Middle East

Opposition Step Up Pressure On Yemen's President

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While Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi fights a military campaign to oust him, pressure is mounting on Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh to resign. This week the Yemeni leader rejected a proposal by opposition parties that would have required him to leave by the end of the year. Now, as public demonstrations against Saleh's regime continue, Yemen's opposition is calling for an escalation against the president. Al Jazeera International's Washington bureau chief Abderrahim Foukara discusses the latest developments in the Middle East and North Africa.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from News.

Coming up, it is the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day. We'll speak with the first person to serve as ambassador at large for global women's issues, Melanne Verveer. That conversation is just ahead.

But now we turn our attention again to the Middle East and North Africa. While much attention has been focused on Libya in recent days, protest movements continue in countries like Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen. This week, for example, Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, rejected the opposition's demand that he leave by the end of the year.

Now, Yemen's opposition is calling for a, quote, "escalation against the president." Back with us to help us understand what's going on across the region, we're joined in our studios once again by Abdul-Rahim Fuqara. He is the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera International and he's with us again. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. ABDUL-RAHIM FUQARA (Washington Bureau Chief, Al Jazeera): Good to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: So, let's begin with Yemen, where the president has, as we said, rejected the opposition's demand that he leave by the end of the year. Protests are continuing after nearly two months. Could you just tell us a little bit more about the issues there?

Mr. FUQARA: Well, the issues that are mobilizing the Yemenis, many of them are similar to issues mobilizing other peoples in their regions against their own regimes and their own governments - lack of jobs, dire financial and economic situation, in addition to the idea of lack of freedoms.

These seem to be large themes in the Yemeni uprising or revolution, whatever you want to call it. And it's seen ups and downs. There have been times when the Yemeni president seems to have been - with his back to the wall. And there have been other times when he seemed to have a little bit more room to maneuver and wiggle. Right now, he's refusing to step down, saying that he has to wait until 2013 when his mandate is up.

And if I may say just this, Michel, the Libya factor is now part of the dynamics in the region. We saw the quick collapse of the regime in Tunisia. We saw the relatively quick and painless collapse of Mubarak in Egypt. And that led people in the region to believe that it's going to be more or less the same in every other country, except that Gadhafi is digging in and he seems to be giving some ammunition to leaders in other countries, including now in Yemen. And the Yemeni president is probably thinking, if Gadhafi can do it, so can I.

MARTIN: Well, to that point, though, we've been in touch with one of the opposition leaders in Yemen, Tawakol Karman, a young woman, a young mother who has become kind of a visible leader of the opposition. She, like a number of other people, has been in prison, you know, from time to time. But she seems to be speaking fairly openly, seems to be organizing fairly openly. And you look at a situation like that and you think, you know, how is it possible that she's actually organizing in much the same way as, for example, in this country, labor leaders? And yet, in Libya, people are being kind of viciously mowed down by their own governments. Can you just talk about that?

Mr. FUQARA: Well, so, I mean, in the case of Tawakol, just as an anecdote, I was talking to a Yemeni yesterday and he said Yemen has always produced these iconic strong women, Queen of Sheba, for example, in ancient times. Obviously, he was speaking in great hyperbole as far as Tawakol is concerned. But she is certainly a woman of consequence in these protests in Yemen. She's received threats. There were reports that she actually received threats from the president himself.

I think, in many different ways, she just reflects the determination that many other Yemenis, especially young Yemenis are showing in the face of the force of Ali Abdullah Saleh.

MARTIN: But have there been developed opposition movements that are brewing that just we have been unaware of outside of the region? I mean, for example, I think a Yemen, I think, is most familiar to Americans at the moment. It is perceived as a country that has been a host to a variety of movements that are hostile, unfriendly to the United States to perhaps as a training ground for these small cells of terrorist organizations. sort of operating as loose confederates.

And the reason that people feel that is that it has been a hospitable environment is that basically a minimal government. So you're saying alongside that, a well-developed opposition movement has been brewing?

Mr. FUQARA: Well, Yemen is obviously a very complex and complicated political fabric. There has been a vocal opposition for a long, long time in Yemen. There have been organized political parties serving as the opposition. But they've also been, at various times, been able to wheel and deal, if you will, with the regime.

One difference, though, the emergence of young people in Yemen, as we've seen in other countries in the region, have changed the dynamics because while we've been hearing from some tribes and from some formal political parties in Yemen that they want to come to some sort of agreement with Ali Abdullah Saleh to save the country further bloodshed, young people are saying we simply want him to go and we want an end to his regime.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the ongoing uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa with Abdul-Rahim Fuqara, the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera international. He's been with us regularly to talk about developments in the region.

And let's talk about Iraq, if we could. It turns out that there are hundreds of protesters that have been gathering in a northern Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah, and what is that about? I mean, we're used to, for example, demonstrations against the U.S. presence. We're used to, you know, sectarian conflicts, which have been violent. What are these protests about?

Mr. FUQARA: Well, you know, Michel, everyone at some point was saying that because of the recent history of Iraq and because of the emergence of the signs of a democratic system in Iraq in the post 2003, Iraq is not going to see what other countries in the region have seen. And it's just interesting that that prediction has not held. Iraq is being rocked by the same tensions that we have seen in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Yemen, in Bahrain. And that is a cocktail of political, of social and economic grievances together with political grievances.

What we're seeing in Iraq now, we're seeing demonstrations against corruption. We've seen demonstrations against unemployment. But we've also seen strong voices denouncing the political system as it has been set up and they're calling for the prime minister, Nouri Maliki, and his regime, as they call it, to step down.

So, one thing that all these things have in common, including in Iraq, is that they seem to have a life and a mind of their own, these protests here. In the case of Saudi Arabia, for example, everybody was saying the country is so rich, it will not happen. And yet we have been hearing of protests and calls for reform and change in Saudi Arabia as well. Iraq, despite its recent history from 2003, whichever way you interpret it, good or bad, is part of that spirit and that call for change now.

MARTIN: Finally, The Independent is reporting that the Obama administration has asked the Saudi kingdom to supply weapons to the rebel forces in Benghazi, which is where they seem to be taking the strongest stand to try to avoid directly helping the anti-Gadhafi forces. And I wondered if you have any reporting on that point?

Mr. FUQARA: We do not. All we know is...

MARTIN: Which would be very Saudi kingdom, if you think about it, since they're facing, as you just mentioned, their own restive population.

Mr. FUQARA: Absolutely. I mean, the Saudis, they would, in theory, have good reason to supply those weapons to the rebels because there's no love lost between the government of Saudi Arabia and Colonel Gadhafi. Just a little over a year ago, the Saudis officially accused Gadhafi of plotting to assassinate the king of Saudi Arabia.

But on the other hand, I don't think that the Saudis would have a real vested interest in supplying weapons to the rebels in Libya because, as you said, their own situation seems to be a little tenuous in Saudi Arabia. And the last thing they would want to do is to see the regime of Gadhafi fall. Because that would send another positive signal, if you will, to Saudis that if the Libyans can do it to their leader, the Saudis can also do it to their own government.

MARTIN: Abdul-Rahim Fuqara is the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera International and he's a regular contributor to this program. Abdul-Rahim, thank you so much for joining us once again.

Mr. FUQARA: It's great to be with you, Michel.

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