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Walid Al-Saqaf: Mass protests say transition deal not real if Pres. Saleh does not face charges

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. After 33 years of power as the president of Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh made a deal in Saudi Arabia in the face of a massive opposition movement in Yemen. He agreed to transfer power, essentially stepped down as president, all–. Part of the agreement: he gets to keep the title ceremonially. And he is, most importantly, going to be immune from prosecution under this agreement, something that doesn’t sit very well with the tens of thousands of protesters who have been in the square for months and months, and many of whom have been killed by Saleh’s troops. Now joining us to talk about the current situation in Yemen and U.S. policy towards Yemen is Walid Al-Saqaf. He’s a journalist and founder of Yemen Portal. He’s–also runs an investigative journalism piece of software that fights censorship around the world. And he is from Yemen, but he’s now in Sweden, and he joins us from there. Thanks for joining us, Walid.

WALID AL-SAQAF, YEMEN PORTAL: You’re welcome. Thanks.

JAY: So what’s the latest? And then give us some of the underlying subtext here.

AL-SAQAF: Well, the latest is that this GCC initiative has already now been signed.

JAY: Okay. So just to be–just for that don’t know, that’s the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, mostly led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and they’re the ones that brokered this deal with Saleh.

AL-SAQAF: Yes, though Qatar eventually pulled out of the initiative. However, the rest of the Gulf do endorse it. And this [incompr.] or initiative basically allows for the transfer of power to take place gradually and peacefully through a number of mechanisms and regulations that are in a particular timeline. And they strip Saleh initially for 90 days from all his powers, and after 90 days he surrenders the title of president and becomes no longer president. And all the authority now then goes to his vice president. However, as you rightly mentioned, he also has immunity from prosecution, which is really aggravating a lot of people in the streets and not sitting well in Yemen.

JAY: When I read the news reports, I see that the protests continue, that pro-Saleh forces have snipers shooting at people in the protests. And you hear reports of some people saying not much has really changed; they think that Saleh is just ruling, but from behind the throne. What do you make of all that?

AL-SAQAF: Well, [incompr.] what is going on is a sort–some sort of panic mode, where the old regime elements are beginning to seek a way out of [incompr.] situation. Some of them may keep their cabinet positions as part of the deal, but half of them will have to go, and with them that means thousands of those supportive of the Saleh regime. So in this case there is some sort of chaos. And at the same time there is a sense of immunity, because the protection is not only to Saleh, but everyone who worked with him all his years. So that means, effectively, all employees. And that has resulted in a state of chaos and looting in many institutions. And now the opposition is calling for intervention to stop further looting of those institutions that would be surrendered to the opposition.

JAY: Well, intervention by whom?

AL-SAQAF: By the United Nations or those who brokered the deal. They want them to step in and stop the regime from those practices, because it would really ruin the prospects of the unity government. I mean, if the new cabinet members come in into empty ministries and with almost no resources, then they won’t be able to run the government, leading to some sort of a new crisis. So that is the situation as we speak. And furthermore, there is also violence committed against protesters. Many have been killed, and there are in three days more than 20 or 30 people have been killed in Taizz, one of the major cities where the revolution started. So the situation’s rather bleak. And all those who monitor the situation believe that the immunity part of the treaty has been behind all of this.

JAY: Now, the–if I understand it correctly, sections of the army had up to this point broken away from Saleh and joined the opposition movement, and loyalist sections of the army were fighting with them. Is that fighting continuing?

AL-SAQAF: Well, not to the extent that it used to be. What’s been going on now is more in very isolated cases. But the thing is that forces shooting at civilians are doing it with such impunity. And the response isn’t there, because they know, I mean, the defecting army knows that if they respond, they will be blamed for not implementing the GCC initiative. So they’re standing still while civilians are being killed, and that is really quite evident in Taizz in particular.

JAY: So there are supposed to be some elections to resolve all of this. How does this process supposed to unfold? And with this immunity, I guess it means the old regime can run in the elections, and they had previously not been considered very fair elections. What’s the prospect for all of this?

AL-SAQAF: Well, I mean, theoretically the idea was to have 90 days for preparations for elections. And these 90 days would actually lead to electing the same vice president as president. So Abd al-Rab Mansur, who is now the acting president, will be officially the president in 90 days, and at the time where–when Saleh would abandon his title. And at the same time, however, during those 90 days, the protests are expected to gain more momentum, because none of those in these squares are happy by the deal, because it gives immunity, as we said, to Saleh and his cronies, and that means that justice won’t be served. So tension will remain, and the situation will be tense, and it’s really–there isn’t much hope in striving to some sort of a consensus agreement on [incompr.] So the situation is rather sketchy right now, and it’s not–.

JAY: Who–well, Walid, who’s the deal–between who and who? Did the opposition have any seats at the table where this deal was made?

AL-SAQAF: The interesting thing is that opposition didn’t consult with the the protesters, the hundreds of thousands of protesters. They simply took on their own position, and they acted on behalf of themselves and their own interests and the political party or political parties to get half of the seats in the cabinet. However, of course, they thought that perhaps they could persuade the youth to join them later. But this has proven a rather misjudgment, in my view, because they didn’t anticipate that many new casualties that have fallen over the years to this, and because there was a gap between the day the opposition signed the deal and the day that Saleh signed the deal, and these months resulted in hundreds of deaths. So during this time, frustration grew in the streets. So now opposition figures are really in a big crisis themselves in public opinion.

JAY: And the opposition–I mean, the people in the streets are essentially rejecting the deal. Have the army units that joined the opposition, do you know, have they joined with the people in the streets to reject the deal? Like, do they have some army units on their side?

AL-SAQAF: Apparently, they’re closer to the opposition than they are to the youth. And it appears, in fact, that maybe some of those defecting army officers would be in the cabinet. So, I mean, there’s a sense of betrayal or feeling of betrayal among the youth, thinking that this is what–all a brokered deal to gain certain interests. On the other hand, opposition figures say: we’ve done our political part of the deal, and it’s up to you to escalate further, and we won’t stop you from escalating if things don’t go your way, because they, the opposition, has the perception or the assumption that the deal will actually lead to achieving the goals of the revolution. But essentially one of the major goals is prosecuting Saleh, which comes into total conflict with the GCC initiative. So, apparently, there is a deadlock [incompr.]

JAY: Well, the Gulf Cooperation Council’s brokered this deal. But what’s been the American role in all of this?

AL-SAQAF: The Americans have been supportive of the GCC initiative, and so were the Europeans and others. And, in fact, the United Nations Security Council resolution endorsed the GCC initiative. And all of them have been on the side of the opposition in pursuing the GCC initiative until the very end. Yet very little regard was given to the actual people who started the revolution, which are the youth. So now the international community, the U.S. and many other nations, are willing to be in direct confrontation with the youth, especially [incompr.] that they are being killed in the street. So it’s really–I have a pessimistic view of this, because if there is no solution to the immunity issue, then the crisis could continue [incompr.]

JAY: So in parts of the south where the quasi al-Qaeda forces have some strength, there’s been some very fierce fighting. What’s going on there?

AL-SAQAF: Well, the fights are continuing as we speak. There has been a number of attacks by the military [incompr.] of the al-Qaeda or the Fadi al-Qaeda, as you named them. However, there is also a little bit of [incompr.] information of [incompr.] with whom, because there are elements within those radical Islamic factions that are known to have been loyal to the regime, and then as the interest has not met or has not been met with demands that have not been met, then they detect it and now form those groups. But apparently this is getting very less priority or very less attention compared to that of [incompr.] So most of the ongoing fighting or ongoing struggles by the authorities is against the protesters.

JAY: Well, the issue obviously is far from settled. Thanks very much for joining us, Walid.

AL-SAQAF: My pleasure.

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


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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.