March 3, 2011 / 9:58 AM / 9 years ago

Yemen to respond on reforms, activists sceptical

SANAA (Reuters) - Yemen President Ali Abdullah Saleh will respond “positively” to an opposition plan for him to step down from power and reform politics, a senior aide said on Thursday, as nationwide protests against his rule continued.

An anti-government protester holds out his arm, with the words "Get out" written on it, during a demonstration demanding the ouster of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh outside Sanaa University March 3, 2011. Saleh will respond "positively" to an opposition roadmap for him to step down from power and reform politics, a senior aide said, as anti-Saleh protests continued across the country. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

Yemen’s coalition of opposition parties, joined by some tribal and religious leaders, proposed a five-point “roadmap” this week to Saleh, a U.S. ally against al Qaeda who has ruled the Arabian Peninsula state for 32 years.

Yemen, neighbour to top oil exporter Saudi Arabia and the regional base for one of al Qaeda’s most active branches, teeters on the brink of failed statehood. Analysts say the protests sweeping across the country may make it difficult even for Saleh, a clever political survivalist, to cling to power.

Leaders of the opposition coalition say their plan would pave the way for Saleh to step down by the end of 2011, though youths and activists have said they are sceptical and demand his immediate resignation.

“There will be a positive response to the proposal,” a senior official told Reuters. “The details are being discussed by the two sides right now, and we’ll announce a final position at a later time,” he said. He did not specify when.

Mohammed al-Sabry, an opposition spokesman, also said Saleh would accept the plan, but it needed approval from the street.

“Even if the president accepts our initiative he has to propose it to the people, and they will decide whether to accept it or not,” he said.

Saleh was unable to persuade opponents his previous offer to step down in 2013 was anything more than a manoeuvre to ward off unrest, galvanised by successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

“This is clearly a way of getting around the youth revolution. The protesters will not accept anything other than the departure of this regime immediately and with no delays,” said Samia al-Aghbari, a leading Sanaa activist.

The opposition’s plan includes changing the constitution, rewriting election laws to ensure fair representation in parliament, removing Saleh’s relatives from leadership positions in the army and security forces, and guaranteeing the right to peaceful protest.

“We shouldn’t read too much into a so-called positive response,” said Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Centre in Doha. “The strategy now is to stall... and hold on as long as possible and hope protesters lose steam. I don’t think we should be under the illusion Saleh will become a democrat overnight.”

ACTIVISTS CHALLENGE PLAN

Activists in various cities demanding change said they were forming a group called “Solidarity of the People” that they say can draw large crowds and show they have the mandate to push for Saleh’s immediate resignation.

It is unclear who holds the most sway on the streets right now: youths and activists have shaped rallies that began in early January into widespread, daily protests with tens of thousands of people. The opposition is still able to draw the biggest crowds.

Tribes, the heart of Yemen’s social network, are also seen as crucial to deciding the fate of the government. Some tribal leaders once loyal to Saleh have begun to throw their weight behind the protesters.

Saleh, whose cash-strapped government has been plagued by southern rebellion and an intermittent war with northern Shi’ite Muslim rebels, can offer fewer perks to maintain allies as oil and water resources dry up.

Many interviewed on the street said they were impatient for change: “I joined these sit-ins from the beginning so that we could bring the regime down now,” said Taqiya Mohammed, a 60-year-old who joined protesters in Sanaa in January.

Protesters say they are frustrated with widespread corruption and soaring unemployment in a country where 40 percent of the 23 million people live on $2 a day or less and a third face chronic hunger, and want Saleh to leave immediately.

Tens of thousands have camped out in central squares, from the capital of Sanaa to southern Aden, once the capital of the independent south where most of the 24 people who have been killed in protests died.

Ahmed Salah, an army officer, also joined the crowd of protesters in Sanaa on Thursday, saying, “I’m not afraid, this is fate. It is inevitable that the demands of the people for the fall of the regime are met.”

Writing by Erika Solomon; Editing by Elizabeth Fullerton

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