SANAA: Yemen’s US-backed president, in power for more than three decades, pledged Wednesday 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 giving way to pent-up fury and demands for reform that have swept the region.
It came one day after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, target of nine days of protest calling for his ouster, made a similar pledge.
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-Qaida’s Yemeni offshoot claimed responsibility for a failed December 2009 attempt to blow up a passenger jet over the United States and an attempt last year to ship parcel bombs to the US via 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 for Thursday in the capital, Sanaa, and across the country.
Obama administration officials described Saleh’s declaration as ”positive” and ”significant,” but said it remained to be seen if Saleh would fulfill the pledges. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Saleh previously tried to defuse tensions in Yemen by raising army salaries. Yet tens of thousands gathered last month in demonstrations urging Saleh to step down, a red line that few had previously dared to cross.
Saleh’s current 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 to flee 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 Sanaa, but the protests continued.
In the parliament, Saleh called on 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 re-election. Al-Sabri said Saleh made a similar promise in 2006, but then failed to fulfill it, ran again and was re-elected.
”The calls for dialogue are not serious and are merely meant to be tranquilizers,” al-Sabri told The Associated Press.
Yemen is the Arab world’s most impoverished nation and has become a haven for al-Qaida militants.