SANA, Yemen — After months of street protests calling for his resignation, President Ali Abdullah Saleh signed an agreement Wednesday that Yemeni officials said immediately transferred power to his vice president.
If the agreement holds up, it would end Mr. Saleh’s 33 years of authoritarian rule and make him the fourth leader forced from power in uprisings that have shaken the Middle East and North Africa. But the deal is unlikely to restore calm anytime soon to a country that has become increasingly important to the United States as Al Qaeda-linked militants have gained a stronger foothold.
The unity government that is expected to take over in the coming days or weeks will face not only insurgencies that have grown more entrenched during months of turmoil, but also festering tribal divisions and the likelihood of continued protests from young demonstrators unsatisfied with Wednesday’s deal.
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The agreement, signed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, allows Mr. Saleh to retain his title and certain privileges until new elections are held in three months and grants him immunity from prosecution. It was unclear when, and if, the president intended to return to Yemen.
Mr. Saleh’s signing of the deal, after months of stalling, appeared to take many diplomats in Yemen and Yemenis by surprise. The president had resisted signing similar agreements in the last several months, sometimes appearing close and then backing off at the last minute.
Although the signing was the first time Mr. Saleh actually agreed to give up formal authority, it is unclear how big a political presence he hopes to maintain and how that that will complicate the already formidable task of healing Yemen’s many divisions.
Mr. Saleh’s family members retain powerful posts in the military and intelligence service, and the president has proven himself over decades to be a canny political survivor.
He has also said recently that he would not abandon the country unless two of his most powerful adversaries leave as well.
Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani, a Yemeni political analyst and the head of a nonpartisan group that campaigns for democracy, said few people thought the agreement signaled the end of Mr. Saleh’s political ambitions. “He figures the rest of the maneuvering can be kept for after the signing,” Mr. Iryani said.
The deal, between Mr. Saleh and the country’s mainstream opposition, was negotiated by regional leaders, including Saudi Arabia, and backed by the United States. The two sides reached agreement after days of face-to-face negotiations brokered by a visiting United Nations envoy, Jamal Benomar.
Mr. Saleh appears to have finally acceded to the agreement in part because world powers — increasingly frustrated with his intransigence and fearful for Yemen’s future — were threatening sanctions, probably including some targeting him and his family.
“He was afraid he would lose his fortune,” said a high-ranking Yemeni official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the information. Mr. Saleh and his family are believed to have hundreds of millions of dollars in bank accounts and real estate in both the United States and Europe.
It is also possible Mr. Saleh might have also feared the imposition of a travel ban.
At the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, the secretary general, told reporters Wednesday that Mr. Saleh had informed him in a telephone conversation that he planned to travel to New York for medical treatment after leaving Riyadh. The Yemeni leader was seriously wounded on June 3 in a bomb attack on his presidential palace and spent months convalescing in Saudi Arabia before he returned home in September.
Mr. Ban did not specify what kind of treatment Mr. Saleh expected to receive.
In Washington, the Obama administration appeared to be ushering Mr. Saleh, once one of America’s closest allies in the region, out the door. “The United States welcomes President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s decision to transfer executive powers immediately to the Vice President in accordance with the agreement,” Mr. Obama said in a statement. He said the Yemeni people “deserve the opportunity to determine their own future.”
The administration had initially worried that Mr. Saleh’s departure could harm American intelligence operations in Yemen, where the Yemeni government had worked closely with the Central Intelligence Agency in strikes against Al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch. But as the pro-democracy protests in Yemen increased — along with a government crackdown — and Mr. Saleh continued to flip flop on whether he would go, the administration distanced itself from its former ally.
Asked about the reported plan by Mr. Saleh to travel to the United States for medical treatment, Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, said he could not confirm that. “We’ve not received any formal travel request,” he said.
Mr. Saleh’s trip to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, had been rumored for days but was not announced beforehand.
Yemeni opposition leaders, who are expected to join members of Mr. Saleh’s party in the new unity government, also flew to Riyadh on Wednesday for the signing.
With the signing, power shifted to Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi, Yemeni officials said.
Youth activists have said the agreement, and in particular the immunity clauses, would not satisfy thousands of demonstrators still camped in city squares throughout the country, demanding trials for Mr. Saleh and members of his government in connection with the killings of scores of demonstrators.
The youth activists framed the agreement as a deal between political elites, rather than a step forward for their revolt. April Longley Alley, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group who studies Yemen, said that while the agreement would facilitate Mr. Saleh’s exit, “Yemenis from across the political spectrum are looking for much broader and deeper political change.”
Previous agreements have been derailed by violence in Sana, the capital, between government forces, and defecting army units and tribal fighters loyal to Mr. Saleh’s rivals. There were reports on Wednesday of sporadic shelling in Hasaba, a district in northern Sana.
The military remains divided between supporters of the Saleh family and loyalists of a powerful commander, Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar. General Ahmar, once a close ally of the president and frequently called the second most powerful man in the country, announced his support for the antigovernment protest movement in March. His heavily armed troops have controlled a large portion of the northern half of Sana.
General Ahmar, who has repeatedly said he that he is willing to leave the country if Mr. Saleh will, did not immediately release a statement reacting to the news of a possible agreement.
Mr. Saleh’s other prominent rivals are the heads of the influential Ahmar family, leaders of the most powerful tribal group in Yemen. (The general is not related.) When Mr. Saleh referred to rivals who also needed to leave the country, he was referring to Hamid al-Ahmar, his most vocal critic in the family.
The government has accused General Ahmar and Hamid al-Ahmar for the bombing of the presidential palace mosque that injured Mr. Saleh.
Yassin Saeed Noman, a socialist politician and the leader of Yemen’s opposition coalition, said the agreement would not quickly pull the country from its malaise but added that he remained optimistic.
“If there is a willingness from the government, it will end the crisis,” Mr. Noman said.