Interview with Mohammed Hassan on the situation in Yemen
Lalkar is pleased to reproduce below an interview conducted, at end of July, with Comrade Mohammed Hassan from the Belgian Workers’ Party, previously an Ethiopian ambassador and a person who is extremely knowledgeable about the Middle East. Because of the paucity of information about the subject in the western media, we asked Cde Mohammed Hassan to enlighten us on the situation in Yemen, on which he provided the following eye-opening information.
In this country we hear very little news about Yemen, and what we do hear is rather confusing. We have heard that President Saleh, whom the protesters were insisting should resign, in fact, after many promises that he would do so, in the end would not. Then he was shot, though it is not clear who was responsible for that, and his injuries have led to his being taken to Saudi Arabia for treatment. Will he be coming back? And has his departure made any difference to who is ruling Yemen?
Saleh himself was attacked by part of the Republican Guard who were guarding him in his palace. The Republican Guard is led by his son and for the most part remains loyal to the Saleh regime. In the Yemeni army as a whole there has been a split and much of the army is siding with the popular revolt. This has come about as a result of the failure of negotiations proposing that the popular revolutionary committee and the government should sit together and discuss a transitional government. However, neither Saudi Arabia nor the US were prepared to support this initiative, which failed as a result. The consequence is that several army generals have sided with the popular revolt. On top of that Saleh has lost the important support he used to have from the highly influential Al-Ahmar family which also sided with the popular revolt. This weakened Saleh severely.
The US and Saudi Arabia became worried that all this would lead to his final overthrow, and had decided it was better he should go so that his pro-imperialist regime could survive. This is how it came to pass that the Republican Guard shot him with the result that he was badly wounded which enabled him and several others to be whisked out of the way to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment
The Saleh government remains in situ, claiming that Saleh will come back soon. It has been weakened by his departure, and its members are also squabbling among themselves. It was Ali Abdullah Saleh who had previously kept them together, which is why they now try to revive him from a distance.
But basically he is too badly wounded and he cannot continue his function. Even though the hospital is releasing news saying he is no longer in danger, I don’t think he will be coming back or that he would be able to function as before if he did return.
What is the response of the Yemeni people to Saleh’s departure?
The demand of the people is for a transitional government, as per the Qatar agreement. The US is opposing this, and the puppet regime is therefore refusing to back down. As a result the Yemeni people see only one choice and that is to continue with their peaceful mass demonstrations, and these demonstrations are taking place all over the country. A massive demonstration in Taiz led to confrontation between the popular opposition and the Republican Guard, while the police and part of the army, including army officers, joined the demonstration alongside the popular opposition. It is only the Republican Guard, established in the name of fighting terrorism and led by Saleh’s son, that the existing regime can rely upon.
This Republican Guard tried to incite tribal conflict: they didn’t succeed. They tried also to incite a Shia/Sunni conflict – they didn’t succeed in that either.
From the side of the popular opposition, the Yemenis, in spite of having weapons in their hands, have refrained absolutely from using their weapons. The demonstrations to date have been peaceful, and this is the case all over Yemen, from the North to the South. All are united now. There is no question of secession of the south. All are united as one to overthrow the Saleh government.
And how is the government responding?
This unity is alarming imperialism and its allies. Saudi Arabia is frightened of the situation and is trying to do its best to defuse it. They are using two main tactics. The first is to bring money into the country for use in order to divide the people, and the second is to make life very hard for the population. In spite of that, the Yemeni people continue to resist. The solidarity among the Yemeni people, including the business people and Yemenis abroad, is very, very strong. The tactic of dividing the popular forces has not succeeded and the popular forces have become very mature. It should be noted that all prominent religious figures are supporting the popular opposition.
The Yemeni people are under attack economically. For example the price of oil and food especially, have increased. Oil is not available. Petrol in the gas stations is very difficult to find. Yet in spite of these hardships the population cannot be broken and the demonstrations are continuing. The United States and Saudi Arabia are really having problems. They don’t know what is going to come out of it and they don’t know what is happening inside the army. Most of the generals have sided with the popular opposition, as have the officers.
So it will be difficult to divide the Yemenis. They have tried all these tactics and failed.
The same thing is happening in Egypt. The popular revolt in Egypt for a while subsided but has now suddenly again erupted because people can see no difference following the concessions that were made to their demands. There are still Mubarak people sitting there in government. And now the demand is for the whole Egyptian government to resign. The same is happening in Tunisia. The popular revolt is gradually coming back. The strategy of imperialism and its puppets is to let the people go on protesting, but not to make any significant concessions to them. Their hope is that the population will get tired. Ramadan is coming. Once it comes, Ramadan is a month of peace. Probably the population would stop demonstrating. However, this tactic of the imperialists and the Saudis, aimed at frustrating the popular movement, is beginning to fail.
There are reports that Zinjibar, Jaar and Hawta have been captured by Islamic militants. The militants who captured the first two of these towns are operating under the signboard of Ansar-al-Sharia and are said to be from AQAP. It is further thought that these Islamic militants are poised to capture Aden. And furthermore that the Yemeni army is, with the exception of General Muhammad al-Somli, largely ignoring this fundamentalist advance. Can you say whether all this is true, and, if so, how such an advance can be explained in an area that has traditionally been progressively inclined?
We must first of all see what kind of Islamic movements there are in Yemen. There are two types of Islamist movement. The first type emerged when the Saleh regime in 1994 unilaterally decided to bring about unity of the country. At this time everybody was united under Saleh and the Ahmar family, especially Ahmar the father (who has since died) who was the speaker of Parliament at that time. To bring about this unity, Saleh also allied with Al Qaeda to fight against the secessionist movement in the south. This is how Al Qaeda forces have been brought into the South. They are a very small, armed group in the South, but they are not influential in Yemen as a whole. The Saleh regime also mobilised Al Qaeda against the Houthis in the North who are also fighting against the government and also against the intervention of Saudi Arabia.
This is one side.
The other side is that Saudi Arabia also wants a type of Salafist reactionary Muslim Brotherhood movement. They have given a lot of money for that purpose with the aim of eliminating anti-Saudi elements within Yemen. Great anger was felt in Yemen when unilaterally Saleh agreed with the Saudis a few years back that the Yemeni province of Jidan would be ceded to Saudi Arabia. Most Yemenis refuse to recognise the Saudi-Yemeni border because they consider that the province of Jidan is part of Yemen. The popular movement is demanding the nullification of this agreement hatched up by Saudi Arabia and Ali Abdullah Saleh. Therefore from Saudi Arabia’s point of view, it is very important that Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime remains in power to defend that border. In any event, Saudi Arabia considers Yemen to be its backyard and expects to influence what happens there. The stability of Saudi Arabia is in turn very important for the United States as it is one of the biggest oil-producing countries, the richest in the region, with about 25% of the world’s oil reserves. The Saudi ruling class is panicking that any revolution in Yemen might have a domino effect in Saudi Arabia because in Saudi Arabia there is also an opposition to its pro-imperialist puppet regime.
In Yemen all political forces on the ground are united. The young people who are leading this – the intellectuals, different social classes, the businessmen and so on – are all united. This unity spells danger to Saudi Arabia. So in order to disrupt it and create a chaotic situation, they are now subsidising the reactionary Salafist movement. They hope to use religious extremism in order to create divisions among the Yemeni people, but I don’t think it is likely to have a very big effect on the masses because the consciousness of the Yemeni people is much, much higher than that of these ragtag fundamentalist elements.
Of course, Al Qaeda has been around for a very long time fighting in the south. The Yemeni government is now engaged hyping up propaganda to the effect that al Qaeda is the danger, in the hope this will keep the US propping up its unpopular regime, but what they don’t speak about is the popular revolt which is the real force in the south. In all the Yemeni cities of the south there are demonstrations, hand in hand with the north. The demand all over Yemen is for a united Yemen, a democratic Yemen. And this of course frightens the United States and frightens Saudi Arabia. So they write a lot about these people who are armed and sometimes effect a military attack here or there, but the major aspect of what is happening is that it is a popular and peaceful revolt – demonstrations which are well organised. Sometimes it is even the case, I think, that the Republican Guard attack and claim that the attack was carried by Al Qaeda, all to prove that the country is in danger from that organisation.
Can you say something more about the demands of the opposition?
Whereas previously the Yemeni opposition was seeking to set up a transitional government that would include people from the Saleh camp, today the opposition are negotiating among themselves for the adoption of a second line, that is, to establish a transitional government without participation of the present government. The government tactic, on the other hand, is to wait for the people to get tired in the hope that, with the advent of Ramadan, people will give up. But the people have seen through this tactic and have said that even during Ramadan they will continue. In Ramadan they will have the biggest demonstrations. They have set up committees to raise money and to bring water to the people, to organise food during Ramadan, not to break the spirit of the population. I think that the Yemeni people in spite of all the odds and difficulties they face, should get a Nobel Prize. Yemenis are very disciplined, in spite of the fact that they are armed. Their consciousness is so high that even the tribal leaders side with the popular opposition. Despite the many problems people face – economic and social, embezzlement, the control of the family system and children – they understand that it is because the government is thoroughly undemocratic and that it has to be got rid of.
Today the Yemeni people have become urbanised, educated people – medical doctors, teachers, etc. The revolution has been an educational experience for them. Even Yemeni women – the way they were speaking at the demonstrations, you cannot imagine. I don’t think that anybody could explain the Yemeni revolution and its demands as well as the Yemeni women I have heard explaining it at the demon-strations. Yemeni women have a deep understanding and their consciousness is much higher than that of ordinary workers and women in imperialist countries. From this perspective I would say that the Yemeni people have proved their quality and have resisted all divisions so that nothing can hinder them.
Their demonstrations have been peaceful and well organised. Every time there is violence, it has been instigated either by hooligans or by sections of the army, but the people are really managing very well, resisting all division, and have been doing so over a very long time. From this perspective I really say that the Yemeni people, and these demonstrations, the organisers and the people as well, really deserve the Nobel prize. Their maturity and quality surprised even me. The provocations they face are severe: the government has spent billions of dollars in Yemen to bribe the tribal chiefs, while at the same time attacking with political assassinations; CIA agents are there targeting individuals. All this is intended to disunite the people, yet all this intimidation has failed. And the Yemeni people are rapidly learning from their experience of how the enemy is functioning. They always analyse these situations carefully – there are eloquent debates on the television. I didn’t expect Yemen to be so mature: despite the difficulties they are facing, despite the miserable conditions the popular movement is now facing – they are being punished, their food subsidies have been stopped – still they manage, and their solidarity is impressive, from north to south and from east to west. In the past when people rose up, the government could rely on divide-and-rule, but now that weapon has become weakened.
Also part of the army has sided with the people. As you know the army are part of the people, apart from some high-ranking ones who benefit to some extent from the system; but in Yemen it is doing a very good job. It is impossible to tell how it will develop in the future, but for the moment its role is very good.
Is it in fact al Qaeda which is occupying Zinjibar?
It could well be. Or it could be one of the other Islamic movements. There are several types of Islamic movement. One is associated with the government and the Republican Guard. Saleh’s group wants more involvement of the US in Yemen, even militarily.
Why are the Yemeni people not worried about al-Qaeda? They are not even concerned about them because they know that the majority are not with al-Qaeda. The majority are democratic, desirous of an independent government. This al-Qaeda is just camouflage. It is a very small group without any influence. The government propaganda concentrates on al-Qaeda, blaming every attack and act of sabotage on it. The purpose of this is to frighten the people with the al-Qaeda bogey, that al-Qaeda will come to power and leave everybody in miserable conditions. But the Yemenis know what is going on. They know very well this is just fake propaganda from the government side.
Even the army is not worried. This all goes to show that al-Qaeda is an insignificant force. It is true there are some Islamic groups. However, the whole ‘rationale’ of the ‘war on terrorism’ is to use it as a cover for subjugation of the popular masses. This has been in force since 11 September events. The media in the imperialist countries also concentrate far too much on this very insignificant force. When millions upon millions of Yemenis are demonstrating, imperialist propaganda ignores them and instead focuses on al-Qaeda. I think it is necessary to concentrate on the main forces, and the main forces in that country are the popular forces. The war against al-Qaeda is the war against the Yemeni people.
In fact what ignited this revolt against Saleh was the many years of this so-called ‘war on terror’. It has been a time when anybody could be arrested, anybody could be regulated, anybody could be deported.
So, as you know in Mogadishu, Somalia, the airport and security are now controlled by the CIA and they are bringing Somalis who have been arrested. The Ethiopian intelligence service is involved. At the same time some Yemenis have been picked up from Yemen and taken to Somalia and imprisoned without anybody knowing who they are. Mogadishu has in fact become the CIA’s main prison, the biggest in Africa. But nobody knows, there is no Red Cross, you can be kidnapped from any place and you will be brought there, and you will be tortured and so on. In this way you can see also that this prison can be used against Yemenis, and they are trying their best to break the Yemeni population, but up to now they have been unable to succeed.
A Yemeni sheikh was arrested in the United States and taken to Guantánamo and then died soon after his release. The cumulative effect of all this is that everybody knows that all the noise about al-Qaeda and ‘fighting terrorism’ is just a cover to fight any popular forces whatsoever. So al-Qaeda is really just a slogan. The US is waging a new kind of war in order to intervene against popular movements, training special troops to support their puppets in the government, in the same way as they did in Tunisia and Egypt also. The whole programme of all these puppet regimes was fighting against ‘terrorists’ and ‘al-Qaeda’. By ‘al-Qaeda’ they meant anybody who was opposing the puppet government, anybody who is against external intervention in their own internal affairs and anybody who criticises the government in any way.
Who are the Ahmar family?
The Ahmar family have always been the base of every Yemeni government in the north. It has always been well connected with Saudi Arabia. It is a very big tribe. They are Shias. It is one of the biggest aristocratic families. They are from the Sa’ada area, and the imam who previously ruled Yemen before the revolution was one of them. Originally they were very much opposed to the Republican government and the Republican revolution, but they had become very close to Saleh, especially al-Ahmed, the elder who died, who was the speaker of Parliament and had considerable influence in the government. Saleh too is a Shia. But since the old man died several years back, contradictions between the Ahmars and the Saleh government have sharpened. Conditions in Yemen have deteriorated very fast. For example, if nothing is done about the water supply, then in seven years the capital of the country will be left without water. Instead of using oil money to prop up the Yemeni infrastructure, it has been used to make Saleh and his family some of the richest people in the world. His government is very corrupt, and it has marginalised a lot of people, including the al-Ahmar family, even though they were privileged at one time. No doubt also Saleh wanted to dominate them and put everybody under him, and this is what probably first caused the contradictions to worsen, but once the popular movement started, it included the al-Ahmar tribe itself – a big tribe in Sana’a. If Ahmars had remained in the government it could have caused a lot of trouble for the popular movement. Instead they joined the popular movement, for a lot of reasons – economic, social, antagonism with Saleh, deteriorating situation on the ground. As Yemenis of the modern world, they are no longer like traditional tribal chiefs. They are a big merchant family and cannot but resent it when they see that funds from the National Bank were being given to the clique of Ali Abdullah Saleh; that there is favouritism in trade, discrimination against themselves and a lot of other Yemenis. Hence it is natural that they should side with the popular opposition.
Can you say more about the way in which traditional Yemeni society has changed in recent times?
The Yemenis in the diaspora have played a very important role. There is a large Yemeni diaspora in Indonesia, Malaysia, even in China, and a lot of other places. They are a source of new ideas – at first nationalism, and later on even Marxism-Leninism. Many ideas came in from Indonesia because the Yemeni man born in Indonesia who joined the Communist Party of Indonesia in the 1930s, coming to Yemen in the 1950s and 1960s, brought with him Marxism-Leninism, mainly to the south of the country. Yemenis include a very big merchant body, merchant traders who have migrated all over the world, and this also brought a lot of know-how, intelligence, a diversity of cultures from other places. All these wires are connected and have contributed to this wonderful popular revolt in Yemen.
Moreover, in the rural areas the situation has deteriorated. Remember that most of the population are young people under 30 years old. They can see that there is no hope for Yemen if it continues in this way. Even a university graduate can’t get a job. All the time unemployment is increasing and inflation in the country is very high. The economic situation is deteriorating and a very small parasitic comprador class is doing well. Things have changed very much from the past. Key people maintaining the old regime have died. People’s ability to organise has improved drastically. Yemenis have become sophisticated. Yemeni women have gone to university, and all kinds of social conditions exist in Yemen now that do not sit easily with tribal existence. So the tribal chiefs don’t have the same influence as before. This is why the tribal chiefs join with the young people in the demonstrations. They have no other option.
So the thinking has changed; the economic situation has changed; the social class situation has changed; the political make-up of Yemen has changed. Therefore Yemen should not be considered to be as it was in the past, 40-50 years ago. Yemen has really changed. It has become semi-urbanised. In the countryside you have a new kulak class which has modernised agriculture. There are also certain local industrialists who produce locally. All this combines to ensure that the Yemeni class system that existed before has changed, and this calls for a different type of government. The problem is that Saudi Arabia and the United States want to keep things as they were before. The social and cultural conditions have changed but the imperialists and their Saudi puppets do not like what they see, so they are fighting to suppress change. Even the democracy they are speaking about they don’t want to apply because they know that if there one person one vote in Yemen, no way would the Ali Abdullah Saleh group win. The imperialists are not interested in democracy even of the type they are preaching – bourgeois elections. They see on the ground that the elections themselves will defeat them. What they want is elections that will bring their own people. They want a fake election, a new election subsidised by them and by the same group that has dominated, exploited and created poverty. It is those same people they are subsidising through their Committee of Ambassadors behind the curtain providing money and logistics for elections. They are preparing for a fake election, a subsidised imperialist election to bring their own puppet to power. You can compare that to Hamas. When Hamas won an election, they refused to accept the result. Hamas brought a different kind of people, which is when all the problems started. So this shows the imperialists are not interested in democracy at all. Their elections are only held to keep their puppets in power.
You can compare that to Hamas. When Hamas won an election, the imperialists refused to accept the result. Hamas brought a different kind of people, which is when all the problems started. This shows that the imperialists are not interested in democracy at all. Their elections are only held to put their own puppets in power.
If the imperialists can’t get their puppets elected even through rigged elections in Yemen, what are they doing to impose their domination?
The only answer they have is to create hooligan troops, which they have done in the name of 11 September. Their other tactics is to bring a lot of money and try to buy people. This didn’t succeed. Now they are hoping to use attrition. After several months, they hope people will go back to work and to their families – they have to earn money because they don’t have money. However, the popular forces are organising collectively. Their maturity is surprising. They organise water for the demonstrations. They make provision for the elderly. They make sure that doctors and nurses are available. The Americans were surprised. I don’t think that the million-man march of Afro-Americans living in the United States was as organised as the Yemeni demonstrations are. Teachers are there – women, grandmothers, children from the kindergarten were in the front line. There was water for them, drinks for them. There were special security arrangements to ensure that no infiltrator could disturb the people or explode a bomb, kill people or create antagonism among the population. All this was checked. And the Yemenis also learned from the Egyptians. They were able to improve their actions from day to day.
So there is little that imperialism can do. Even the majority of the Yemeni army is on the side of the people. As the army will not attack the people, the state cannot attack the people. The only force Saleh has is the Republican Guard led by his children. These are the ones who are now supported and subsidised by the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Their other tactic is money. When people need money to buy food, the imperialists probably hoped to be able to buy them easily. But they didn’t succeed in that. They say that in Yemen $2 billion has been circulating to buy people. But they didn’t succeed.
Who blew up the pipeline and why?
The pipeline is the means through which the Saleh government gets money. Something similar happened in Egypt. They didn’t destroy the main thing, just the pipeline, because the benefit of the oil over the last 20 years has only gone to Saleh and his family. He is one of the richest men in the world – he and his family. And they were keeping the oil revenue in the name of fighting terrorism.
What is your prognostication for this Yemeni revolution?
In spite of the fact that the United States has a military base in Yemen from which they have been kidnapping and arresting people, including Somalis, their terror tactics have not succeeded in changing the mood of the population. Even with their tactic of killing people they have not succeeded. The morale of the Yemeni people is very high.
The Yemenis were formerly two and they became one. The north and southern Yemenis are the same people. The imperialists and the Saudis may be trying to frighten the people, but Yemenis are Yemenis and they have a very ancient civilisation. It was the most civilised part of Arabia, among the first cultivators of land. As for the architecture, the Yemenis have some of the best architecture in the world in several of their cities. They are highly civilised people; they are not the ragtag nomads of Saudi Arabia. The oldest civilisation in the region is that of Yemen.
The other important point is that the Yemeni community in Indonesia, Malaysia, the United States and all over the world has been mobilised and is sending money to support the popular movement, for example to help them in finding water and food. The Yemeni people are participating in the demonstrations because they are finding life very difficult, with inflation increasing, salaries being delayed. Yemenis everywhere, including Saudi Arabia, send money to support the revolt. This is a renaissance of Yemen. This revolt is not confined to one class or to one segment of society – it encompasses all segments of society who are against this minority group. That makes it difficult for the imperialists to break it.
The second thing is that Yemenis are a modern people. There is no longer discrimination against women. The Yemeni women did not participate in the revolution previously, but now the women – the mothers and the sisters – participate fully and have become the backbone of this popular revolt. So at home the discussion that every Yemeni has is for overthrowing this government and bringing democracy. Mothers are no longer afraid that their children go to demonstrations, and they have no regrets for all those who died, the martyrs who died for the right cause. Because the Yemeni women’s consciousness has reached such a level that they refuse to be as they were before. This is what frightens the daylights out of the imperialists.
In terms of consciousness, strange to say, Yemen compares favourably with such an important imperialist country as Belgium, which is currently being torn apart by a language divide. The Belgian imperialist state is an apartheid state, and one of the difficulties for the revolution is how to unite its people. Belgians could usefully learn from the experience of Yemen.
In the past the Saleh regime’s foundations had different layers of support. But now all those layers have collapsed and only his children are left, and they are much hated. Now his only forces are his militia, that is to say the special forces the United States pays for in the name of fighting terrorism. These forces, by arbitrarily killing people, are actually undermining the regime. The US so-called Special Forces are very ignorant people who actually cause harm to US interests. They shoot and arouse people’s awareness because they misbehave, they kill, and so on. This has been making people very angry for a very long time. McNamara himself in his book In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, says that the diplomats and CIA agents in the embassies just wake up at 7, jog around, have breakfast, etc., and have no connection with the people. He says the US had 80,000 troops in Vietnam in 1965 while he, as Defence Minister, was regularly receiving from them positive assessments of the situation. He had a meeting with CIA operatives in Honolulu secretly to discuss the conditions of southern Vietnam. They told him that everything was OK, that the Vietcong would be finished soon, that they were in the minority. Moreover, they could tell him everything there is to know about the types of birds and snakes they have in Vietnam. But 10 days later on his return to his office he received from the very same people a telegram telling him that in South Vietnam the US army was in danger. The US expatriates who live outside the US – the colonels, the generals and so on – enjoy diplomatic immunity and a better salary. They have special entertainment money, they have girls, they have private planes. Therefore, none of them wants to go back to the US to earn ordinary money. They want to remain outside. They are draining the taxpayers’ money and, because they want to continue in that life and be in a position to send their daughters to Harvard, etc., they exaggerate their reports. They need to exaggerate the situation in order to get money, like the NGOs do. They are a parasite class. They are lazy, they don’t work, and they misbehave. That is why there is a popular rejection of them in Okinawa, Japan. The population is up in arms because they don’t want American troops to be stationed there. McNamara in his book really explains very clearly the nature of the CIA, of American diplomats: they are just a bunch of lumpens in diplomatic dress, drunken alcoholics who just write about their own jobs. In his book about American militarism he refers to them as an apartheid class. That is why he was demanding that all American bases should be closed. The US is spending money for nothing.
The US imperialist ‘war on terror’ is fake. It was one of the reasons behind the popular revolt in Egypt. Because of it, the Special Guard was created, and they were able to do whatever they liked. The whole state machinery is concentrated on one thing: fighting terrorism. You are a businessman. They don’t like you: you are a terrorist. So they confiscate your wealth. Anybody they don’t like is considered a terrorist. This is a new game they have brought. That is why everywhere they are losing. Time will tell but I don’t think the Yemeni revolt will decline; it will only increase more and more.
The imperialists are involved everywhere. In Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain there is a resurgence of the popular movement. In Bahrain it is a majority of the population who are in revolt, so now they are bringing in Sunnis from Pakistan and giving them contraband citizenship to try to change the demographic situation on the ground.
None of this works. They are on the losing side. The consciousness of the people is becoming very high.