|‘I won’t seek to extend my presidency for another term or have my son inherit it,’ Ali Abdullah Saleh told Parliament.|
Autocratic Yemeni president vows not to seek new term
SANA, Yemen — Yemen’s US-backed president, in power for more than three decades, pledged yesterday not to seek another term in office in an apparent attempt to defuse protests inspired by Tunisia’s revolt and the turmoil in Egypt.
The concession by Ali Abdullah Saleh signaled that another autocratic Arab leader once thought immune to challenge was ceding ground to pent-up fury and demands for reform of the kind that have swept the region.
It came one day after President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, the target of more than a week of protests calling for his ouster, made a the same pledge on television.
Yet Saleh’s move posed questions about stability in a nation seen by the Obama administration as a key ally in its fight against Islamic militants. Al Qaeda’s Yemeni offshoot claimed responsibility for a failed Christmas Day 2009 attempt to blow up a passenger jet over the United States, and for the attempt late last year to ship parcel bombs to the United States through cargo planes.
“I won’t seek to extend my presidency for another term or have my son inherit it,’’ Saleh told Parliament.
But the opposition greeted his announcement with skepticism, and there were no plans to cancel mass protests scheduled today in the capital, Sana, and across the country.
Saleh, 64, previously tried to defuse tensions in Yemen by raising salaries for the army. Yet tens of thousands gathered last month in demonstrations urging Saleh to step down — a red line that few dissenters had previously dared to cross.
Saleh’s term in office expires in 2013 but proposed amendments to the constitution could let him remain in power for two additional terms of 10 years.
After the Tunisian revolt, which forced that country’s president into exile, and protests in Egypt calling for the end of Mubarak’s 30-year rule, Saleh ordered income taxes slashed in half and instructed his government to control prices. He deployed police and soldiers to key areas in Sana, but the protests continued.
In Parliament, Saleh called upon the opposition to meet for a dialogue on political reforms and their demands.
Opposition spokesman Mohammed al-Sabri rejected the call and expressed doubts about Saleh’s pledge not to seek reelection. Sabri said Saleh made a similar promise in 2006, but then failed to fulfill it, ran again, and was reelected.
“The calls for dialogue are not serious and are merely meant to be tranquilizers,’’ Sabri said.
Yemen is the Arab world’s most impoverished nation and has become a haven for Al Qaeda militants. Saleh’s government is riddled with corruption, has little control outside the capital, and its main source of income — oil — could run dry in a decade.
Nearly half of Yemen’s population lives below the poverty line of $2 a day and does not have access to proper sanitation. Less than 10 percent of the nation’s roads are paved. Tens of thousands have been displaced from their homes by conflict. The country is wrestling with a lingering rebellion in the north and a secessionist movement in the south.
Saleh’s ruling National Congress Party has 240 seats in the 301-member Parliament. The opposition consists of mainly leftist and Islamic parties.
They include the Socialists, who governed south Yemen before the north and the south merged in 1990, as well as the fundamentalist Islamic Islah Party.
The United States, which provides millions in military aid to Yemen, considers one of Islah’s leaders, Sheik Abdul-Majid al-Zindani, to be linked to Al Qaeda.
As in Egypt, where Mubarak’s son Gamal was believed to be preparing to succeed his father, Saleh’s son Ahmed, an army brigadier and head of the presidential guard and special forces, was also believed to be groomed for succession.
Yemen has been the site of numerous anti-US attacks dating to the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Aden Harbor, which killed 17 American sailors. Radical US-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who is suspected of having inspired the deadly 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Texas, is believed to be hiding in Yemen.