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Walid Al-Saqaf: President Saleh warns of Al Qaeda and anarchy if he goes

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PAUL JAY: On Friday, March 25, tens of thousands of people protested in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, demanding the ouster of President Saleh after 32 years of dictatorial rule. In front of his palace, President Saleh addressed thousands of his supporters, saying that he’ll be ready to step down, but only after elections and if the country will be left in what he calls safe hands. This comes only a day after President Saleh held discussions with Yemen’s top general, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, on a political settlement in which both men would, according to The Wall Street Journal, resign from their positions within days in favor of a civilian-led transitional government. General Ahmar is among many high-ranking military personnel that defected in protest after the killing of dozens of demonstrators last week. The question remains: who’s leading the rebellion? Who’s out in the streets? And what might happen if and when Saleh leaves? Now joining us to discuss this is Walid al-Saqaf. He’s the former editor of The Yemen Times. He’s written for The Gulf News and The Wall Street Journal. And he’s currently working on his PhD in Sweden. So, Walid, tell us what’s been happening in the last few days, first of all.

WALID AL-SAQAF: Well, since the massacre took place on March 18 in Sana’a, and killing, as you may recall, over 50 people and injuring almost 1,000, things have been getting really tense and demonstrators have become angrier by the day. They were now even calling for the prosecution of Saleh, not only his ouster. And the scene had been filled with defections from the ruling party and very senior army lieutenants and officers joining the demonstrators, calling their revolutionary attempt or initiative legitimate. And that means that the pressure on Saleh has been mounting steadily.

JAY: Now, the United States’ strategy in the region seems to be try to appear to be on the side of the democracy movement; on the other hand, try to save the dictators you like and dump the dictators you don’t like. President Saleh in Yemen is one of the dictators they liked. In fact, Robert Gates was quoted as saying, we actually don’t have a plan for Yemen without a Saleh. What do you make of US strategy in all of this?

AL-SAQAF: I believe it’s ill-advised, to say the least. I mean, the developments in–over the last many years has shown that Yemen has been going steadily to becoming a failed state. And we’ve seen the wars in the north and the various events in the south have led to only one conclusion, that Saleh, his regime, has been quite inefficient, incapable of running, managing the country. And in fact people only protested when they realized that the country is about to collapse. So this is in fact a measure to help the country get back on its feet again and the reasons behind this–these miseries.

JAY: But the US strategy in Yemen, Bahrain, certainly Saudi Arabia, you know, not Libya, and to some extent not Egypt, has been better the dictator we know than a popular democracy we don’t know. How are they going to play this?

AL-SAQAF: I believe it’s a failed strategy, I mean, first of all because although it may protect their interests in the short run, in the long run the country as a whole will collapse along with Saleh, and it would lead to a lot–many worse scenarios. And whether it’s al-Qaeda or whether it’s separation and whether some sort of entity in the north. So what happened now is that people have come together and started to unify their stances and pointing their fingers to the real source of all these problems, and that is the regime itself that the US has been, unfortunately, supporting. So by supporting Saleh, the US is not doing a favor to Yemen at all, and not even to its own interests. It’s supporting dictatorship that’s been corrupt, that’s been oppressive, that’s practiced all sorts of tricks against its people, and even against the US, as a matter of fact, because al-Qaeda itself has been used by the Saleh regime for many years to milk support from the US and others and give various weak justifications that I’m really amazed that the US would take.

JAY: Well, that’s the whole rationale here in Washington, that you have to support Saleh, or the replacement will be chaos, and out of chaos will come al-Qaeda.

AL-SAQAF: I mean, unfortunately, that is what Saleh is saying. But is it true? I mean, did they actually do their own investigation and see the links between the Saleh regime and al-Qaeda? I mean, we have lots of analysts in Yemen examining these things, and they’ve come to a very clear conclusion that certainly Saleh is benefiting from al-Qaeda and its existence in Yemen, and its flourishing in Yemen is in his favor, not at all on the contrary. So not having al-Qaeda will actually damage Saleh. So, I mean, you can think about it as some sort of agreement behind closed doors that al-Qaeda would continue to grow and continue to have power while Saleh is in power. So that’s why [inaudible]

JAY: Is there evidence of links between Saleh and al-Qaeda?

AL-SAQAF: Oh, yes, indeed. I mean, there are cases where al-Qaeda leaders have actually met Saleh and left the presidential palace. And there are cases where the prisoners who had fled prison were not–cases of these nature were not investigated. And there are cases regarding the USS Cole with–concerning accomplices who have facilitated some of those events. There are many other documents and events that need investigation. Yet not many are going deeper into these issues and understanding those various links. Yet the bottom line is that now that Saleh’s regime is weaker, we don’t see al-Qaeda quite active. And it’s pointing to one direction: who is financing al-Qaeda anyway? I mean, it’s very interesting to see that at times, whenever there’s a crisis, suddenly al-Qaeda members get arrested out of the blue, or whenever there’s need–economic need or need for arms, suddenly al-Qaeda elements flee prison. I mean, it’s really something that’s staring at us in the face, yet we don’t see it.

JAY: Well, certainly the US intelligence has to know this. I mean, is that part of the American strategy as well? In other words, the al-Qaeda threat allows Saleh to stay in power, and as I said, a dictator you know is better than the democracy or whatever other forces in Yemen might come to power. I mean, let’s deal with that. Like, if Saleh leaves, who do you think would come to power? And who are these forces in the streets? What do they represent?

AL-SAQAF: Well, first of all, I mean, al-Qaeda has benefited from something that everyone cannot deny. It’s corruption, corruption and poverty and all sorts of elements of a weak state. But who had actually enforced those elements? Who has been the one who is corrupt? Who has made corruption a common thing in society? Who has increased the level of poverty, very bad governance policies? And that’s Saleh to blame. But if we look into the–zoom into the areas where al-Qaeda is, we’d see lawlessness, we’d see some sort of tribal and other affiliations. So the regime has been very clearly unable to control those areas for 30 years. So such a regime needs to change in order to help the country. There will be a transition. It may be tough. But in the long run there needs to be a state that controls its territory; there needs to be a powerful system that’s just, that’s Democratic, and that’s modern, and that does not use corruption to please certain groups or appease others.

JAY: So who are the forces that are in the streets now? Who’s–how did this start? Who’s leading this?

AL-SAQAF: Remarkably, the same leaders that led various–the other revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. These are the youth, the educated elite of society. They have come forward with their ideas that demonstrations are the way, peaceful demonstrations are the way forward. They’re a way to show their disgust with the continuing regime. And they have come together to say that Yemen is above all of us. If you look into the picture now, we have the core group, which is the youth, and then these are those educated and intellectual people who have joined forces with their own professors, even, and their university staffers, and those were then gathered around with lawyers, with activists, with human rights organizations. And then others joined in, including politicians, as well as tribesmen who feel that the country is indeed heading in the wrong direction. And recently, after the unfortunate massacre on Friday, more defections took place from the ruling party and more people joined in. So we find that the core group, which is these young, educated intellectuals that we believe in, could lead the country forward, are actually surrounded by a massive amount of people who believe that they are the ones who could lead the country, and not someone who’s been dealing with a country as his own property and who has been appeasing one group over the other, trying to balance the game by playing different cards over time, trying to keep temporary solutions in place. So we find that there’s a glimmer of hope. All we need now is a transition.

JAY: [snip] if I’m pronouncing his name correctly, who was working very closely for President Saleh for over 30 years, this general has deserted and joined the protesters. But is this part of a sort of plan B, where the military can take over from Saleh and you have a sort of Egyptian situation where the military becomes the new backbone of the state, and then I guess it enters a new phase of struggle where the democracy movement starts to deal with, negotiate, or struggle with the military?

AL-SAQAF: One thing that we’ve got as a pledge from Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar is that he does not want power, and he made it clear. And apart from that, he also said that he would like a modern Yemen with a civilian leadership. So it appears that his intentions so far appear to be in this–in line with what the youth want. What remains to be seen is whether that would be applied in reality. Yet we are taking his words and we are working as youth. These groups are working together to make sure that no matter what happens in the future, there’s always a transition plan that they will work on, whether it’s with the army and whether various other–with other groups. The most important thing is that there is a plan [inaudible]

JAY: And does the US have much to say in this now?

AL-SAQAF: There’s a little bit of detail about the transition plan, including that there will be representation of various sectors. There will be emphasis on need for justice for all, which has not been there, unfortunately, in the south nor in the north. There will be a focus on making sure that the rule of law is what applies. There will be measures to protect minorities, provide gender balances, and various other things that have never been dealt with in the past. So it appears there is some very positive and good vision. And tribesmen, even powerful sheiks who had been for a very long time allies of Saleh, have defected because they realize their interests as tribes and as communities, their children’s interests, are at stake. They’re not getting education, they’re not getting proper health. So they felt that perhaps now is the time [inaudible]

JAY: And does the US have anything to say in the outcome now? Or is this out of their hands, more or less?

AL-SAQAF: I mean, I personally believe it’s already done and over with. Saleh’s regime is probably having its last few days. But I certainly hope that the US would wake up and call for supporting the demonstrators, which is legitimate ruler of the country. I mean, the public is who should be ruling. And that means that the sooner the US steps in and supports demonstrators and calls for a peaceful transition of power, immediate and effective transition of power, the better it will be, and it would prevent potential for conflict again because there is this perception that Saleh has US backing.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us.

AL-SAQAF: My pleasure.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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.