Thursday,23 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1309, (25 - 31 August 2016)
Thursday,23 November, 2017
Issue 1309, (25 - 31 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Battle of political projects

Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly’s Ahmed Eleiba in interview, Yemen’s Prime Minister Ahmed Obeid bin Daghr comments on conditions in a country facing multiple challenges to unity

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Current developments in the Yemeni conflict have not deviated much from the origins of the crisis, which is rooted in the particular composition of the conflicting parties. On one side we find the project of the tribe-based state that elevated former president Ali Abdullah Saleh to “leader” after he stepped down in 2011. This is currently allied with the sectarian state project, championed by the Imam Al-Houthi from Saada and which believes that the glories of the ancient Zaidi kingdom can be revived. On the other side stands the project of the republican state that was established in the 1960s and that is currently embodied by the government in exile of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi in Riyadh. There are other local projects that hang in the balance between these two sides. One holds that between the sectarian/tribal conflict and the collapse of the republican model there is little point in the continued unity of Yemen. Another is connected with the spread of jihadist movements. Al-Qaeda has attempted to carve out a presence for itself in the midst of the warfare, as has Daesh (the Islamic State group) in other parts of the country.

To the already complex weave of such vying projects Yemeni Prime Minister Ahmed Obeid bin Daghr adds the further complicating regional factor. In an exclusive interview with Al-Ahram Weekly during his visit to Cairo last week, bin Daghr said: “The state of Yemen is no different from the state of the Arab world. Who is determining the fate of Libya, now, or Syria or Iraq? The fates of all these countries, most regretfully, are being determined in other areas and by other international or regional players. Yemen is no different at all from those countries in this respect. There is a state of disequilibrium in the Arab world. You could say a state of collapse.”

The Yemeni prime minister believes that Iran is supporting the Houthis “who are trying to revive the Zaidi imamate that ruled for a 1,000 years” until the founding of the republic in the 1960s. Their “new Zaidi imamate is an old project that collapsed in Yemen and that is trying to re-emerge. This is what is happening in Yemen today,” bin Daghr said. “They are trying to destroy the republic in order to fulfil their old ambitions. This is what Iran is fuelling. Iran has stuck its nose into the affairs of the Arab nation to a degree that constitutes a danger not just for the security of Yemen but for the entire region, for Arab security as a whole.”

In his opinion, Iran is “settling scores with all the Arabs”. “But it is beginning with those closest to it. It found the circumstances in Yemen right, so it meddled. It found the circumstances in Iraq better, so it stuck its nose in there too. This is why Iraq is falling apart today; because of Iranian meddling. In any case, wherever you see sectarian or regional conflicts, look and you’ll find Iran there. Still, we have a degree of responsibility to bear here. We must protect ourselves by ourselves. We must protect our security and out stability.”

Ali Abdullah Saleh’s tribe-based state project is different in nature to the Houthis’ imamate project. The tribe was the kingmaker in the capital. There are nine tribes in the environs of Sanaa that had long asserted considerable power and that still have a portion of that power. However, Saleh decided to use the Houthis to revive his project only for the Houthis to gain the upper hand in that relationship. “Ali Abdullah Saleh is a secondary player in the Yemeni scene now. But he had made it easy for the Houthis and their new imamate to resurface and emerge as a project antithetical to the republican system and unity in the country.”

Last weekend occasioned a mass rally in the Yemeni capital in support of the Supreme Political Council that was recently created to cement the Houthi-Saleh alliance and that is now in the process of forming a government to administer the areas under its control. Prime Minister bin Daghr believes that this development has been exaggerated and he points to developments in the Yemeni parliament and in the General People’s Congress (GPC) party that indicate that these bodies are not unanimously behind him. Bin Daghr revealed that he met a large number of GPC members in Egypt and learned that they are making preparations to convene a parliamentary session outside Sanaa.

Effectively, the prime minister was describing another facet of political division on the fringes of the central battles. Ultimately, it seems that Yemen will once again have a parliament and a tug-of-war between two political parties.

To this notion bin Daghr responded, “I promise you that we will be in Sanaa soon.”

How soon?

“I can’t make a precise estimate. But I promise.”

The conflict and the alliances between certain projects worked to generate the vacuum that facilitated the jihadist spread in Yemen. Such political turmoil creates the perfect incubator for the jihadist project.

Bin Daghr observed: “There has been a coup against legitimacy and now there is an imamate system encroaching on the republic. This is a major issue. Then there is terrorism. Al-Qaeda and Daesh are there. The state and legitimacy are facing two problems at the same time. They are fighting the Houthis with Arab backing and they are fighting terrorism and Al-Qaeda with the backing of the entire international community.”

He added that the international community was more concerned with the fight against jihadist organisations than with the political crisis in Yemen, which the international community regards as a local conflict.

But is the Yemeni government now fighting Al-Qaeda in Abyan and Hadramawt and the Houthi-Saleh alliance in Saada, Sanaa and Taiz at the same time? Is it capable of fighting a war on two fronts?

Bin Daghr’s reply took the form of a question and an answer: “When did those positions fall into Al-Qaeda’s hands? When the balances were skewed. When the Houthis occupied Sanaa and when they attacked other parts of Yemen. The Houthis occupied Abyan and then withdrew, leaving it to Al-Qaeda.” He added: “That is part of the conflict. It is the part that the international community cares more about than the conflict with the Houthis, which they see a local conflict while we see it as a conflict between two projects: one, an old project that is trying to make a comeback in the name of a divinely or historically ordained right to rule Yemen, and another project that longs for freedom and progress and that believes in Arab nationalism and the collective fate of the Arab peoples.”

But how can a Salafi jihadist Sunni project ever converge with a Salafi jihadist Shia project? Surely the gap is too vast between Al-Qaeda and the Houthis?

“They converge in the threat they pose to the state. Their aim is one, which is to destroy the state. The Houthis reject the republic and they certainly do not support the unity of the nation. Unity only was achieved under the republican system; never by any imam who ruled before the establishment of that system. So we are facing, on the one hand, an insurrectionist movement that seeks to destroy the state and the republic and, on the other hand, a brutal and violent terrorist organisation that values nothing and that only knows how to kill. The two converge in a shared aim, which is to destroy the state. Al-Qaeda and Daesh want to establish a presence for themselves and the Houthis was to establish a presence for themselves and their route towards that end is to destroy the state.”

Yemeni unity is also threatened from another direction. The Southern Movement has revived a call for the return to a divided Yemen, as it stood before unity in 1991. On the other hand, there is a camp of opinion that believes that the question of the south is one of political injustice and persecution and should be approached in that manner as opposed to via the notion of secession. Bin Daghr believes that this approach will ultimately prevail and he took the opportunity to stress the importance of what he termed “the modern project for unity” in Yemen.

“The question of unity is a thorny one. It is the experience of an entire people and it covers a long stretch of history in which constitutions and laws were made and other constitutions and laws were abolished. A special case arose in the southern provinces. Some of them reject unity out of hand; others agree to unity, but will not accept injustice. We treated his question from the latter perspective in the National Dialogue Conference. We have a single land and a single people, but southern grievances must be remedied. Many follies have been committed against our people in Aden, Lahij, Abyan, Shabwah, Hadramawt. That has to end.”

He added: “There is a design for a new political system and the hope is to put it into effect in the near future. There will be a new form of government, a new form of unity. There will be a federal republican system which will mean that the centre of political power — Sanaa — will not be the only centre of control. There will be a possibility for a just distribution of wealth and power across all areas of Yemen. We tried as much as possible to establish fixed constitutional and legal rules for this and to broaden the idea of the federal state. At the same time, we worked to safeguard the unity and security of the country.”

So as the situation stands at the moment between Yemen’s vying projects, the modern state project, which now takes the form of a federal state consisting of six regions, has locked horns with the Houthi-Saleh alliance that has recently embodied itself in the Supreme Political Council currently in the process of forming a government. In addition, there is the Southern Movement that is negotiating on a shaky conflict ridden ground and making no progress. As to the final outcome, predictions are all but impossible.

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