SANAA, Yemen — After months of unrest that have brought his country to the edge of civil war, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh signed an agreement in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to hand power to his vice president in a deal that leaves him immune from prosecution in the deaths of scores of protesters.
The agreement reached with the opposition and backed by the United States and Persian Gulf nations allows Saleh to retain the title of president for three months while early elections are scheduled. A clever politician who has ruled for 33 years, Saleh has broken similar promises before and it remains to be seen if he will finesse a loophole to stay in charge.
The president, a former tank officer, is the epitome of the Arab strongman, playing his enemies off one another, using force when necessary. His departure would leave his poor and battered nation facing an uncertain fate as tribes position for power, a secessionist movement rumbles in the south and a resurgent al-Qaida branch battles security forces in towns and villages.
Saudi television showed Saleh signing the agreement, which was negotiated by U.N. envoy Jamal Benomar, in the presence of Saudi King Abdullah.
Saleh vowed that his ruling party would cooperate with the opposition in a new unity government, adding, “This disagreement for the last 10 months has had a big impact on Yemen in the realms of culture, development, politics, which led to a threat to national unity and destroyed what has been built in past years.”
Saleh has been an ally of Washington in battling al-Qaida, allowing an expanded role of U.S. military and intelligence inside the country, including airstrikes by drones. In September, one of those strikes killed Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical American-born cleric who was a top recruiter for Yemen’s al-Qaida wing.
It is not clear if his predecessor will be as compliant to U.S. interests. Yemen is run by tribes, heavily influenced by conservative Islam and largely anti-American. U.S. and Saudi officials worry that Yemen’s continued chaos will allow al-Qaida a greater foothold at the crossroads of the Middle East and the Horn of Africa.