General People`s Congress will remain both in power and out of power and they will educate them (the opposition) in how to be a responsible opposition. No cutting roads, no cutting tongues, no treachery."

Protesters are increasingly frustrated their three months of daily protests have failed to dislodge Saleh. They have begun blocking roads and staging mass strikes that have ground commerce to a halt in several cities.

Yemen also faces severe power and fuel crises since tribesmen blockaded the oil- and gas-producing Maarib province a few weeks ago. Loss of its exports, the government`s main source of income, are likely costing Yemen some $3 million a day.

Gulf bloc meets Sunday

Gulf foreign ministers are planning to meet Sunday to discuss Yemen`s political crisis, but have made no mention of another deal signing, although Yemeni officials in the opposition and government said they may try again to ink the twice-thwarted deal on Sunday.

In the capital Sanaa and Taiz, to the south, protesters called on Saleh to end his nearly 33 years in power.

"Zayani, Zayani, we need another president," they shouted, referring to Abdullatif al-Zayani, secretary general of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), who has headed mediation efforts.

Saleh first refused to sign the GCC deal in April when he said he would only sign in his capacity as ruling party leader, not president. Last Wednesday he backed out in objection to the opposition`s inclusion of a politician he did not want to be among those who would sign the deal.

Yemen, where half the 23-million people own a gun, and already facing regional rebellions, has become a concern for regional stability among its Gulf neighbors, particularly neighboring oil giant Saudi Arabia, and the United States, which has seen Yemen as an ally against al Qaeda.

In his widely anticipated speech on US policy in the Arab world, President Barack Obama said Thursday that Saleh needed to "follow through on his commitment to transfer power."

On the streets of Sanaa, Obama`s words received mixed reviews. Some protesters were optimistic that his call for a transition meant the US President was on their side. Others argued he did not go far enough in confronting Saleh.

"The American position is still weak toward President Saleh. We were waiting for Obama to call on Saleh to leave immediately," Samir Abdullah said.

Bureau Report