Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh over the weekend rescinded his offer to quit the presidency at the end of this year. Now, whether or when he will leave remains unclear. Saleh told the Dubai based Arabic-language news channel Al Arabiya Saturday that he is "not clinging to power" and that he wants to "transfer this experience to the people peacefully and not to anarchy." But, he said an immediate transition "will lead to chaos and take the country to the unknown."
Saleh's announcement last week that he would step down by 2012 was a significant concession, but it didn't appease members of the opposition, who continue to organize anti-regime demonstrations. Numerous senior military officers and diplomats have already resigned from their posts and thrown in their lot with the opposition. Still, after 32 years in office, Saleh has managed to hold on to power. At his request, Yemen's parliament last week approved an emergency measure, suspending the Constitution, banning street protests, and empowering the police.
The growing instability in Yemen could be a significant blow to U.S. foreign policy and counterterrorism efforts, as Saleh has been a reliable, if at times cautious, ally in the fight against al Qaeda and its affiliates. U.S. officials worry about an Islamist takeover in Yemen, a country marred by chronic poverty, ungoverned mountainous regions, and deadly domestic insurgencies. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told ABC's This Week he was concerned about a post-Saleh Yemen.
"The most active and, at this point, perhaps the most aggressive branch of al Qaeda [...] operates out of Yemen," said Gates. "If that government collapses or is replaced by one that is dramatically more weak, then I think we'll face some additional challenges out of Yemen. There's no question about it. It's a real problem."
Washington is also keeping a close eye on the political unrest in Bahrain, headquarters of the U.S. 5th Fleet, and have condemned the use of "disproportionate force" by government officials in Syria to quell pro-democracy protests in the south.