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Upheaval, Uncertainty in Yemen as Saleh Weighs Exit

April 25, 2011 at 5:28 PM EDT
Two months of uprisings against the 33-year reign of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh have left at least 140 people dead. Margaret Warner discusses the political upheaval and what's next for Yemenis with Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Barbara Bodine, former U.S. ambassador to Yemen.
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MARGARET WARNER: And by late today, two more protesters were confirmed dead, bringing the death toll to more than 140 in the last two months.

For more on the upheaval and uncertainty in Yemen, we turn to Christopher Boucek, an associate in the Middle East Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He travels frequently to Yemen. And Barbara Bodine, U.S. ambassador to Yemen from 1997 through 2001, she’s now a lecturer and diplomat-in-residence at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School.

Welcome to you both.

BARBARA BODINE, Former U.S. Ambassador to Yemen: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Bodine, so what is going on in Yemen? Is President Saleh on his way out in the short term, or isn’t he?

BARBARA BODINE: I think he is.

He has fully accepted the GCC proposal. We know, as you had in your setup, the JMP, the opposition, has accepted it. And the United States has endorsed it. So, I would even say that his remarks demanding that, you know, he would turn over power by election and referendum was actually a reference to the GCC proposal, which has a number of steps, political process steps. So, yes, we are very much now at the — the endgame.

MARGARET WARNER: Is that how you see it, Chris Boucek? This is the endgame?

CHRISTOPHER BOUCEK, Middle East Program Associate, Carnegie Endowment For International Peace: I think eventually.

MARGARET WARNER: A short one, though?

CHRISTOPHER BOUCEK: I think this process can go on for some time, but, eventually, there will be a negotiated settlement between the regime and the opposition, and President Saleh will leave. He can’t stay in power.

MARGARET WARNER: But, I mean, what happened this weekend? What — how do you interpret that, this sort of back and forth? He gives — he gives a statement saying he has accepted the proposal. Then he gives this interview to the BBC.

CHRISTOPHER BOUCEK: I think oftentimes in Yemen, people say things in public which is different than what they say in private.

And I think that this is all about maximizing one’s position ahead of the eventual negotiated settlement. I think that’s what we’re seeing.

MARGARET WARNER: But — so, just to — let me follow up with Chris for a minute.

So, you don’t think that this is the final negotiated settlement, this proposal that the GCC brought and supposedly has been signed off on?

CHRISTOPHER BOUCEK: I think this very likely will be what it will look like. I think the timing has yet to be determined. I don’t think the president has exactly endorsed and signed on and said the clock starts today, that I will resign in 30 days. I don’t think he’s gone that far yet. I think that can drag on for some time. But he will leave.

MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Bodine, explain, why is the immunity from prosecution for him and his relatives so important to him?

BARBARA BODINE: Well, I think there’s two reasons.

One is, exactly what crimes he was going to be prosecuted for were never spelled out. It was — it was awfully open and terribly vague. And I think that that was obviously a concern. I think the salience of that provision became far more real when former President Mubarak and his two sons were hauled into jail in Cairo recently.

So, what had been just a negotiating point before, I think, became a very real point. I haven’t really heard a list of particulars against him, except the usual charges of corruption and, of course, investigations into who was responsible for particularly that Friday massacre. But, yes, it’s very important to him.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Chris Boucek, tell us about this opposition. Who are these opposition parties? What kind of parties are they? And then is there a split between them and the student movement leaders?

CHRISTOPHER BOUCEK: Sure.

I think when we talk about the opposition, it’s not a unified bloc. There’s the official opposition, the Joint Meeting Parties, the JMP, which includes the big major opposition parties, like the Islamists, the Islah Party, the Socialist Party, et cetera.

And then there are protesters we see out on the streets, oftentimes referred to as youth protesters. However, I think the youth protesters are probably a small subset of the overall protesters that we see in the streets. There are many more people out protesting, if they’re tribesmen or — or others.

And in whatever settlement it is that brings this drama to a conclusion, most likely, it will be the youth, that segment of the protesters that will lose out.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree with that, Barbara Bodine, that — that the youth protesters in this case unlike, say, in Egypt, where they were really driving it, that they’re following along, following behind the organized parties?

BARBARA BODINE: Well, I would say that they’re more operating in parallel.

And one of the reasons that this drama, as Chris described it, has dragged on is that previous attempts at agreement have been sundered by the protesters who have a much more hard-line set of demands. And I think what’s happened this weekend is that the GCC, the establishment opposition and the government have reached an accord. And the students and some of their more extreme demands probably are going to get left by the wayside. I agree with that.

MARGARET WARNER: But — but, Chris Boucek, can the opposition, by saying we have got a deal, will these — will these protesters go home?

CHRISTOPHER BOUCEK: I don’t think they’re going to go home, but they don’t represent a major constituency. They don’t have anyone behind them.

Once the official opposition, the Islamists, tribes, the military, all of those other constituencies are satisfied, the students don’t have anyone else to pull on. And since they represent a smaller segment of the overall protest movement, they will be easily contained by any — any government that comes into power next.

MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Bodine, explain the U.S. role here. Now, the U.S. — the administration started out by saying that — encouraging President Saleh to make the reforms himself. And then, at one point — I think maybe it was three weeks in — it was pretty clear that the U.S. was working behind the scenes with the Saudis to ease him out. What happened?

BARBARA BODINE: Well, I think that we have been engaged in conversations with not just both sides, maybe all sides, since the beginning.

And I think, when we realized, when the government realized — I’m not a part of it anymore — when the U.S. government realized that the small reforms were not going to satisfy, and, in a sense, Saleh had lost the mandate of heaven, that the best thing that we could do was to work with all the parties, including the Saudis, and the other members of the GCC — it’s not just the Saudis — on coming up with an orderly transition that didn’t leave Yemen in political paralysis and a security vacuum.

I think that was our major concern, was how to get this process and how to get this — a government going again.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Chris Boucek, this brings us back to al-Qaida.

We heard President Saleh warn, darkly, that al-Qaida is now active in the opposition groups. Are they mucking around in this politically?

CHRISTOPHER BOUCEK: I don’t think what — what we see in Yemen is not driven by al-Qaida or AQAP. They’re not part of…

MARGARET WARNER: Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the franchise there.

CHRISTOPHER BOUCEK: Exactly.

I think what we do see, though, is that the more that the Yemeni government is preoccupied with staying in power or managing this current challenge, they’re not focused on fighting terrorism or dealing with al-Qaida. We see increased desertions and defections from the military.

And we see those undergoverned spaces getting bigger, where al-Qaida has greater room to maneuver, because this is not a priority for the Yemeni, if they’re focused on staying in power.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Ambassador Bodine, do you agree the group that sent us the Christmas Day bomber has more freedom to operate now, at the very least?

BARBARA BODINE: Yes. Yes.

I mean, what — what’s been created is just a larger vacuum. The security forces are distracted by these demonstrations and their own internal divisions. And the government is. And so this is — this has just taken the pressure off of AQAP. And that is obviously a worry to us, the Saudis, and to a host of others, and I think number of people in Yemen as well.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Chris Boucek, we’re getting into dangerous territory here, namely speculation. But do you think that whatever coalition takes over from Saleh, whatever unfolds, that they will be more or less committed to fighting AQAP?

CHRISTOPHER BOUCEK: Well, I think, ultimately, terrorism or al-Qaida is not Yemen’s biggest problem. It’s not this government’s problem and it won’t be the government’s next biggest problem. The biggest problem will be dealing with a failing economy. And that will be a huge — a huge dilemma which this next government will have to deal with. And it will far eclipse al-Qaida.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Chris Boucek and Barbara Bodine, thank you both.

BARBARA BODINE: Thank you.