President Ali Abdullah Saleh has made vague comments that he is willing to leave power in his first major speech since returning to Yemen, but he gave no concrete plan for the future of the country. Yemen's opposition cast doubt that the embattled leader was serious.
It was not the first time Saleh has expressed a willingness to step down amid eight months of mass protests demanding his ouster. Still, he has repeatedly refused to resign immediately and rejected a US-backed deal for him to hand over his authority.
Saleh was gravely wounded in an explosion at his presidential palace in June, after which he left to Saudi Arabia for treatment. During his absence, mediators and opposition groups sought to convince him to stay away and transfer power to his deputy — a way to launch the regional power transfer deal. Saleh declined and returned abruptly to Yemen late last month.
A violent crackdown against Saleh's opponents followed, with outright street battles in the capital Sanaa between troops loyal to Saleh's son Ahmed and dissident military units and pro-opposition tribesmen. In the meantime, the longtime leader has come under considerable pressure from the international community to step down.
His new declaration Saturday aired on state TV gave little clue to his intentions.
Saleh spoke to a gathering of lawmakers, his hands encased in beige medical gloves for the treatment of burns from the June bombing. He didn't shake hands with any of his guests, who instead, shook the hands of his deputy standing by his side.
"I never wanted power. I will reject power in the coming days. I will give it up," he said. "But there are men who will take power. There are men who are true to their pledges, whether military or civilians, who will take power. They can never destroy the country."
He did not elaborate or give any firm commitment to resign. Saleh said he would meet with parliament in the coming days to "transparently discuss" the situation in Yemen.
Saleh railed against the opposition forces, which he accused of being behind the chaos in the country. He also said they failed to cooperate with his deputy, who took over some of his duties while he was away. He said the opposition groups are holders of a "dark and destructive project."
He ridiculed the opposition claims that he plans to transfer power to a member of his family. "How many are the president's sons? How big is the president's family? How many brothers or grandchildren? How many of those are in power?" Saleh said. His son Ahmed and several of the president's nephews control powerful military units, and Ahmed has long been seen as Saleh's heir apparent.
The president said he returned from Saudi Arabia with "an olive branch and a dove of peace" but said his opponents failed to seize it or understand it. He also said that a major country had asked him to not to return to Yemen, a request he said he declined.
"I am not a 'transit' president," he said.
Opposition members were skeptical of Saleh's comments. Mohammed al-Sabri, an opposition spokesman, said the president's words were intended to generate headlines ahead of a U.N. Security Council meeting Tuesday that is to discuss the failed efforts to convince Saleh to sign the power transfer deal.
"If the president was serious and is convinced that the public no longer wants him, he should do it today and not tomorrow," al-Sabri said.
Al-Sabri also claimed Saleh's speech was addressed to the West because it was aired at a time when there was no electricity in Yemen, and no one would be watching. Electricity in Sanaa has been sporadic — sometimes off for as long as two days at a time — since fighting flared last month.
"The Yemeni people are used to his lies. He has often promised things and never lived up to them," he said. "This is turning into a rerun for a soap opera."