“The secretary general of the Gulf Cooperation Council told us that Saleh refused to sign in his role as president. He said he wanted to sign as head of the ruling party, and this is a violation of the text of the Gulf initiative,” a spokesman for the six-member GCC, Sultan al-Atwani, told Reuters late Saturday.
Al Arabiya TV reported that an official from the Yemeni ruling party, the General People’s Congress, said that the embattled Mr. Saleh was ready to sign the deal but as his party’s head. The GCC document—which President Saleh and opposition groups had agreed on earlier—clearly stipulates the Mr. Saleh was to relinquish Yemen’s presidency.
Shortly after Mr. Saleh’s refusal to sign the agreement, GCC Secretary General Abdullatif al-Zayani left Sana’a, where he had expected that President Saleh would formally apply his signature on his agreement with the GCC.
“This is an essential point in the plan which we will not back down on,” Mr. Zayani’s spokesman said before the former left Sana’a.
Mr. Zayani had come to the Yemeni capital in order to formally invite President Saleh and his opponents to sign the power transfer deal, state media said ahead of Monday’s scheduled signing ceremony in Riyadh.
His visit to Sana’a on Saturday came a day ahead of a meeting of foreign ministers of the GCC to finalize their plan for Yemen.
The GCC deal proposes the formation of a government of national unity, with Mr. Saleh transferring power to his vice president, General Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and an end to the deadly protests rocking the impoverished country since late January.
Under the accord, Mr. Saleh would submit his resignation to parliament within 30 days, to be followed two months later by a presidential election.
However, a defiant Saleh, who has been in power for 32 years, has publicly insisted on sticking to the constitution in any transfer of power, even though his ruling party has said it accepts the GCC plan.
Yemen’s mainstream opposition, which includes both Islamists and leftists, has also agreed to the deal, even as street protesters have rejected the agreement and demand President Saleh step down immediately and face prosecution.
Mr. Saleh, long considered a US ally against al Qaeda's Yemen-based wing, had already forced mediators to split the signing ceremonies over two days and has objected to the presence of Qatari officials.
Qatar’s prime minister was first to state publicly the Gulf deal would seek Mr. Saleh’s resignation, and its satellite TV channel Al Jazeera has been accused by Mr. Saleh of inciting revolt in the Arab world, now swept by pro-democracy demonstrations.
Veteran observers of the Gulf did not seem excessively concerned over the latest turn in Yemen’s melodrama.
Some suggested that this was Mr. Saleh’s last gasp at political theater, and that he was perhaps trying to secure more considerations and concessions from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, GCC members that had led the efforts to end protests in Yemen. Demonstrations calling for the veteran leader’s immediate ouster have cost more than 145 lives in the last three months.
The observers suggested that Mr. Saleh, a politically shrewd operator, was well aware that the Saudis and Emirates were worried that if chaos afflicted Yemen, it would embolden al-Qaeda operatives who have already lodged themselves in his country.
Observers also suggested that with Saudi Arabia and the UAE having played such a high-profile role, it was unlikely that they would allow Mr. Saleh—who is the beneficiary of great largesse from those oil-rich countries—to make them lose face at this critical point.
Earlier on Saturday, Mr. Saleh met with more than 400 members of the government, parliament and the (ruling) General People’s Congress party to discuss the GCC initiative, party spokesman Tareq al-Shami told Agence-France Presse.
The GCC deal proposed the formation of a government of national unity, Saleh transferring power to his vice president and an end to the deadly protests rocking the impoverished country since late January.
Under the accord, Mr. Saleh who has been in power for 32 years, would submit his resignation to parliament within 30 days, to be followed two months later by a presidential election.
While the Yemeni leader was due to sign the pact in Sana’a, his party’s vice president will travel to the Saudi capital Riyadh for Sunday’s official signing ceremony by the opposition, which has warned that further bloodshed could derail the deal.
Meanwhile, violence broke out in south Yemen ahead of the expected signing when gunmen killed two police officers and wounded two more in the port city of Aden, state media said. Witnesses said the gunmen had attacked a police station. Gunfire also erupted outside a nearby prison.
Shortly afterward, security forces moved in to break up an anti-government protest in the same neighborhood, killing two protesters and wounding 50 more, said Qassim Jamil, a physician.
Protesters fled the scene, and tanks and armored vehicles were patrolling the streets, the witnesses said. The wounded were being taken to nearby hotels for treatment because they could not reach hospitals, Dr. Jamil said.
Analysts say the government, which has been trying to contain separatists in the south and Shiite rebels in the north, fears secessionists may be trying to take advantage of Yemen’s leadership crisis to renew a push for separation.
Protesters say they will stay on the streets until President Saleh leaves. They also called for him to be put on trial for corruption and the deaths of the estimated 144 protesters killed since rallies began three months ago.
The GCC deal offers Saleh and his entourage, including relatives who run branches of the security forces, immunity from prosecution.
“The people want the trial of the murderer!” some anti-Saleh demonstrators shouted at a protest on Friday that ended in a funeral march for 12 protesters killed on Wednesday, thousands passing their wooden coffins from hand to hand to their graves.
Analysts say a 30-day window for Saleh to resign gives plenty of time for disgruntled forces from the old guard to stir trouble in Yemen, where half the population owns a gun and al-Qaeda has gained a foothold in its mountainous regions.
Many protesters, wary of the opposition due to its presence in government in past years, urged it to back out of the deal.
“They wouldn't lose anything because Saleh isn’t going to stick to the agreement. If he can't find a reason to overturn it he'll spark a war,” Sana’a protester Abdul Salam Mahmoud said.
(Dina Al-Shibeeb of Al Arabiya can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)