SANAA, Yemen — Yemen's embattled president snubbed a U.S.-backed proposal by Gulf Arab nations that would end his rule and instead called Friday for new elections – a move unlikely to end the months of mass street protests demanding his ouster.
The announcement by Ali Abdullah Saleh dashed hopes for a quick end to the crisis in the Arab world's poorest country, also home to one of al-Qaida's most dangerous branches.
"This could go on for some time," said Christopher Boucek, a Yemen expert with the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. "He has been in power for 32 years and this is not just luck. He has managed to figure out how to negotiate, balance and manage different interests."
Saleh's announcement Friday to a crowd of cheering supporters in the capital, Sanaa, follows the apparent collapse of weeks of efforts by the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council to mediate an end to the crisis.
The regional alliance tried to broker an agreement for Saleh to leave power in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Saleh, who has refused before to personally sign the deal, again declined to put his signature to the document on Wednesday, prompting the GCC's head to leave Yemen. The next day, a spokesman said he changed his mind and would sign Sunday.
Saleh didn't mention the agreement Friday while speaking to a crowd of supporters near his presidential palace, nor did he say when the early elections would take place.
"We call for early presidential elections to stop the bloodshed and to preserve traditions in a democratic and smooth manner," Saleh told a crowd of tens of thousands.
In a nearby square, hundreds of thousands of his opponents called for his ouster.
The opposition rejected the proposal for early elections, saying nothing short of Saleh's immediate departure would do.
"What the president said is a way to maneuver and flee from the crisis," said opposition spokesman Mohammed al-Sabri. "We insist that he sign the Gulf proposal."
Behind the scenes, however, Saleh could be trying to negotiate a political future for himself and his party if he does sign the agreement. A ruling party official said Saleh held meetings Friday with various government leaders to tell them he planned to sign the agreement Sunday.
"The president told pillars of the regime in his meetings that he will sign the Gulf proposal, but he also said he is preparing himself and party leaders to move into the opposition in the next stage," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.
The official said Saleh's decision came after diplomatic pressure from the United States and Gulf countries following Saleh's latest refusal.
The GCC countries are Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Oman. Qatar's mediators, however, quit the negotiations and blamed Saleh for the impasse.
Saleh also convened a meeting Friday of the National Defense Council, the country's highest military body, which he heads. An official statement said the body had "responded positively" to the proposal to "save the country from sliding into discord, stop the bloodshed and achieve the national interest."
Yemen is reeling from more than three months of mass street protests in cities across the country that have nearly collapsed its already shaky economy. Saleh's response has alternated between offering concessions and ordering violent crackdowns that have killed more than 150 protesters.
The United States, which until recently considered Saleh a key ally in fighting al-Qaida, has backed away from the leader.
President Barack Obama said Thursday that "Saleh needs to follow through on his commitment to transfer power."
Boucek, the Yemen expert, attributed Saleh's resiliency in the face of the protests so far to his continued grip on the military establishment, most of whose leaders are his relatives, and the presence of many who have benefited from his rule and fear his fall.
The willingness of the U.S. and Gulf nations to force his ouster are also limited by fears of what could follow. Many fear a civil war between Yemen's heavily armed tribes or chaos that could be exploited by the al-Qaida branch active in its weakly governed provinces.
"Everyone wants to avoid how bad things can get, so they want to encourage and manage this process," Boucek said. "Ultimately Saleh can't stay and at some level he must know this too, but everyone wants to work out how this will go."
Whether he will sign the regional deal remains unclear. He first snubbed it last month, sending only aides to sign it after saying he'd sign it himself. At other times, he has refused the signatories presented by the opposition or said he won't sign until the protesters camped out in public squares throughout the country go home.
Saleh lashed out at the protesters in his Friday speech.
"I cannot express my respect for the masses of our people, our people who have been steadfast for four months before a coup movement and treason and treachery," he said.
The opposition has accused Saleh of stalling. In the square where thousands of protesters have been camped out for weeks, the religious cleric delivering the Friday sermon asked Yemen's Gulf neighbors to withdraw their proposal.
"He is playing for time," said Imam Mohammed al-Hummeri.
Hubbard reported from Cairo.