Under-fire Yemen leader pledges no life term

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, under opposition pressure to stand down, said Wednesday he will freeze constitutional changes that would have enabled him to remain president for life.

On the eve of a “day of rage” called by civil society and opposition leaders, Saleh told parliament he had also put off controversial plans to hold elections in April without a promised dialogue on reform, and appealed for an end to street protests.

“I will not extend my mandate and I am against hereditary rule,” said Saleh, who has been head of state of the Arab world’s poorest nation for decades but whose term is due to end in 2013.

Like embattled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Saleh has been accused repeatedly by the opposition of grooming his son to succeed him in a bid to create a republican dynasty.

In his address to parliament, which was boycotted by the opposition, Saleh announced the “freezing of constitutional amendments” which he said “will lead to the postponement of elections” scheduled for April.

Yemen, at the strategic southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, is wracked with conflict — including a separatist movement in the once-independent south, a Shiite rebellion in the north, and a growing presence of Al-Qaeda guerrillas.

Saleh’s pledge came a day after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, 82, facing unprecedented mass protests calling for him to stand down immediately after 30 years in power, declared that he would not seek another term in office.

Tensions soared in Yemen after parliament, dominated by the president’s General People’s Congress, endorsed a draft constitutional amendment that, if approved, would have enabled Saleh to stay in office for life.

The amendment stipulated cancelling the limit of two consecutive terms for president and for reducing the presidential term from its current seven years to five.

Saleh’s critics also suspect him of grooming his eldest son Ahmed Saleh, who commands the Republican Guard, an elite unit of the Yemeni army, as his successor.

Until last weekend, demonstrations had taken place on a nearly daily basis in the capital Sanaa, calling for an end to Saleh’s rule, and protest leaders have called for Thursday to be a “day of rage” all over the country.

Unimpressed by Saleh’s remarks, they said mass protests would go ahead.

“Thursday’s demonstration will continue as scheduled,” said Mohammed Kahtan of the Islamist Al-Islah (Reform) party.

Mohammed al-Sabri of the Common Forum opposition alliance said Saleh’s call to halt protests was “unacceptable,” adding, however, the group will “discuss the president’s announcement.”

In central Sanaa on Wednesday, dozens of armed men from Saleh’s General People’s Congress were seen setting up tents in Al-Tahrir Square and carrying portraits of the president.

There have been clashes during previous protests against Saleh, including on January 29, when dozens of activists calling for his ouster clashed with the regime’s supporters in Sanaa. Plainclothes police also attacked demonstrators.

In geopolitical terms, Yemen’s fate is important, given its position at the southern end of the Red Sea, across from the Horn of Africa — a critical and busy passageway for shipping between Asia and the West already troubled by Somali pirates and an abiding al-Qaeda threat.

Facing growing protests among Yemenis since last month’s downfall of Tunisia’s president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and the continuing mass protests in Egypt, Saleh urged the government to take urgent measures against unemployment.

Poverty is widespread in Yemen, with 17.5 percent of its population of 23.6 million living on less than $1.25 (0.9 euros) a day, according to World Bank figures.

Elected to his current seven-year term in September 2006, Saleh renewed calls on the opposition to resume dialogue aimed at forging a government of national unity.

The current parliamentary term was extended by two years to April under a February 2009 agreement between the ruling party and the opposition to allow dialogue on political reform.

But those talks have stalled since a decision to hold parliamentary elections on April 27, without waiting for the dialogue process to run its course, and a special committee set up to oversee reform has met only once.