SANAA, Yemen — Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh on Wednesday transferred power to his deputy and agreed to leave office within 90 days, bringing to a climax 10 months of often bloody political wrangling that has left his impoverished nation economically crippled and on the verge of anarchy.
Saleh signed the agreement setting out the conditions for his departure from power at a ceremony in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that was witnessed by Saudi King Abdullah, Crown Prince Nayef, and leading Yemeni opposition figures who had flown early Wednesday to the Saudi capital for the event.
Saleh, who was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt in June, smiled as he signed the deal, briefly clapping before delivering a speech in which he blasted his opponents even as he promised that the ruling party would cooperate in the power transfer process.
He accused his opponents of pushing Yemen to chaos. "The past 10 months have had a major effect on Yemen ... threatening the nation's unity," he said.
The deal to end Saleh's 33-year rule was hailed in Washington, where the Obama administration for months has been urging Saleh, a once close ally in the fight against al Qaida, to go.
"For 10 months, the Yemeni people have courageously and steadfastly voiced their demands for change in cities across Yemen in the face of violence and extreme hardship," President Barack Obama said in a statement released by the White House. "Today's agreement brings them a significant step closer to realizing their aspirations for a new beginning in Yemen."
Reaction was more cautious in Yemen, where many hoped Saleh's signature would lead to an end of the political crisis that has crippled the country for months. But others saw more months of haggling and conflict ahead.
Ibrahim al-Kohlani, an accountant turned activist, said the deal "is nowhere near the end of our revolution. However, we hope that this marks the beginning of the end."
Ironically, the prospect of a resolution to Yemen's political turmoil came on a day when Egypt remained convulsed by unrest that threatened to upend the military government that replaced President Hosni Mubarak, whose rapid fall in February after just 18 days of protests had fueled Yemeni hopes that Saleh's hold on power would end as quickly.
Saleh, however, hung on for months, even after he was forced to abandon his homeland to seek medical treatment in Saudi Arabia for the severe injuries he suffered when a bomb exploded in the presidential mosque while he was worshipping with other members of his government.
And Saleh's fate is nowhere near as uncertain as those of other fallen Arab leaders. An amnesty provision in the agreement assures that Saleh, unlike Mubarak, will not face the prospect of a humiliating trial for crimes he may have committed while president. The deal also allows Saleh to retain the title of president until new elections are held within the next three months.
Wednesday's ceremony followed days of tense negotiations mediated by Jamal ben Omar, the United Nations' special envoy to Yemen, and marked the fourth attempt to get Saleh to sign the months old GCC Initiative, named for the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, which brokered the deal.
Last month's unanimous passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution calling on Saleh to step down appears to have forced the president's hand.
With Saleh's signature, the powers of the presidency were transferred to Vice President Abdurrab Mansour al Hadi, who will lead a unity government that is expected to be formed in the coming days. However, the deal allows Saleh to retain the title until new elections are held within the next three months.
It remained uncertain when or whether Saleh intends to return to Yemen. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said that Saleh had indicated he planned to travel to New York for medical treatment after signing the agreement. A government spokesman denied that any plans had been made.
In Sanaa's Change Square, the sprawling tent city that's been the epicenter of months of anti-government protests, many demonstrators were quick to distance themselves from the power transfer agreement. Activists have long cast aspersions on the plan, arguing that the Saudi-backed deal constitutes a counterrevolutionary measure that allows Saleh to escape responsibility for hundreds of deaths caused when his security forces opened fire on protesters.
Months of political uncertainty have crippled the nation's economy, and the ongoing unrest has seen the central government's control over much of the country dissipate.
Armed dissidents have seized control over broad swaths of the country, and the nation's army remains divided between factions loyal to Saleh and those loyal to Brig. Gen. Ali Mohsen, a former ally of the president who defected in March.
The fate of the nation's army, units of which are led by relatives of the president, remains unclear. With unrest continuing in much of the country, holding elections within the next three months is likely to prove difficult, if not impossible.
With so much at stake, analysts cautioned, Saleh's acceptance only marked the beginning of a long and complicated transitional period.
"Ultimately, Saleh's signature is the initiation of a long process," said Ginny Hill, a Yemen analyst at Chatham House, a London-based foreign policy think tank. "And both sides — the president's allies and the opposition — will have ample opportunities to not comply with the deal's provisions."
(Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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