Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis seeking their president’s ouster found a new way to get their message across on Friday, releasing balloons that drifted over the presidential palace with the message “Leave, Ali” painted on them.
The tens of thousands of colorful balloons were blown across the capital and over top of the palace, where a smaller rally of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s supporters listened to the embattled leader deliver a message of his own denouncing his opponents as terrorists, looters and killers.
Saleh has refused to put an end to his 32 years in power despite tremendous pressure from three months of street demonstrations and from neighboring Arab nations fearful that Yemen’s growing instability could spill into their wealthy oil-producing lands.
What began as a sit-in on a university campus in the capital, Sanaa, has grown into demonstrations by hundreds of thousands across the country. Like the other Arab leaders forced from power or under threat in the Arab world’s uprisings, Saleh has used a mix of concessions and brutal force to try to quell the outpouring. Despite the killings of more than 140 protesters, the crowds continue to gather.
Rival rallies by Saleh’s supporters and opponents have become a fixture in the capital on Fridays, although the anti-Saleh crowds far outnumber those of his backers.
This Friday, the anti-Saleh rally was dubbed a “Day of Gratitude to the South” to honor southerners who in 2007 renewed their own protests against what they say is government neglect of their once-independent region.
Those protests swelled into a full-scale secessionist movement, one of several key security challenges testing Saleh’s rule even before the nationwide anti-government protests broke out in early February.
Among the other threats are the deadly al-Qaida offshoot that took refuge in the country in recent years and an on-and-off armed rebellion in the north. Yemen is also the Arab world’s poorest nation and is wracked by corruption and unemployment.
Protesters in the capital on Friday again occupied a five-mile (eight-kilometer) section of a major western boulevard and released balloons in the red, black and white colors of the flag with the anti-Saleh protest cry of “Leave, Ali” written on them.
Demonstrators then turned south, where tens of thousands of Saleh supporters were rallying outside the presidential palace and chanted for him to go. “The people want the end of the regime,” they shouted, using the slogan first heard in Tunisia and later around the Arab world.
Meanwhile, Saleh briefly addressed his supporters.
“You say ‘yes’ to the regime, ‘no’ to chaos, ‘no’ to revenge, ‘no’ to hatred,” Saleh said. About his opponents, he added: “These are outlaws. They are against the regime. They are looters. They are terrorists. They are killers.”
Saleh has spurned mediation efforts by a bloc of powerful Gulf countries that would have had him relinquish power in return for immunity from prosecution.
The mediation plan put forward by six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council looked close to success a week ago, with both the opposition political parties and Saleh agreeing to it, until the president balked just days before the signing ceremony.
The plan called for Saleh to step down within 30 days and for a national unity government to run the country until elections are held.
Saleh in his speech Friday made no mention of the initiative.
A senior Saleh aid told The Associated Press that the president now wants revisions to the deal that would ensure an end to the protests.
That would be difficult to work out because leaders of the street protests did not participate in the talks and reject anything short of Saleh’s immediate departure and trial over corruption and the killings of protesters. They say the opposition’s established political parties, which have taken part in the talks, do not represent them.
The aid said the president also wants the deal to include a return of army commanders and soldiers who defected to the opposition.
The aid, who is also a senior ruling party official, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, general secretary of the Gulf Cooperation Council told journalists on Thursday that no changes would be made to the proposal.
The protests have posed the most serious threat to Saleh’s rule and his offered concessions, including that he not run again in the 2013 election or allow his son to succeed him, have failed to quiet the protests.
Saleh has continued to cling to power thanks in part to the key backing of Yemen’s best trained and equipped military units, which are under the command of one of his sons and other close relatives.
As April moved into May, scenarios were buzzing like the shoes tossed at Salih’s visage on the giant screen. The accord that was supposed to be signed May 1 remained a work in progress up to the eleventh hour.
The basic plan was for President Salih to transfer power to his vice president, the relatively impotent ‘Abd al-Rabb Mansour al-Hadi, within 30 days.
Under a new power sharing arrangement, the ruling General People’s Congress would retain 50 percent of the 301 seats in Parliament, the opposition JMP would acquire 40 percent and 10 percent would go to independents, including, presumably, representatives of the youth movement.
Within a week a transitional unity government expected to be lead by a JMP prime minister, preferably from the former South, was to be formed. Senior statesman ‘Abd al-Karim al-‘Iryani, the current secretary-general of the GPC, having until recently remained aloof from the fray, was dispatched to the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh to participate in negotiations with the GCC.
Crucially, but vaguely, the proposal specified an end to the demonstrations. The remaining 70 loyalists in Parliament further demanded that Salih retain his leadership of the GPC.
It was not clear if a popular opposition demand that he and family members resign their military posts was really part of the deal.
The arrangement was too ambiguous and riddled with loopholes for either Salih or the protesters to accept by the May 1 deadline.
In the end, only the GCC monarchies and the JMP leaders were ready to sign. Salih first offered to have either al-‘Iryani or Vice President al-Hadi verify the accord on his behalf in Riyadh, and then promised to sign in Sanaa in the presence of the GCC’s al-Zayani.
At the last minute, he acquiesced to sign in his capacity as head of the ruling party but not as president. This refusal scuttled the negotiation. Salih scoffed at a basket of carrots that left him with his arsenal of sticks.
Although Salih was the one who nixed the deal, it was clear that the GCC plan did not have popular backing, either. It had not been negotiated so much as cobbled together.
On April 24, a group signing itself as the Youth Popular Revolution Committee already rejected the provision of immunity from criminal prosecution for the president and his family, which could easily amount to carte blanche for excessive force during the month-long transition.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch shared these concerns. It was unclear, moreover, how the JMP could disperse the sit-ins and roadblocks.
As commentator Jamila ‘Ali Raja told Al Jazeera, the formal parties could invite their own members to abandon the barricades, but not give orders to the tens of thousands they do not represent.
The failed GCC push to reach an accord by May 1 turned out to be the opening gambit in a complex negotiation that seems unlikely to be concluded soon.
More and more, personalities from bygone dramas are now weighing in from exile: rebel leader Yahya al-Houthi and former South Yemen leaders Haydar Abu Bakr al-‘Attas, ‘Ali Salim al-Bayd and ‘Ali Nasir Muhammad, to name a few, seek to claim the initiative.
If there is to be forward momentum, their views and constituencies, such as they are, will have to be taken into account. And yet these additions to the mix can only complicate matters.
Yemen is now in political limbo and not far from the road to hell. No one believes that the president can continue in office or that he will relinquish power.
The popular movement has come too far to back off and yet sees no clear path toward social justice.
Gulf monarchies and the Obama administration appear to lack the diplomatic wherewithal, the strategic imagination or the humanitarian decency to envision a solution to the impasse.
And yet daily the status quo becomes more untenable. Loyalist patrimonial forces are wont to shoot, and may yet provoke either a mutinous response or a full-fledged rebellion by armed citizens.
The spirit of “Silmiyya,” which served Tunisians and Egyptians so well, can persevere only so long in the face of live fire. In March and for part of April, it was possible to envision an orderly transition to a civilian coalition transitional government.
The month of May may bring more bloodshed.