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Dignity, Justice Among Goals of Yemeni Protesters Seeking President’s Ouster

March 24, 2011 at 6:28 PM EST
Judy Woodruff talks to Nadia Abdulaziz Al-Sakkaf, editor and publisher of the Yemen Times, about the ongoing protests calling for the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on what happens next in Yemen, we turn to Nadia al-Sakkaf. She’s the editor and publisher of The Yemen Times. She has been in Washington for a conference of the International Women’s Media Foundation.

Nadia al-Sakkaf, thank you very much for being with us.

NADIA ABDULAZIZ AL-SAKKAF, The Yemen Times: Thanks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Since you left your country, have you been in touch with colleagues, with family? What do they say is the situation right now?

NADIA ABDULAZIZ AL-SAKKAF: Well, today, there’s a standoff, if you like, between the government-affiliated authorities and army and the protesters and whoever is backing them up, especially Ali Mohsen Ahmar, because he has the power. We are…

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is the general who defected.

NADIA ABDULAZIZ AL-SAKKAF: Yes. Yes.

And we are waiting to see what happens tomorrow, because on Friday is an anniversary, a one-week anniversary after what — the bloodshed that took place last Friday.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How significant was that defection by Gen. Mohsen?

NADIA ABDULAZIZ AL-SAKKAF: Well, that is the point, that is the turning point for Yemen. And it turns the power balance. And now Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president, realizes that he’s — he’s in trouble.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But why so significant? I mean, he was — there are a number of generals. What is it about him in particular?

NADIA ABDULAZIZ AL-SAKKAF: Well, he’s the second in command military-wise, after the president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, so, today, the protests have gone on. President Saleh has moved up the time when he said he will leave. He said: I’ll be out of there, out of office, by the end of the year.

But the protesters are saying that’s not soon enough.

Why not?

NADIA ABDULAZIZ AL-SAKKAF: Because Saleh has done this three times before in his history. And through his 32 years of rule of Yemen, he has said three times that he’s not going to run again, and he has.

So, the problem is credibility. People want now, because they’re afraid if they wait until the end of the year, that things will change.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tell us, Nadia, about the opposition, the protest. Who is participating? We have read that it was a woman who was fundamental in getting this started.

NADIA ABDULAZIZ AL-SAKKAF: Yemen today is in a very unique situation. The process was started by a woman and a number of women. And, alongside with men, they managed to lobby the students in the streets.

And the women are also part of the support group of these protesters. They bring them food and blankets. And they — I have seen a woman throwing hot water on soldiers when they were trying to attack the protesters from her window.

So, we need not forget the role of women in this magnificent time of Yemen. The protesters are also made up of the opposition parties. So, you have the political entity of Yemen, you have the youth entity, and you have the social — the society, if you like.

And I have seen families in the protests, like the father, the mother and the children, all wearing the flags and chanting for a new Yemen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so what is it that the protesters want? What kind of country do they want?

NADIA ABDULAZIZ AL-SAKKAF: They want dignity. The Yemenis want a life where they don’t have to think twice about their future. They want a life where they feel equal, equal in front of the law, equal opportunities for all of them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What kind of political system?

NADIA ABDULAZIZ AL-SAKKAF: Democracy, definitely. Yemenis want a democracy. And Yemenis want fairness, justice. And they don’t want to be treated differently if you’re — whatever you are, north or south or you’re from this family or this tribe.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, when we hear U.S. officials and others say they’re worried that, if President Saleh leaves, there would be a power vacuum, they don’t know what it would mean, that it might hurt the U.S. in the fight against al-Qaida, what’s your sense of what the Yemeni people believe about all that?

NADIA ABDULAZIZ AL-SAKKAF: First of all, it’s not justified that Saleh is the only thing standing between al-Qaida and the rest of the world.

How do you know that the next president or the next presidential council is not going to be an ally against terrorism? For all you know, it could be a better — because terrorism is not just about jihadis. Terrorism is, what are the reasons that make people want to be terrorists and kill other people?

It’s poverty. It’s unemployment. It’s hardship. And if we tackle hardships and if we tackle the roots behind something like this, we make sure that the world is a safer place.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how do Yemenis view the U.S., in effect, defending President Saleh and saying they’re worried about what would happen if he goes?

NADIA ABDULAZIZ AL-SAKKAF: Yemenis are kind of — I don’t know if I can speak for the whole of Yemenis, but we understand that the U.S. is backing Saleh. We know for sure that they’re taking a standpoint with him.

In fact, during the protests, a lot of Yemenis had the arms of — “Made in USA.” They showed it to the camera and they’re saying, look, U.S. is backing Saleh against us, U.S. is killing us.

So, the U.S. needs to come out visibly and say: This is our position. They haven’t done that. What they’re saying is that: We support dialogue and a peaceful transition. And, at the same, time they condemn the attacks against the protesters. More than 52 people were killed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which is what happened last week.

NADIA ABDULAZIZ AL-SAKKAF: Last…

JUDY WOODRUFF: And then you have had a rapid change in events since then.

Nadia, you were telling me a moment ago that you and others have concerns about what happened, that you were saying that many people believe President Saleh will end up going, sooner rather than later, but you’re worried about what happens in the new — the new political system after that.

NADIA ABDULAZIZ AL-SAKKAF: The world is concerned about the transition phase. The world is concerned about how the transition — what is coming after Saleh, who is coming after Saleh, how he is relinquishing power.

That, in my opinion, is not the problem. The problem is, after that, what happens? We are going to face the legacy which Saleh has left us behind. He is going to leave us with no money. And there will be dwindling oil resources. There will be resentment among the youth. The common enemy that united them will be gone.

And so they will turn around them and see that there’s nothing left to fight for. And they — the jobs that they wanted, they are not going to be created overnight. So, we’re going to be facing a lot of disappointed youth waiting for opportunities to happen. And nobody has reacted to this beforehand.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re saying that, for you, for someone who has seen this kind — seen all this change in your country, that is your greatest concern?

NADIA ABDULAZIZ AL-SAKKAF: We need to see this coming. We need to anticipate it and create mechanisms to absorb the anger and resentments among the youth. That will — that’s going to happen.

That’s why we need to support civil society. We need to support media. We need to create systems to give youth a cause to make — to give them ownership and get them involved in building their country again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nadia al-Sakkaf, editor in chief of The Yemen Times, thank you very much for coming by to talk with us.

NADIA ABDULAZIZ AL-SAKKAF: Thank you.