In Yemen, Pressure From Protesters Builds

Yemen's president tells a large crowd of supporters that he will step down — provided that the successor is someone he trusts. Melissa Block talks with the Washington Post's Sudarsan Raghavan about the latest developments in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

From Syria to Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain and even Saudi Arabia, protestors filled the streets today. Demonstrations in Syria spread from the city of Dara to other parts of the country.

BLOCK: And again today in Dara, protestors were shot and killed by security forces. In the capital, Damascus, protestors clashed with government supporters. There were similar clashes in Jordan.

SIEGEL: In Bahrain, security forces used tear gas to suppress protests and in Saudi Arabia, hundreds of Shiites called for political reform and marched in support of the protestors in Bahrain. We'll hear more from Saudi Arabia in a few minutes.

BLOCK: First, though, to Yemen. After weeks of protests and a bloodbath last Friday, in which 52 protestors were killed, today, President Ali Abdullah Saleh said he is prepared to give up power.

President ALI ABDULLAH SALEH (Yemen) (through translator): But only to good capable hands, the hands to be elected by the people.

BLOCK: That English interpretation from Al-Jazeera English. Sudarsan Raghavan of The Washington Post joins us from the capital, Sanaa. And Sudarsan, President Saleh's been in power for 32 years. When he says he's ready to turn the country over to capable hands, do you take him at his word?

Mr. SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN (The Washington Post): Well, it's really hard to say. He's been making quite a number of concessions of the past two months, the most recent one being that he's agreed to step down at the end of this year if there are presidential elections. The opposition political parties, as well as the youth protestors, have basically rejected any such concessions.

And what we heard today, his comments about handing over power as long as he can leave the nation in quote, "safe hands," really echoed remarks by former Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarek, who publically said, you know, around the time when he was also struggling to contain Egypt's rebellion, that he wanted to step down, but he couldn't because he feared Egypt would be gripped by chaos.

So we're seeing something very similar here, many feel. And it really is still a major question mark whether President Saleh is prepared to step down.

BLOCK: And what is the scene at the protest? The main protest is right outside Sunaa University and protestors were calling this a day of departure, referring to President Saleh. What's going on?

Mr. RAGHAVAN: Right. There were tens of thousands of people pretty much from all walks of life, from almost every corner of Yemen. I mean, I remember going there two months ago when there was just a handful of student protestors there, no more than 20 or 30 every day would come out. Today, there are thousands who are spending day and night there.

They've erected tents on all the streets nearby covering every inch. You're seeing quite a number of tribesmen who have come from all around the country and they actually appear to be outnumbering the youth protestors now.

BLOCK: Sudarsan, you've been writing in The Washington Post about a particular concern that the unrest in Yemen can lead to a special instability, in terms of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is very active in Yemen.

Mr. RAGHAVAN: Yes, that's correct. There's certainly a fear amongst U.S. officials and Europeans that if Yemen gets even more unstable, it could provide a stronger haven for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, basically to - I mean, this group does thrive on instability.

Already, what we're seeing now is the Yemen government really focused on trying to deal with its political problems and they've actually put on the back burner, their hunt for Al-Qaeda leaders, including Anwar Al-Awlaki, who's the Yemeni/American cleric who has been implicated in several attempted terrorist attacks against the United States.

But overall, the U.S. certainly is not, seems to be, at least publicly, applying pressure on Saleh to resign. And the fact is, you know, the United States has put, you know, tens of millions of dollars into counterterrorism assistance to Yemen. Certainly Saleh is a key ally and there's certainly concern over what's next.

If Saleh were to step down, who is going to replace him and would that person be a key ally in the war against terrorism as Saleh is to Washington?

BLOCK: Sudarsan Raghavan of The Washington Post, speaking with me from the capital of Yemen, Sanaa. Sudarsan, thanks very much.

Mr. RAGHAVAN: My pleasure.

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