DUBAI (Reuters) - Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s declaration in a speech on Saturday that he would leave power “in the coming days” is yet another act of brinkmanship from a leader who has spent much of the “Arab Spring” claiming he is about to step down.
Saleh’s words were taken almost universally as a ruse by Yemenis who have seen the famed wily operator survive through thick and thin since he took power in 1978.
“Where is the catch?” said Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen scholar. “Saleh is dealing with a trust deficit in Yemen, and Yemenis are very wary of promises from this president.”
Phrases like “in the coming days” have a highly flexible meaning for Saleh, who returned to Yemen from treatment in Riyadh a month after he said in a speech to supporters that he would be back “soon”.
His vice president said repeatedly after Saleh was hurt in an assassination attempt in June that he would return from Saudi Arabia “in a few days”.
Saleh has offered a long list of apparent concessions since youth activists, buoyed by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, first took to the streets of Sanaa in January to protest for an end to his rule and for democratic reforms.
Ominously, they have often come with a sharp sting.
After his ruling party called for dialogue with the opposition in a bid to stem anti-government protests on Jan. 29, his supporters attacked Yemenis trying to march to the Egyptian embassy to express solidarity with Egyptians who succeeded two weeks later in bringing down Hosni Mubarak.
“He doesn’t mean he’s leaving in a few days literally,” said opposition politician Ali Seif Hassan. “He is trying to threaten the opposition that he can go alone to new elections without an agreement, but he can’t now. It’s too late.”
After government snipers shot dead 52 people one day in March, Saleh shifted ground to talk publicly on numerous occasions of his readiness to step down and distaste in holding onto power for its own sake, but he expressed the desire to make sure of the people he hands the reins on to.
“We don’t want power but we need to hand power over to safe hands,” he told thousands of his own supporters on March 25.
Following that, his government engaged openly in talks mediated by Gulf Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the United States, on a mechanism for a transition to early parliamentary and presidential elections after Saleh formed a new opposition-led cabinet then relinquished the presidency.
That arrangement, which even offered guarantees of no legal action against Saleh and his family, fell through three times as Saleh came up with last minute excuses for not signing.
During his stay in Riyadh, he began to push the line more forcefully that the Gulf initiative needed modification to make sure the established opposition did not inherit power.
Saturday’s apparent countdown to leaving office has a familiar ring to it then. In the same breath Saleh repeated that this long-time opposition party rivals, who he has outfoxed throughout his career, must not be the beneficiaries.
Saleh was merely reiterating these positions, an adviser said. “Saleh has made it clear that he is ready to leave, but this will not happen before Yemen is led to a safe place where power can be transferred peacefully,” he said.
Saleh may well have had good reason, though, to give the impression of imminent movement, analysts say.
On Friday the Nobel Peace prize was awarded to Tawakul Karman, one of the leading activists who has been on the street at ‘Change Square’ outside Sanaa University since February.
The recognition of a Yemeni democracy activist is set to bring renewed global attention to the struggle in Yemen, an impoverished country of 23 million with problems stretching from declining water resources to al Qaeda militants taking advantage of chaos in the capital.
Karman used the prize to push home the message that street mobilisation will not stop until the uprisings claim Yemen too.
“This is a victory for the Yemeni people, for the Yemeni revolution and all the Arab revolutions,” she said in Sanaa. “Our peaceful revolution will continue until we topple Saleh and establish a civilian state.”
Saleh will also be mindful of the possibility of action at the United Nations Security Council, where there is talk of a resolution urging the government to implement the Gulf initative, possibly sometime next week.
A U.N. envoy left Sanaa last week to brief the council on what appeared to be a fruitless effort to mediate in a crisis which has brought Yemen to the brink of civil war and its economy to a standstill.
“I think the man wants to confuse the U.N. Security Council before they make a motion to discuss Yemen,” said Hamdan al-Haqab, a youth leader in the protest movement.
One thing Saleh may want to avoid is an ignominious exit under international pressure. He has said himself that if he leaves office it should be “with dignity”. “Within days” is a vague enough term in his dictionary to leave the door open to a short- or mid-term exit if the walls finally close in.
In an ideal world, Saleh would want to hold on until his term in office ends in September 2013.
Alongside the deft domestic manoeuvring, Saleh has played to the concerns of his international allies.
Public U.S. pressure has been lacking while he cooperates with Washington in its covert war on militants in Yemen.
A CIA drone killed American-Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen last month in what was seen as a major coup for U.S. President Barack Obama in the battle against al Qaeda.
Saudi Arabia, a key financial backer of Saleh’s government, is as keen to control the succession process as he is.
A Saudi government adviser said Saleh was still bound by an agreement with King Abdullah to work to hand over power.
“This is part of the understanding Saleh had with the king and now he will have to follow through and implement the Gulf plan,” the adviser said.
Additional reporting by Amena Bakr, Erika Solomon and Jason Benham; Editing by Louise Ireland