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Walid Al-Saqaf: Opposition has united with students to intensify campaign to overthrow President Ali Abdullah Saleh

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. In Yemen, hundreds of thousands of people every other day are out protesting, demanding the resignation of President Saleh, who continues, we’re told, to recuperate in Saudi Arabia. Now joining us to discuss the significance of these events is Walid al-Saqaf. He’s a journalist and founder of Yemen Portal. He joins us now from Sweden. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So what’s happening now with these new protests, and what’s the stage of the struggle there?

AL-SAQAF: Well, I mean, recently, if you may have heard, there was the establishment of the National Council of Yemen. And that is supposed to be the leading force calling for the continuation and enforcement of the revolution, and–which is quite interesting, because in the past, the opposition did not have this bloc. It was a little bit dispersed. But now that they have this bloc, they started to rejuvenate the action against the regime. And recently they’ve started what they call the escalation phase, where hundreds of thousands, even millions of people would come out every day or every other day to protest and call for end of regime, so as to accelerate the momentum and push it forward to show the world that the revolution is still live and kicking and that they are willing to bring this regime to an end.

JAY: Now, who’s running Yemen now that Saleh is in Saudi Arabia?

AL-SAQAF: Well, officially it’s the vice president, Abd al-Rahman Mansur. And that’s the official picture portrayed in the media. But many of us know that in reality it’s the president’s son and in fact his close, you know, cronies are ruling the country behind the curtains, because the army, main units of the army, republican guards and the central forces, are all controlled by the president’s family. And given that these are the real, ultimate forces that could make or break in the country, their control with the hands of the president’s family makes it inevitable that they have, ultimately, the number one [incompr.] force in the country and power in the country.

JAY: Now, how many protesters, roughly speaking, have been killed so far? It’s been a very violent, you know, months and months of struggle.

AL-SAQAF: I’d say around–more than 300. But there are certainly a number of them, statistics that are coming up. There are people who have been killed for other reasons, not necessarily protests, by bombings or by conflicts in certain regions. But overall it’s in the hundreds.

JAY: Now, what is the attitude of the US administration to this? We don’t hear President Obama talk about Yemen very often.

AL-SAQAF: Well, unfortunately for Yemen, it really fell to the background after the incident–I mean, the developments in Syria and Libya. The reality is that Yemen was given some sort of an exception, like, in the support the revolution got from the US government. And one reason may be al-Qaeda is as a threat, seen as a threat. So the US is a bit skeptical not to support the revolution in a time where they are not sure if whatever would–happens after the revolution may affect the security in the country and maybe help al-Qaeda fight. On the other hand, they are also in a situation where they need to show that they support human rights and democracy in the country. It’s a little bit of irony here is, on the one hand, they’re still more or less not letting go of all the elements of the regime, but on the other hand, they are trying to show a pretty face in terms of helping the people gain freedom.

JAY: Now, you’ve suggested in earlier interviews we did that the al-Qaeda threat in Yemen is used by Saleh to sort of guarantee this American support and to present that he’s the indispensable defender of Yemen. How real is this al-Qaeda threat in Yemen?

AL-SAQAF: Well, the situation has really gone into a lot of complexities in recent months, and there are cases where elements that call themselves Islamists have in fact taken over certain cities. For example, in Abyen they’ve taken Ja’ar, the main city there. On the other hand, whenever we hear about certain confrontations between the army and those elements or Islamists, we end up having conflicting reports, because part of the army have in fact been deported to not fight those elements. And, in fact, whenever there’s a moment where there could be a particular offense on those Islamists, certain orders from high above tell them to stop and not attack. One incident happened today where the army was almost surrounding the region, trying to storm the Islamists, yet they were given orders not to attack. So this gives us some sort of a, I mean, indication that there is a game being played with al-Qaeda.

JAY: Well, why do you think they’re giving orders not to attack?

AL-SAQAF: I mean, if al-Qaeda is destroyed, then the Yemeni regime won’t be able to ask for funding or ask for any assistance from the US and get sympathy or any support from the US or other countries. So they’re using it as a card to play. And whenever they are squeezed, they bring in this al-Qaeda threat quite evidently, and telling the world that, you know, if you abandon us, then al-Qaeda will try. But when al-Qaeda is–or these elements who call themselves al-Qaeda–is about to be crushed, then they halt and, you know, loosen the strings a little bit so they can relive again and–for–to fight another day.

JAY: Well, if that’s the game they’re playing, wouldn’t the US be aware of that?

AL-SAQAF: They should be aware that, and that’s what’s really surprising for many of us. I would say that many in the, you know, CIA and other intelligence units are–understand, I mean, there is something suspicious going on there, but maybe they are not able to, you know, put their finger on it and pinpoint where it is exactly. However, I would imagine that they do understand what’s going on. And that’s why maybe in the coming weeks or days they will begin to–we’ll begin to see, maybe, a shift in terms of more pressure on the regime.

JAY: Or is it possible that the US is really committed to keeping Saleh in power, so they don’t mind some of this?

AL-SAQAF: I mean, in fact, there have been a lot of conspiracy theories and a lot of theories on this matter saying–part of it is in fact claiming that the US would would love that al-Qaeda continue, because eventually they have something to work on. I mean, al-Qaeda everywhere, wherever it is in the world, involves a lot of, you know, resources and income and money and interest. So there is nothing to rule out in the whole thing. Yet, for us observers and Yemenis, we are really somewhat disturbed by this lack of, you know, forcefulness by the US government.

JAY: And what about the student movement who have been at the front protests, and the broad sections of people involved in the protest? What is their relationship to the more Islamist forces? In a sense they both have the same enemy, being Saleh.

AL-SAQAF: Actually, the Islamists have, really, no one single enemy. It’s not only Saleh; it’s everyone around them. So–if we were to, of course, assume that they are, you know, genuine Islamists. On the other hand, students have always mentioned once and again that they cannot be allies of radicals. And that’s what the regime would like portray. And, in fact, that’s what al-Gaddafi, for example, portrayed about the revolutionists, about having them as sympathizers with al-Qaeda or being part of al-Qaeda. So this is a game that’s been played over and over again. Not–it’s not, I think, making any difference anymore, and people around the world are aware that sometimes regimes would, you know, take certain steps that may be really extreme in trying to portray certain people of certain things. And that’s not doing them good in Yemen.

JAY: Now, if I understand it correctly, the opposition movement–not the al-Qaeda or Islamists, but the main opposition movement–have taken some important decision now about the nature of the struggle. What is that?

AL-SAQAF: Indeed. I mean, they’ve come to a point–I mean, you may recall that months ago there was a little bit of a rift between the opposition and the students. Students wanted to escalate the anti-regime movement and wanted more protests and wider protests. Yet the opposition bloc was a little bit dependent, or, let’s say, cold, about the idea of going forcefully, and resorted to going back to certain treaty–or, let’s say, negotiations under the auspices of the Saudis and the US and Europe, in terms of this, if you recall, the Gulf Cooperation Council’s initiative. However, that failed because Saleh refused to sign it, ultimately. And three months after the attack against Saleh which led him to move to Saudi Arabia, yet the regime or the president is still insistent on not signing that agreement. So he is simply saying to all the peaceful efforts, you know, giving them the finger, you may say. I mean, he is really not giving any attention to that. And, in fact, he’s escalating force, I mean, trying to incite certain armed confrontations in the country. So the opposition had actually ended up now going back to the original thoughts of the youth and is now escalating the revolution and forgetting of all the political negotiations.

JAY: So what does that mean, “escalating the revolution”, then? Does that mean armed? Or what are the tactics they’re going to use?

AL-SAQAF: Well, the tactics are all peaceful so far. I mean, what they’ve said in recent days is that our escalation will continue to be peaceful, and it will never be dragged into violence, despite the many attempts, as they say, of the regime to bring them to the confrontation. However, of course, there may be a moment where the protesters are attacked in their masses. And if–you know, in order to avoid a particular, let’s say, genocide, then there is this, you know, [incompr.] part of the army that supported the revolution. And that army would end up having to defend them, in which case, of course, there will be no escape from an armed confrontation.

JAY: And where is Saleh getting his money to continue running this army of his?

AL-SAQAF: Well, I mean, there’s no one answer to that. But if we know–if we, of course, analyze years of Saleh in power, he’s been there for over 33 years now, and during this time there’s been a lot of embezzlement of funds. There’s been money directly tunneled from the oil revenues straight to his pocket. In fact, there have been times even after the revolution when the family, the president’s family, had–withdrew money from the Central Bank of Yemen directly in their billions of US dollars. So the money is not an issue for them as long as it’s going to protect their interests. On the other hand, of course, we are not certain of this, but we know Saudi Arabia is in fact not hoping for a successful revolution.

JAY: Well, so you’re suggesting–or is there any evidence that Saudi Arabia is financing Saleh? And is there any American dollars, at least officially, going to Saleh?

AL-SAQAF: I’m not sure about whether there is real funding from Saudis or from US. Yet, of course, one can draw conclusions from him saying they’re given the luxury of making statements, meeting officials, doing lots of business from within Saudi land. That raises a lot of questions. And who knows? Maybe there’s also funding.

JAY: Okay. Thanks very much for joining us

AL-SAQAF: My pleasure.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And don’t forget the donate button over here, ’cause if you don’t do that, we can’t do this.

End of Transcript

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Walid Al-Saqaf is a media researcher specializing in Internet censorship. He is a freelance journalist and the former editor of the Yemen Times. He has written for the Gulf News and the Wall Street Journal and is the founder of Currently, Walid Al-Saqaf is pursuing his PhD at the Department of Media and Communication at Orebro University, Sweden.