SANAA (Reuters) - An agreement brokered by Gulf Arab states for Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to give up power could be finalized within a week, officials said on Tuesday, as Yemen struggles to avoid plunging deeper into chaos. An opposition official said the Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Abdullatif al-Zayani, was expected to visit the capital Sanaa on Wednesday with an invitation to a signing ceremony in Riyadh early next week.
“We expect an arrangement and signing of a deal to be completed — the sooner the better,” said another opposition leader, Mohammed Basindwa, who is seen as a top candidate to lead a transitional government.
Yemen’s Western and Gulf Arab allies have tried for weeks to mediate a solution to a three-month crisis in which protesters, inspired by the toppling of leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, have taken to the street demanding an end to Saleh’s 32-year rule.
On Tuesday snipers firing from rooftops killed an anti-government protester in Taiz, south of Sanaa.
Washington and neighboring oil giant Saudi Arabia fear that a descent into further bloodshed in the impoverished Arabian Peninsula state, long on the brink of collapse, would offer more room for a Yemen-based al Qaeda regional wing to operate.
In a sign of lingering uncertainty over the plan, which requires Saleh to resign 30 days after signing it, a Gulf official said there may still be direct talks between the Yemeni sides held in Riyadh to thrash out final terms before a pact is signed.
The GCC said in a statement that Riyadh would host a meeting of Gulf foreign ministers on Sunday to “complete the special procedures to adopt the Gulf initiative,” which it said both sides in the Yemeni crisis had agreed on.
It gave no further details, including on whether more negotiations would take place before a deal was signed.
Whoever leads Yemen’s transitional government will not only struggle to quash an aggressive al Qaeda branch, which has tried to hit U.S. and Saudi targets, but also inherit simmering rebellions in the north and south of the country.
The Arab world’s poorest state, which sits on a shipping lane where three million barrels of oil pass daily, has rapidly dwindling oil and water reserves and faces an economic crisis as its rial currency plummets against the dollar and prices rocket.
An opposition coalition of Islamists, leftists and Arab nationalists removed a key obstacle on Monday when they agreed to participate in a transitional national unity government, reversing their initial refusal.
The balance of power has tipped against Saleh after weeks of violence, military defections and political reversals. But bridging divergent views within the opposition may prove difficult once a transition deal is formalized.
“I want to believe this is a step in the right direction ... It seems promising now, but it’s less clear whether it will seem promising in 15 or 20 days,” said Shadi Hamid, director of the Brookings Doha Center.
Opposition officials said they finally agreed to the plan after receiving assurances from U.S. diplomats in Sanaa that Saleh would indeed step down within a month of signing the deal.
They had been concerned Saleh, a shrewd political survivor, could foil the plan if parliament rejected his resignation. The body is currently packed with members of his ruling party.
Yemen’s state news agency said ruling party parliamentarians on Tuesday “stressed their rejection of any coup on democracy or the legality of the constitution,” under which Saleh’s term runs until 2013.
“We hope the opposition will fulfill all the obligations,” said Sultan al-Barakani, the ruling party’s assistant secretary general, adding that should include removing “all signs of political and security tension.”
Protesters seeking Saleh’s immediate resignation and prosecution have vowed to continue marches until their demands are met, and it is not clear that opposition parties could stop them even if required to by the transition agreement.
“We’re going to see a growing fissure between the informal opposition (street protesters) and the formal opposition,” Brookings’ Hamid said. “I think it’s well beyond the control of political parties right now.”
Protesters also worry that some opposition parties, many of them former allies of Saleh, are only cooperating in order to gain a greater share of power and not to ensure real change.
“We’ll continue our revolution. We won’t leave the streets because of this embarrassing agreement,” said Hamdan Zayed in Sanaa, where thousands of protesters have been camped out for three months.
Around 130 protesters have been killed as unrest swept Yemen, where some 40 percent of its 23 million people live on $2 a day or less, and one-third face chronic hunger.
The Gulf deal provides for Saleh to appoint a prime minister from the opposition coalition, with presidential elections two months after his resignation. Experts worry the one-month window for him to resign offers time for potential sabotage.
Writing by Erika Solomon; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Myra MacDonald