SANAA AND ADEN, Yemen – As Egyptians storm back into Tahrir Square and Libyans round up their remaining war criminals, Yemenis are praying that a power-transfer deal signed by President Ali Abdullah Saleh on Wednesday will prevent their nine-month civil uprising from descending into civil war.
Saleh, 67, had survived months of mass protests, defections from within his army, party, and tribe, and a June bomb attack on his palace that left him bed-ridden for three months in a Saudi Arabian military hospital. But with the economy of the verge of collapse, armed factions of the military clashing in the capital, and the threat of U.N. sanctions and asset-freezes looming, Yemen's wily leader of three decades appears finally to have decided to take a step back.
"This disagreement for the last 10 months has had a big impact on Yemen in the realms of culture, development, politics, which led to a threat to national unity and destroyed what has been built in past years," he told a flock of Saudi sheikhs, foreign ambassadors, and U.N. diplomats seated on gold-crested chairs in a lavish Saudi palace after singing four copies of the agreement.
The deal, which had been initially cobbled together by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the United States back in April, requires an immediate transfer of power to Saleh's deputy, the relatively impotent Abd Rab Mansour al-Hadi, who will preside over a national unity government until early presidential elections scheduled for Feb. 21.
In return for signing, Yemeni lawmakers will grant Saleh and his sons immunity from prosecution -- not a bad deal given the corruption allegations, and the hundreds of protesters shot dead in recent months by government troops. Yemenis, meanwhile, get a rare chance to push their faltering uprising into a new phase and search for a way out of the raging political turmoil.
But with Saleh now entrenched in his palace, clinging to the honorary title of president, and his sons and nephews still holding key positions in the military and intelligence services, the regime remains largely intact. Irked by the shortfalls of the GCC deal and the thought of Saleh escaping prosecution, the tens of thousands of protesters who remain camped out in dusty squares across Yemen have pressed on with their rallies, marching daily. On Thursday, just a day after the agreement was signed, a mob of Kalashnikov-wielding balaatija, as the protesters call them -- plainclothes government thugs -- shot dead five demonstrators and maimed a further 30 as they stormed through the streets of Sanaa calling for Saleh to be put on trial.
Despite the violence, the sight of Saleh finally signing the deal came as a relief to many. But despite the breakthrough, Yemen faces a flawed and failed political compact. The country's future, most notably the question of its unity -- the status of the South -- now hangs ominously in the balance.
Saleh has long seen the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990 as the jewel crowning his 33 years in power. His ruling party, the General People's Congress (GPC), has banged the drum of unity so hard and for so long that anyone caught questioning the merger is seen as a turncoat and risks being labeled an "enemy of the state."