Yemen's President Loses Key Military Supporters

The latest Arab leader to face increasing pressure is the president of Yemen. Ali Abullah Saleh has been in power 30 years but he lost some key supporters Monday. Abdul Ghani al-Eryani, a political analyst and researcher in Yemen, talks to Steve Inskeep about protesters' demands.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR news. I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

The latest Arab leader to face increasing pressure is the president of Yemen. Ali Abdullah Saleh has been in power for 32 years but lost some key supporters yesterday. Close to 20 senior military officers defected to the opposition. All this comes after Friday's bloodshed, when government forces shot and killed about 50 protesters.

To learn more, we've called Abdul Ghani al-Eryani, a political analyst and researcher. He's in Yemen's capital, San'a.

Welcome to the program, sir.

Mr. ABDUL GHANI AL-ERYANI (Political Analyst): Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: What's the situation as best you can tell today? Are the streets quiet?

Mr. AL-ERYANI: I just came back from outside and the streets are quiet and life is normal, which suggests that there is no military activity at all.

INSKEEP: No military activity at all. And what about the protesters who were handed such a defeat, if you can call it that, so many of whom were shot on Friday?

Mr. AL-ERYANI: Yes, but they are still there. They are increasing in numbers. And they have just issued a statement that they will remain on the sit-in ground until all the goals of the revolution have been achieved.

INSKEEP: Where are the protesters and what are they doing?

Mr. AL-ERYANI: They are in front of San'a University. And they are close to the military barracks of Ali Mohsen Ahmar, the commander who defected from Saleh. In fact, the protesters who were being attacked by thugs and security forces are now being protected by the units of Commander Mohsen.

INSKEEP: The defense minister, of course, has gone on state television and said, wait a minute, the military is loyal here. But we also have these military officers, including some quite senior ones, who have defected. Which direction is the military leaning, as best as you can tell?

Mr. AL-ERYANI: The minister of defense is a ceremonial position in Yemen, as the military is commanded by family and relatives of the president. And therefore Ali Mohsen, the commander who defected, is much more important than the minister of defense.

INSKEEP: Is he a friend or relative of the president? Or was he?

Mr. AL-ERYANI: He is a distant relative of the president and his (unintelligible) President Saleh came to power.

INSKEEP: What kind of power does the military have in Yemen?

Mr. AL-ERYANI: The military is quite substantial but it has been demoralized by unnecessary war in the north, and deployment for rebellion control in the south. They feel that they have been deployed against their own people and they are demoralized.

INSKEEP: So what are the pillars of President Saleh's power right now? What pillars remain and remain solid, if any?

Mr. AL-ERYANI: He has the Republican Guards and the special forces, commanded by his son and his nephews. But I think that they are crumbling even as we speak.

INSKEEP: The Republican Guards, that's a separate military force that is supposed to be attached directly to the president?

Mr. AL-ERYANI: That's the case.

INSKEEP: And the special forces, of course, more elite military units.

Mr. AL-ERYANI: They are part of the Republican Guards, actually, and they were set up to fight terrorism. But they have been used against the people.

INSKEEP: And as is the case in a number of countries, are these elite units actually more powerful, perhaps more powerful and certainly more powerfully armed than the army itself?

Mr. AL-ERYANI: That was the intention. But now as events unfold we find out that the loyalties of commanders of these units are divided.

INSKEEP: What is the evidence suggesting that?

Mr. AL-ERYANI: A number of ranking officers from the Republican Guards have already defected to Commander Mohsen's side.

INSKEEP: When you talk with people on the streets of Sana'a, do they speak of Presidents Saleh as if he is he's finished, he's gone, he's on his way out for sure?

Mr. AL-ERYANI: I think that the general consensus. It's a matter of time and whether he wants to go out with honor or wants to start a Gadhafi-style confrontation.

INSKEEP: Do you think he has the power to start a Gadhafi-style confrontation?

Mr. AL-ERYANI: Hopefully he will realize that he can't stand against the people and therefore he doesn't really have that power. But miscalculations always happen in situations like this.

INSKEEP: Abdul Ghani al-Eryani is a political analyst and researcher in Yemen.

Thank you very much for your time.

Mr. AL-ERYANI: You're welcome.

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