March 28, 2011

Memo From Saleh to Obama

Another momentous weekend in Yemen, another indifferent Monday in Washington. As expected the White House kept itself to the minimum, mentioning the state’s boiling revolution only in passing. The Obama administration is desperately piecing together a new policy before Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh collapses, but the silence undermined the essence of Obama’s defense of Libyan intervention.

“I believe that this movement of change cannot be turned back,” the President confidently declared, “and that we must stand alongside those who believe in the same core principles that have guided us through many storms: our opposition to violence directed at one’s own people; our support for a set of universal rights, including the freedom for people to express themselves and choose their leaders; our support for governments that are ultimately responsive to the aspirations of the people.”

Saleh’s regime does not qualify as one of those governments, yet the Obama administration is willing to pay for his life-support until the end. Private warnings over violence aren’t halting Saleh’s abuse against his own people in areas outside Sana’a, and he refuses to take responsibility for major attacks against protesters, attacks perpetrated by Yemeni security forces or under their cover.

And over the weekend Saleh retreated from his pseudo-outreach back to his real hard-line without consequence from Washington. Saleh's position hasn't changed all month and neither has U.S. policy. Obama mentioned America's birth in revolution, however his administration urges the opposition to negotiate with an unstable autocrat. He should read the full transcript of Saleh’s interview with Al-Arabiya’s Muntaha al-Ramahi, if he hasn’t already, along with these illuminating excerpts.

Is this the responsive government that deserves America’s support? And how does he make America safer from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)?

On weekend talks with the opposition:
[Al-Ramahi] About these meetings which were attended by the US ambassador and the JMP and Major General Ali Muhsin. What did you agree on? What did you discuss? What did you approve?

[President Saleh] The discussion was on how to emerge from this crisis. Naturally, they have conditions. Whenever the state presents an initiative, they raise the ceiling of their demands. They want the authorities to leave and they want power to be handed over immediately. We have no problem concerning the transfer power, but to whom and for whom? They propose the departure of the authorities, immediately - within hours, a day, two days, one month, or 60 days. These are their proposals, their demands, but we are adhering to our vision. We have specific points, mentioned in the president's speech in parliament, the points raised at the National Congress, and the points presented by the clerics. The points presented by the JMP are to a certain extent acceptable. These will be subjected to discussion in order to emerge from the crisis. We in power are not insisting on remaining in authority, but who should we hand over power to? It means to the unknown. They are looking continuously for the unknown. This means, throw it away, or let the people get rid of the authorities.

[Al-Ramahi] This means that the discussion did not refer to who will take over once President Ali Abdullah Saleh decides to quit?

[President Saleh] Not at all, this did not happen.
On the JMP, which has negotiated at the behest and irritation of the youth movement:
[Al-Ramahi] No options in this regard were proposed by the Joint JMP, nor General Muhsin...

[President Saleh] The JMP keep raising the ceiling of its demands. Whenever the state offers any initiatives or proposals to emerge from the crisis, the JMP raise the ceiling of its demands. We tell them let us meet and discuss matters in a harmonious and smooth way, and in a calm manner and how to transfer power. We are not hanging on to power but transfer it to whom? To the unknown? Since you are bringing down certain government complexes, besieging the Central Bank buildings, and attacking police, this means that the transfer will be to the unknown, to anarchy. They are tense. They want the authorities to go and they do not care who will take over. This is their aim. They want the regime to fall and they do not mind handing power over to the devil. They demonstrate abnormal and impulsive reactions.

[Al-Ramahi] What is your vision about transferring power to the people?

[President Saleh] My vision is this: You, the JMP, come. You are a minority. They stage protests in the streets and elsewhere. They hardly constitute 2.5 per cent out of 25 million. They seek the support of 4,000 protesters. I have 1 million. If they stage a demonstration of 20,000, I can stage a 3 million-man demonstration. How can the minority twist the arm of the majority? This does not happen anywhere in the world. It is unacceptable that a minority of the society should twist the arm of the majority. You should have seen the million person rally in the Al-Sabain Square. That was a referendum on the legitimacy. Do they want to topple the political regime with 5 thousand? This is unacceptable, whether they are 5, 10, 20 thousands or even 1 million.

[Al-Ramahi] The protesters, the opposition, those who come out to demand a change of the regime, toppling it, or removing the president, were not the JMP alone. The JMP might be part of these groups. But there are other groups linked with youths. The JMP may not necessarily be their umbrella.

[President Saleh] We have an understanding with the youths and we are in contact with them. The JMP is riding the wave of the youths. The youths are not with them. On the contrary, the youths are with us. They have demands and we support the demands of the youths, all of these demands, in part and parcel. Their demands are acceptable but they are riding another wave. They have another agenda. They bear grudges against the political system and all the achievements that have been realized on the Yemeni arena - the building of the centralized, modern, and clean state; the state of political pluralism. This is a grudge. They reject political pluralism and democracy. They say that the president himself should transfer his powers through a constitutional declaration and that the president himself should turn against the constitution. This is their culture. Let me say that this group - I am speaking of them as colleagues and brothers - is foolish. Why? The group of socialists called on us to reach immediate unity. We had several options - confederation, federation, or a merger. They said an immediate unity should be carried out and we met this demand and we reached an immediate unity. They had a plan behind their demand for an immediate unity. They had what was called the national front of the so-called north Yemen and what was called the remnants of the Imamate, those who were grumbling against the republican regime. They said: We will go to unity and then we will turn against the legitimacy, the president, or the General People's Congress and its allies. They wanted to turn against them from within. The plot failed.
On the Muslim Brotherhood:
[Al-Ramahi] I just want to understand what you wants to say. You say that these movements that are on the streets in the various Arab countries are in harmony with external agendas to bring the Islamists to power.

[President Saleh] No doubt about that.

[Al-Ramahi] Does this apply to Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and other Arab countries?

[President Saleh] Yes, the Islamic movements are now riding the wave throughout the Arab world, but the people reject them.

[Al-Ramahi] But they did not try them out.

[President Saleh] They did not try them out because they were completely rejected in advance because they were incapable and the people were afraid of them.

[Al-Ramahi] Do you not think that they should be given a chance before people can reject them?

[President Saleh] They did not try them out because they prejudged them as incapable and the people were afraid of them. Some movements are like al-Qaeda Organization. Where do Al-Qaeda statements come from? They come from these Islamic movements. Where is Bin Ladin from? Who is Ayman al-Zawahiri? These are part of the Islamic movement. People in Egypt are scared and terrified despite the departure of the Egyptian regime and Mubarak. Although there is an interim leadership, represented by the military council, the Egyptian people do not want them to be in power. The same applies to Tunisia. They do not want Ghannouchi or others like him to be in power. People are scared of them. The Yemeni people here are also scared. What is happening in Abyan or Hadramout shows that they are in constant contact with Al-Qaeda.

[Al-Ramahi] In order to understand what is happening in Yemen I want to ask if the Islamic organizations or Muslim Brotherhood are behind what is happening in Yemen.

[President Saleh] Yes, the Muslim Brotherhood movement is in the forefront.

[Al-Ramahi] Are they at the forefront of the revolution or they only rode the wave of the youth revolution?

[President Saleh] They rode the wave of the youth revolution, but the Muslim Brotherhood movement is the basis. As for the socialists, who separated, they followed them. The Nasirites are not large in number. None of the other factions is large in number. The Muslim Brotherhood is the main movement participating in the sit-ins and in the confrontation in the regions. They in the Muslim Brotherhood movement have used all their cards and they no longer have any. They are fighting desperately. They do not accept dialogue. They do not want to reach an understanding. Even their leaders have disappeared from the scene although we have not made any decision to pursue or follow them. This will never happen. We as a political regime will not behave like this because we continue to adhere to dialogue no matter what.

[Al-Ramahi] Dialogue should lead to results. They are holding dialogue with you and you are holding dialogue with them but without any results.

[President Saleh] No, they are not holding dialogue with us. They want dialogue with us only to overthrow the regime.

[Al-Ramahi] They have a goal and they want to achieve it?

[President Saleh] Exactly, they want to overthrow the regime. We want dialogue to ensure a peaceful and democratic change and transition of power.
On the March 18th shootings in Sanaa’s “Change Square":
[Al-Ramahi] They say that they were staging protests in a peaceful manner for a long time. We know that these protests started several weeks ago, but what happened on bad Friday, 18 March, was the turning point that changed the equation.

[President Saleh] This is true. We denounce and condemn what happened on Friday, and we are not pleased with it. Luckily, the police, the security forces, the army, and the cadres of the General People's Congress were not involved in it. That happened between them [protesters] and resident citizens. They protested in these areas for several weeks. No woman could go to the hospital or to a grocery for shopping. No child could go to school. No patient could go to the hospital. People in these neighborhoods lived in a state of terror.

All the Yemenis are snipers. They are all trained on the use of arms. What they said was part of the propaganda they fabricated against the central security forces and even the special guard units. They said only the central security or the special guard units can use firearms. Their propaganda reached that level, but our people and the citizens know who fired at them. Some were arrested and they are under investigation. The rest are being pursued in order to bring them to justice.
The usual response to U.S. policy:
[Al-Ramahi] The international position and even the Arab position on Yemen were different from the position on Egypt, for example. Before President Mubarak said anything, we used to hear the White House, Gates, Clinton, or Obama say that the president should leave now, but the position on Yemen is different. Is it because it is complex?

[President Saleh] Yemen is a time bomb. If we, together with all sisterly and friendly countries, do not try to heal the rift and engage in political dialogue, a devastating civil war will erupt and disturb the region in general. None should think that I have an agenda or that I have a special relationship with or support for a certain party, faction, or tribe. That would be a miscalculation. Yemen is a time bomb and if the political system in Yemen is disturbed and if no constructive political dialogue is held to spare Yemen sedition, sedition will be long and very difficult. They should learn a lesson from Somalia. The Somalis have not been able to restore stability to their country over the past 20 years. We are a tribal rather than a civilian society and every one sides with his village and tribe. It will thus be a grinding civil war. Therefore, all should appeal to reason and logic and the wise men in every party should make concessions.
Spreading the fear of civil war:
[Al-Ramahi] So the country will be divided into south, Huthists, Al-Qaeda...

[President Saleh, interrupting] The south will not be with them. The north of the north will not be with them. They are senseless. The north of the north will not be with them; it will not be part of the unified Yemeni state. Hadramout will not be part of the unified state. The south of the homeland will not be part of the unified state. They will rule only the triangle, one, two, three, and even this triangle will be loose.

[Al-Ramahi] Allow me to ask this question: We heard similar arguments from Libya, and it seems people no longer accept such intimidations or threats of partition, Al-Qaeda, and so on. People want to see change on the ground, and now.

[President Saleh] We are ready. We must maintain the unity of the homeland, first, and then talk about change. Come talk to us about change and let us choose who will rule Yemen, a unified Yemen, by peaceful means. Let us talk and transfer power. I am not of the type that adheres to power. I am telling you: come to discuss a peaceful handover of power, through dialogue, a smooth transition, and the ballot boxes. They rejected election; they rejected democracy. What they have on their agenda is communique No 1 and a constitutional declaration, not a peaceful transition of power. Who will feel safe? How can I and other Yemenis feel safe that these people will rule fairly and responsibly when they are issuing communiques 1 and 2 and ordering violence? Who will feel safe? People are scared.

[Al-Ramahi] But there must be some way for a peaceful transition of power acceptable to the other side, perhaps within a short period of time, before the end of 2011, since you are saying that you do not want power anyway.

[President Saleh] Yes, yes. For me, power...

[Al-Ramahi] is no longer a dream or...

[President Saleh] Power will not be in my culture. But I will stick to power until I transfer it peacefully. I will stick to power until a peaceful transition takes place, no matter what the price. But force and arm twisting are out of the question.
On Al Jazeera, who has seen its journalists deported and facilities destroyed by government personnel:
[President Saleh] No, no; this is a minority group from...[changes thought] Let us remain in the climate of tolerance; I do not want to say anything that might provoke anyone. Let us remain in the cycle of tolerance. But the people are the arbiter. And if the media are fair, they should honestly investigate and neutrally cover the sentiments of the Yemeni people. I am sure Al-Arabiya is a sensible, balanced, and good channel that will not engage in agitation like some other channels that add fuel to the fire, sow strife, and act as operation rooms to burn the Arab homeland based on the principle: bring the temple down over everyone's head.
On his plans once he leaves office:
[President Saleh] It means that I must contact no one. In other words, they want to keep you in a closed room; like a prison room, where you don't speak to anyone. They want guarantees that the president will not speak. This is one of the proposals of these people, headed by a leader of a political party.

[President Saleh] Even if I decide to transfer power peacefully I will remain the leader of the party until the party appoints someone else if it decides to replace me. But I will be the party leader, no doubt about it, and I will do to them something worse than what they did [laughs].

[Al-Ramahi] Do you seek to obtain any kind of immunity in case you step down? Do you want them to guarantee that you will have immunity so that no one can harm your excellency?

[President Saleh] I am not asking for this. I will immune myself by myself.
[Update: Saleh delivered a similarly combative speech on Tuesday at the 4th session of the General Committee of the ruling General People's Congress. Now he's really digging in.]

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