Image: Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh smiling as he signs a Gulf Cooperation Council-sponsored transition deal to exit power
AFP - Getty Images
Saudi television showing Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh smiling as he signs a transition deal to exit power
msnbc.com news services
updated 11/23/2011 3:10:53 PM ET 2011-11-23T20:10:53

Yemen's authoritarian President Ali Abdullah Saleh agreed Wednesday to step down amid a fierce uprising to oust him after 33 years in power. The U.S. and its powerful Gulf allies pressed for the deal, concerned that a security collapse in the impoverished Arab nation was allowing an active al-Qaida franchise to gain a firmer foothold.

Saleh is the fourth Arab leader toppled in the wave of Arab Spring uprisings this year, after longtime dictators fell in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The deal gives Saleh immunity from prosecution — contradicting a key demand of Yemen's opposition protesters.

Celebrations erupted in the capital Sanaa as Saleh inked the agreement. Yemenis danced in the streets, set off fireworks and waved flags.

Seated beside Saudi King Abdullah in the Saudi capital Riyadh, Saleh signed the U.S.-backed deal hammered out by his country's powerful Gulf Arab neighbors to transfer power within 30 days to his vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. That will be followed by early presidential elections within 90 days.

He was dressed smartly in a dark business suit with a matching striped tie and handkerchief, and he smiled as he signed the deal, then clapped his hands a few times. He then spoke for a few minutes to members of the Saudi royal families and international diplomats, promising his ruling party "will be cooperative" in working with a new unity government.

Slideshow: Yemen in the spotlight (on this page)

"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," he said.

Protesters camped out in a public square near Sanaa's university immediately rejected the deal, chanting, "No immunity for the killer." They vowed to continued their protests.

President Barack Obama welcomed Saleh's decision, saying it is an important step forward for the Yemeni people. He urged all involved to move immediately to implement the agreement. Obama said the U.S. would stand by the Yemeni people "as they embark on this historic transition" to realize their aspirations for a new beginning, and he acknowledged "important work" done by Gulf allies.

Saleh has clung to power despite the daily mass protests calling for his ouster and a June assassination attempt that left him badly wounded and forced him to travel to Saudi Arabia for more than three months of hospital treatment. He was burned over much of his body and had shards of wood embedded in his chest by the explosion that ripped through his palace mosque as he prayed.

Shortly before Saleh inked the agreement, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the president told him he will travel to New York for medical treatment after signing it. He didn't say when Saleh planned to arrive in New York, nor what treatment he would be seeking.

Since February, tens of thousands of Yemenis have protested in cities and towns across the nation, calling for democracy and the fall of Saleh's regime. The uprising has led to a security collapse, with armed tribesmen battling security forces in different regions and al-Qaida-linked militants stepping up operations in the country's restive south.

Timeline: Yemen in turmoil (on this page)

For months, the U.S. and other world powers pressured Saleh to agree to the power transfer proposal by the Gulf Cooperation Council, and he agreed then backed down several times before. All the while, the uprising raged, security and the economy deteriorated. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula grew more bold, even seizing some territory.

Even before the uprising began, Yemen was the poorest country in the Middle East, fractured and unstable with a government that had weak authority at best outside the capital Sanaa.

Security is particularly bad in southern Yemen, where al-Qaida militants — from one of the world's most active branches of the terror network — have taken control of entire towns, using the turmoil to strengthen their position.

The nation of some 25 million people is of strategic value to the United States and its Gulf Arab allies, particularly Saudi Arabia. It sits close to the major Gulf oil fields and overlooks key shipping lanes in the Red and Arabian seas.

Saleh addressed the country's troubles without mentioning the demands of protesters who have filled squares across Yemen calling for his ouster, often facing deadly crackdowns from his security forces.

He also struck out at those who strove to topple him, calling the protests the protests a "coup" and the bombing of his palace mosque that seriously wounded him in June "a scandal."

Saleh said his ruling party will be "among the principal participants" in the proposed national unity government that is to be formed between his party and opposition parties, who also signed the deal.

The deal to nudge him from power was denounced by some of the youth protesters who have emerged as a presence in Yemen's politics, and regard the parties that negotiated his exit partners in the crimes of which they accuse Saleh.

"We will remain on the streets until our demands are met," activist Samia al-Aghbari told Reuters. "Saleh's crimes won't end with time, so we will pursue him and all the killers."

But others welcomed the deal as a first victory of their uprising.

"This is a great victory," Badr Ali Ahmed, an activist at Change Square, said. "We have achieved one of the goals of the revolution, which is to bring down the head of the regime, and God willing we will achieve the rest."

Hamdan al-Haqab, a field organizer, said: "We were not part of this initiative, but since it happened, we consider it to be the first achievement of the revolution ... We will continue to achieve all our goals."

A Yemeni official said that renegade general Ali Mohsen, a longtime Saleh ally who turned on him after protests began, and Sadeq al-Ahmar, a tribal notable who also threw his weight against Saleh, could try to block the deal which excludes them.

Those figures, along with Saleh's son and a nephew who commands a key paramilitary unit, form a balance of forces on the ground that analysts say none is likely to tip, making a political resolution the only way out of Yemen's deadlock.

Witnesses said Ahmar fighters and Saleh forces traded shelling in the Soufan and al-Hasaba neighborhoods in Sanaa, where the tribal chief lives, and that sounds of explosions could be heard from a distance.

There were no reports of casualties. The area was the scene of heavy clashes earlier this year, where scores of people from both sides died.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Photos: Yemen in the spotlight

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  1. Yemen’s profile rose dramatically following a cargo bomb plot on two planes bound for the United States on October 29, 2010. The parcels were intercepted by Dubai and Britain, and several days later the Yemen-based group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility. The Muslim nation has increasingly gained a reputation as a safe haven for Islamic extremists. Here, a Muezzin, who calls Muslims to prayer five times a day, looks out from the Jalalya mosque in Ibb. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A weapons seller sits in his improvised shop at a truck stop in Al Adwass, offering both second-hand and new Kalashnikov assault rifles. Yemen has approximately 60 million weapons in circulation. There were no regulations in place for arms in the country until 2002 for the capital, San’a, and 2008 for the rest of the country. Yemen is struggling to implement any new arms regulations as it tries to end a civil war in the north that has raged on and off since 2004, as well as a separatist rebellion in the south. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A military checkpoint at an entry to San’a. Yemen has beefed up security and increased the number of checkpoints and random searches in an effort to crack down on Islamic militants. In December 2009, Yemen’s AQAP claimed responsibility for the failed Christmas Day airliner attack, raising alarms in the international community. Yemen declared open war on al-Qaida in January 2010. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. An intelligence officer checks passengers in a passing car against the pictures of two wanted al-Qaida operatives, Abdallah Salem Dahim Al Elyani Al Kahtani (l) and Abdallah Abul Karim Ibrahim Al Saloum (r). AQAP also claimed responsibility for the September 2010 crash of a UPS plane in Dubai in which two crew members died, but the U.A.E. said there was no evidence of an explosive device aboard the jet. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The Qat market in the Old City in the capital, San’a. The leafy narcotic plant is a mild stimulant and is grown throughout the country. It is a widely practiced tradition to chew the leaves in the afternoon, though the convention hampers productivity in an already suffering economy.

    Photojournalist's view: Yemen is a complicated puzzle (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Yemen began a trial in absentia of U.S.-born Yemeni preacher Anwar al-Awlaki on November 4, 2010. Awlaki has ties to AQAP and is reportedly in hiding in Yemen. He released a video on November 8, 2010, calling on Muslims to kill Americans and members of any collaborating Arab governments. Here, a woman wearing a veil with the traditional pattern of San’a walks down a street in the Old City. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Followers of Sheikh Abdulmajeed al-Zindani wait for him to speak in the Mashaad mosque in San’a. Yemen's council of clerics has called for jihad, or holy war, in the event of a foreign military intervention amid speculation the United States might pursue al-Qaida extremists there. The clerics, including the radical Sheikh Abdulmajeed al-Zindani, who is labeled by the U.S. as a "global terrorist", also voiced "rejection to any security or military agreement or cooperation [between Yemen and] any foreign party if it violates Islamic Sharia [law]." (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Extremists destroyed the house of Abdulmalik al-Mansour in the al-Hasaba neighborhood in the capital on April 16, 2009. Al-Mansour was accused of tearing up and stepping on a Quran in a mosque a few months after the establishment of the “Vice and Virtue Committee.” The attackers justified their actions by saying they were protecting the holy book of Islam. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Central Security Service members train in the outskirts of San’a. CSS forces are at the helm of the fight against al-Qaida in Yemen, and their commander, Yahya Saleh, is the nephew of Yemen’s President Ali Abdallah Saleh. This particular unit was involved in the last two operations against al-Qaida in Al Ahrb, north of San’a. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. President Ali Abdallah Saleh won the country’s first-ever presidential election in 1999 by a landslide, with 96 percent of the vote. The main opposition party, however, was not allowed to put forward a candidate. Here, portraits of leaders in the Middle East hang on the walls of a barber shop in San’a’s Old City. From left to right: Sheikh Yassin, founder of the Palestinian group Hamas; Khaled Mechaal, Hamas’ leader in exile in Syria; Saddam Hussein, former president of Iraq; Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Shiite group Hezbollah in Lebanon; and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A man walks to one of San’a’s 30 wells to look for drinking water. In the background, construction continues on a mosque that President Saleh is building as a legacy to his presidency. The country’s water resources are drying up rapidly – the water crisis is deemed among the worst in the world and is aggravated by excessive irrigation by farmers growing Qat. A few years ago, water could be found at a depth of 70-100 meters; now it is necessary to dig 450 meters into the ground to find the precious resource. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Men sit idle in the Old City of San’a near Bab Al Yemen, waiting for work. Unemployment is on the rise and there are fears it could drive more people into religious extremism. The cash-strapped government is almost powerless to meet the needs of an expanding population and if it cannot pay public sector wages, Yemen is at risk of descending into chaos. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. An armed tribesman in the restive province of Marib, east of San’a. The city of Marib has been a hotbed for extremists and insurgents returning from jihad missions overseas. In 2002, a U.S. predator drone killed several al-Qaida operatives here. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Women in the back of a pick-up truck return from working in fields along the coastal plain of Tihama on the Red Sea. Almost a third of Yemen’s workforce is out of a job and more than 40 percent of the country’s 23 million people live on less than $2 a day. For women, a lack of education lessens the already low chances of working for a living. The female literacy rate is 35 percent compared to 73 percent for men, according to World Bank figures from 2005. Also, there is no law in Yemen that states how old a woman must be to get married, which has led to child marriages and complications in childbirth for young women who have barely reached puberty when they become pregnant. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Lack of electricity is widespread and regular power outages slow down businesses and development in Yemen, which is one of the poorest countries in the Middle East. Here, a man holds a block of ice in the desert area of the coastal Tihama plain. Without electricity, local populations have maintained age-old methods of preserving food. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Yemeni men listen to music while chewing Qat and looking out at the view of the Tihama coastal plain from a mountain ledge near Al Mahweet. Yemen is near the bottom of Transparency International’s corruption index, ranking 154 out of 180 countries last year. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Most of what used to be North Yemen is located in the only mountain range in the Arabian Peninsula, the Hijaz Mountains. North and South Yemen formally united in 1990 but some in the south, home to most of the country’s oil facilities, complain that the historically more wealthy northerners used unification as an excuse to seize resources in the south. Southerners say the government deprives them of jobs and many believe they were better off before unification, when South Yemen was part of the socialist bloc and welfare state established with Soviet aid. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Men wearing traditional dress stand on a path through cactus trees. Most of the villages in the countryside are made of local stone and surrounded by natural vegetation, making it difficult to distinguish them from the surrounding wilderness. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. The House of the Rock, or Dar al-Hajar, in Wadi Dhar was the winter residence of Imam Yahya, who ruled Yemen from 1918 until 1948. The palace was built atop a massive rock in the 1930s and has become a cultural symbol of Yemen. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Fishermen walk along a beach in Bir Ali, a village on the Arabian Sea coast in the Shbwa province. Most of the fish is exported to Japan, but it is a vital resource for people living along the Arabian Sea coast. (Karim Ben Khelifa) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. YEMEN
    Karim Ben Khelifa
    Above: Slideshow (20) Yemen in the spotlight
  2. Image: Man prepares the grave of al-Hora during his funeral at a cemetery in Sanaa
    Suhaib Salem / Reuters
    Slideshow (14) Political unrest in Yemen - July
  3. Image:
    Hani Mohammed / AP
    Slideshow (39) Political unrest in Yemen - June
  4. Image: Anti-government protests in Yemen
    Wadia Mohammed / EPA
    Slideshow (59) Political unrest in Yemen - May
  5. Image:
    Hani Mohammed / AP
    Slideshow (25) Political unrest in Yemen - April
  6. Image: Tens of thousands of Yemenis take to the
    AFP - Getty Images
    Slideshow (67) Political unrest in Yemen - Earlier photos

Video: Yemeni president resigns

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