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2011-04-25

First Tunisia, Then Egypt, Now Yemen? Yemeni President Saleh Agrees to Resign Within 30 Days; Protests Continue

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Yemen’s longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh has reportedly accepted a plan designed by neighboring Arab nations to hand over power within weeks, following three months of street protests. If he actually resigns, Saleh would become the third leader in the region to resign in the last three months. But demonstrations are continuing in Yemen because many people do not believe Saleh will keep his promise. Earlier today, at least 10 people were injured in the Yemeni city of Taiz after security forces opened fire. We speak to independent journalist Laura Kasinof, who has just left Yemen where she was reporting for the New York Times. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Yemen, where the political crisis has intensified. A defiant President Ali Abdullah Saleh said he would resign within 30 days but then described the protests against him as a coup, warning he would not give in to foreign pressure.

PRESIDENT ALI ABDULLAH SALEH: [translated] This is a coup. You call on me from the U.S. and Europe to hand over power. Who shall I hand it over to? Those who are trying to make a coup? No, we will do it through ballot boxes and referendums. We’ll invite international observers to monitor. But we will not accept a coup inside the country, and we will not accept any external support for it.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Yemen’s President Saleh speaking to the BBC Arabic Service Sunday. President Saleh had agreed to leave power under a transition plan aimed at ending violent unrest under his 32-year rule. Under the deal brokered by Gulf Arab mediators, he would stand down within a month of an agreement being signed with the opposition.

Protests against Saleh are continuing because many people don’t believe he’ll keep his promise to leave office. Earlier today, at least 10 people were injured in the city of Taiz after security forces opened fire on protesters. In the capital Sana’a, thousands of demonstrators demanded Saleh give up power immediately.

ABDULLAH AL SHOLIF: [translated] We totally refuse any initiative that doesn’t include the departure of the president and his family and the trial of the president and his family. We affirm that the JMP opposition coalition represents only themselves and does not represent the youth. We call upon the youth organizations and parties to refuse any initiative or dialogue with Saleh or his regime.

AMY GOODMAN: To discuss the situation in Yemen, we’re joined by Laura Kasinof, who has been reporting from Yemen for the New York Times. She just returned to the United States this weekend. She’s joining us from Washington, D.C.

Laura, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about the significance of what has taken place this weekend, President Saleh saying he would leave, the distrust of the people of Yemen. Why are they saying, no, that’s not enough?

LAURA KASINOF: Well, this is just one more — what happened this weekend was just one more step in sort of a progressively stronger concession that the president has given since this uprising has begun. At first, he would say things like "I’m not going to run again for president." Then he would say, "Oh, I’m going to step down at the end of this year." And now he says he’ll leave office after 30 days. Now, this has been after great international pressure for him to leave power early, coming from Western nations, the U.S., the E.U., and also now coming from the Gulf Cooperation Council, who used to be his allies up in the oil-rich countries of the Arabian Gulf.

Now, the protesters don’t — the protesters, once hearing this, that he’s going to leave office in 30 days, one would think they would take this as an achievement, you know, that — or one more — for what they’ve been on the streets for months and months protesting for. However, in Yemen, what you have is that the people really don’t trust anything that Saleh says. In 2006, he promised not to run again for presidential elections. Then, when the presidential elections came around, he sort of, via paying people off and paying for loyalty, said, "Look, the people want me to run again." People came to the street and demonstrated for him. It’s widely believed they were paid to do so. And thus, he said, "Look, the people want me. I’m going to run again. I’m not going to relinquish power." The protesters are afraid that after the 30 days that’s exactly what’s going to happen this time again, and he will regain power.

The other thing is, is they have seen what’s happened in Tunisia and Egypt, and they saw sort of this immediate departure of the leaders there, of the longstanding dictators in those countries, and they want the same thing to happen in their country, and they believe the same thing can happen in their country, so that that’s sort of why they’re still in the streets. I’ve talked to them. Either they completely reject this new proposal from the GCC and the president’s offer, they think that it’s worth nothing, or they have mixed feelings about it at best, nothing more than that.

AMY GOODMAN: Laura Kasinof, can you talk about what goes with this, though, what goes with him agreeing to leave — his amnesty or immunity for him, his sons, from prosecution — and those that are objecting to this?

LAURA KASINOF: Yes, yes. This is one thing. After ex-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was — and his sons were detained, they — this greatly scared Saleh. I was told by many people who know Saleh that this very much so worried him, and of course his sons, as well. His sons are the heads of various military units in the country and are widely believed to be also benefiting from the large-scale corruption in the country. And so, this definitely scared him. So, the people who are brokering the deal for him to leave, be it the U.S., the E.U. or the GCC, they know that immunity has to be part of the deal; otherwise, he’s not going to accept to leave.

However, the protesters say, you know, this man has created — has taken part in great crimes, both right now, when the protest was happening — I mean, around 130 protesters have been killed so far since the protest has started, either by security forces or by these plainclothes thugs, who we call the baltaguia. But it’s — they work with the security forces. I’ve seen them many times in cahoots with the security forces. So, we don’t — they’re not working independently from the government. And they say, OK, so he’s killed people, A, during this time of uprising, and B, has a long history of corruption, of war against the Yemeni people. In Yemen — and we didn’t have this in Egypt — the military had been engaged in wars against its own people for years, both in the north against a Houthi — sort of this Shiite sect in the north, and as well against Yemeni citizens in the south. And so, they say, you know, all these crimes, that Saleh has to stand before courts, and otherwise we’re not going to accept this. And again, they saw it happen in Egypt, and they also want it to happen in Yemen.

AMY GOODMAN: Laura, who is likely to succeed Saleh?

LAURA KASINOF: Well, that is the great — that is the great question that no one — no one right now has a good answer for. Because of the way that Saleh has run this country — I mean, all the power in the country rests in the hands of Saleh — there is no — the institutions in Yemen have no power. The ministries have no power. The parliament has no power. I mean, one reason we know this is because basically all government has stopped working in the past month. Many ministers have resigned, parliamentarians have resigns, ambassadors have resigned — all over the violence used against the protesters. But yet, the country still runs, and you don’t really feel it. So that’s proof that they never really did anything in the first place, and it all runs — all the power resides in Saleh’s hands. And this is — no one else had been built up. No one else seems like they are — you know, have had a leadership role and could possibly take this position. So this is greatly — this is something that Saleh knows, and he can sort of play off of this.

This is also something that worries the West when they see Yemen. There are some tribal leaders who are Saleh’s rivals, who would possibly be set to take power. However, people are afraid that if they were the ones who took power, we would just have a repeat of Saleh. We would have another northern tribesman ruling the country in the way that Saleh did, which was to sort of pay loyalties to the various tribes and not really create a modern state. So, they’re a possibility, but that’s what no one wants, because what the protesters want is to turn Yemen into a civil society, into a modern state, and sort of change the trajectory that the country is headed towards, which is essentially failure.

AMY GOODMAN: Laura, in a minute we’re going to be talking about WikiLeaks and documents that have been released from Guantánamo, but I want to go back to WikiLeaks and the documents that were released around Yemen. You had Secretary of State Hillary Clinton going on her apology tour to Yemen, among other Gulf states. Yemen has been a longtime ally. But in these WikiLeaks documents, it showed this discussion between Saleh and the United States government, that the U.S. would bomb areas of Yemen and Saleh would take responsibility for it, saying it was actually Yemeni forces. What about the significance of this in the Yemeni uprising?

LAURA KASINOF: Yes, this is true. I mean, for one thing, this is just one more reason why the populace doesn’t trust the president and believes that he lies to them. Yemenis are staunchly against foreign intervention in their country, and that’s one reason why you hear Saleh yesterday — or what was it, two days ago, when he was talking to BBC — saying, "I’m not going to succumb to this foreign intervention, foreign pressure," because it’s sort of this Yemeni psyche, more so than other Arab states, I would say, to sort of — that they’re very proud of themselves, and they don’t want foreign intervention. So, A, that’s one reason why the Yemenis are, you know, disgusted at their ruler: they know that he sort of allows this U.S. military intervention into their country.

However, you also have the significance here, in that — I mean, you have elements in Washington, and you have people who are scared for Saleh to leave, because when Saleh goes, what is U.S. counterterrorism work in Yemen going to look like? Now, the U.S. certainly — people say that they only have a relationship with Saleh. That’s not exactly true. They do — they do have relationships with other people in the country. But Saleh has given the U.S. the green light to intervene against al-Qaeda in the country. However, in other ways, he hasn’t been the best partner when it comes to al-Qaeda, and the U.S. knows that. Sometimes he uses American counterterrorism tools for his own domestic agenda and to fight against his own enemies. Honestly, he probably knows — I mean, he knows where al-Qaeda is in the country probably more than he lets on, let’s say that. This is widely believed. This is what Yemenis believe. Yemenis believe that Saleh uses the al-Qaeda card to sort of get more Western support, and for U.S. aid money and this sort of thing. So, he’s a mixed bag. He’s been a good partner, he’s been a bad partner. But definitely, what is worrisome is the future is uncertain, is what will U.S. counterterrorism operations in Yemen look like with whoever leads Yemen next? We don’t know. We have no idea. So, this is — everything is just very uncertain as we proceed forward, where this is all going.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the defections, like General Ali Mohsen, the significance of how high up they are? And will they play a leadership role now?

LAURA KASINOF: Well, it was very — yes, it was very important when Major General Ali Mohsen said that — announced that he was — wanted President Saleh to leave, that he was going to support the protesters. He is Yemen’s most powerful army commander and has — while, again, has had a precarious relationship with Saleh, is from the same tribe as Saleh and was believed to be his — you know, was an ally to a large extent. And so, this definitely — this sort of changed — changed the direction of the uprising, where we all thought that then the revolution was possible, after Ali Mohsen announced his support.

However, whether or not Ali Mohsen will have a leadership role is doubtful. Yemeni officials are saying that in order for Saleh to go, Ali Mohsen has to agree to go, as well. Saleh won’t agree to go unless Ali Mohsen does, as well. That way, it doesn’t seem — this is sort of the tribal way of mediating conflict: it doesn’t seem like there’s a winner and there’s a loser between Ali Mohsen and Saleh. And Ali Mohsen has said this, as well, and he has also said that he doesn’t want a leadership position. So it seems that he won’t have a leadership role, that he basically — he had an important role in changing the direction the protest was going. And this sort of also, I would say, has helped his reputation. Ali Mohsen is actually known as one of the most corrupt men in Yemen, and corruption is one of the main things the protesters are complaining about against their government. So, you know, he doesn’t — he has a lot of blood on his hands, as well. So for him doing this, it helped his reputation. We think he will leave power now on a good note. And that’s what we think. But again, it’s Yemen, so anything could happen.

AMY GOODMAN: Laura Kasinof, I want to thank you very much for being with us. She has just returned from Yemen, where she was reporting for the New York Times. She came back this weekend.

When we come back, we’re going to London. No, not to talk about the royal wedding. We’re going to talk about the Guantánamo documents that have just been released by WikiLeaks, highly significant. Stay with us.

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