Middle East

Fears Of Civil War Escalate In Yemen

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Experts believe Yemen is on the brink of civil war. For the past week, the country has been rocked by violence. Security forces have clashed with tribes demanding that the president step down. Shatha al-Harazi of The Yemen Times discusses the latest news from the capital Sanaa. Washington Bureau Chief for Al Jazeera International Abderrahim Foukara explains the implications of a civil war for Yemen, the U.S., and the Yemeni arm of Al-Qaeda.

MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

So, you're at the checkout line at the store, and instead of pulling out some cash or your debit card, you simply tap your smartphone to a small machine and you're done. You just paid your bill. Now, you can already do that at your favorite coffee place and a few other stores, but is it safe for all of your shopping and, in fact, is it a good idea for your budget? Our Money Coach Alvin Hall is back with us to help weigh the pros and cons of spending by smartphone. That conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, we're going to talk about Yemen. That country on the Arabian Peninsula has not been so much in the news of late because of so many momentous events in Pakistan, in Egypt and Syria. But it still demands the attention of the world and policymakers. You might remember that analysts have long been concerned about Yemen as a base for al-Qaida and as a training ground for some of the people involved in terrorist incidents like the attempted Christmas Day bombing, as well as the explosives found last year in packages headed to the U.S.

U.S. officials had continued to back Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in part because he argued that he was the best man to fight terrorism - that is, until very recently. Just last night, the growing protest movement in Yemen, part of the so-called Arab Spring, was met by heavy government force. Dozens were reportedly killed. Opposition tribes in Yemen are now insisting that the president step down, and tribesmen are battling for control of the government's interior ministry and a state-run television station.

We wanted to know more about what's happening on the ground and how this fits into the larger of what's going on in the Arab Muslim world, so we've called upon Shatha al-Harazi of The Yemen Times. She's been covering the uprisings from the capital, Sanaa. She's with us from there now. Welcome, Shatha. Thanks so much for joining us.

SHATHA AL-HARAZI: Yes. Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: Also with us, one of our regular guests, Abderrahim Foukara. He's the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera International. He's with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome back. Thank you so much for joining us again.

ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA: Good to be with you.

MARTIN: Shatha, let me just start with you. Just give us a sense of the atmosphere there right now.

AL-HARAZI: Well, the atmosphere now, we can see the smoke from Hababa, where the tribesmen are fighting the state. The shelling sounds and the explosion sounds, as well, it's continually heard all the day. Now it has stopped. The last one we heard was, like, 30 minutes ago.

MARTIN: And how is the situation there being reported by you, for example? Is it being viewed and reported as a civil war? Tell me, how is it being viewed?

AL-HARAZI: It's seen as a threat of civil war, but not yet as a civil war. None of the parties said it's a civil war yet. The tribesmen are trying to (unintelligible) the people down, saying it's still personal between Hashid concentration tribes and between the state. And it's not a civil war. They want the peaceful protest to continue the way it is. At least that's what they're declaring. So they're trying to show the world that Yemeni people, the tribesmen and so - are peaceful until the end, and it's their own war now.

MARTIN: Do you have a sense of who has the claim on popular support at this moment?

AL-HARAZI: I think the popular support are with the revolution more. But people are scared for their lives. They're running away, and some people are saying it was a mistake to start the revolution from the beginning. Those who go out to the street protesting have not changed their mind yet. But those - I mean, the families who are still at home and have been silenced all the time, they said even those who are supporting Saleh, they said we supported him, but it's not a good way to reward us by killing us for your own ego.

MARTIN: Abderrahim, how is the conflict being viewed in the region?

FOUKARA: Well, I mean, it's certainly raising a lot of concern. Remember that when Tunisia and Egypt happened, they happened rather quickly. And there was a lot of hope that others would follow suit at the same pace. And obviously, Yemen is one of those cases like Libya and Syria that have proven that it's rather a difficult and long process getting rid of leadership like that.

What has been extraordinary about Yemen, Yemen is a country that has always been awash in weapons. And what's extraordinary is that the protesters have, for several months, put away their weapons in order to protest peacefully. And the fear was that Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president, was trying everything he could to actually drag them into picking up their weapons and fighting.

It seems that - at least so far - he seems to have succeeded in getting some of them to do that. It's obviously now a question of the neighbors. Saudi Arabia, for example, has always supported him. But if they feel that there's chaos and anarchy right next door, that is serious cause for them and they may obviously need to reconsider their position on Ali Abdullah Saleh support.

MARTIN: And Abderrahim, as you know, President Obama has recently stated a number of times that it is time for Yemen's president to step down. I'm interested in how President Obama's stance here is being viewed regionally. And as you know, of course, he's been criticized by some quarters in the United States for not taking an aggressive enough stance in support of pro-democracy protesters, you know, throughout the region. And in this case, he has taken a very strong stand, despite the fact that President Saleh has been seen as - nominally, at least - an ally.

FOUKARA: Sure. I mean, President Obama has obviously a lot of critics in that part of the world. And a lot of people who want to criticize him will say that the position that he has taken on Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, actually falls into the same pattern of not taking a very strong and clear stand with these leaders, saying you have to step down, not only to be heard as saying it, but actually be seen as doing something to get Ali Abdullah Saleh or others out of power.

People who have that position, they'll point to Tunisia. They'll point to Egypt. They'll point to others and say there's a regular pattern, here, by the Obama administration. What he's actually doing behind the scenes that we don't know may be a different story. But so far it, seems that Ali Abdullah Saleh, that is one of the lifelines he has, U.S. support.

MARTIN: You're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

We're talking about Yemen. I'm joined by Shatha al-Harazi of The Yemen Times, and Abderrahim Foukara of Al Jazeera International.

Shatha, what is the response there to President Obama's call for the president to step down? Is that a welcomed sign? Or do people feel that they would like to see more from the United States? And if so, what?

AL-HARAZI: Well, actually, the people have said clearly they want to see more. They're comparing the response of - that Obama's responsible for what's happening in Syria and Libya, for example, and with Yemen. They're saying because Yemen is a poor country, they don't have an oil that attracts Obama, then that's why they don't care about people getting killed in Yemen. They feel like they are seen and heard by the world, but still, they need to see more.

MARTIN: What would they like to see?

AL-HARAZI: They want a firm position from Obama to Ali Abdullah Saleh. They know that Ali Abdullah Saleh would never dare to stand in front of the U.S. orders, and that he's using al-Qaida for now - for example, to show the world that if not for him, then al-Qaida will take over Yemen and it will be a big threat for the world. That's why all the al-Qaida (unintelligible), for example. They want him to stop any aid coming to Yemen until Ali Abdullah Saleh steps down.

MARTIN: Shatha, can I just ask you briefly, though: Is the country functioning, particularly, is the capital functioning in any way? Are children going to school? Are shops open?

AL-HARAZI: No. Actually, it was, like, two weeks ago before the tribes' war started - and the state, or let's say vice-versa. But now, because all the ministries, actually, most of the ministries, like, 10 ministries buildings are in the area of the warfare. So everything stopped. Everything is double prices. It's more than double prices. Like, the water now, there is shortage of water, the people are - they're buying a truck of water that used to be for 1,300 Yemeni Riyal. Now it's for 7,000 Yemeni Riyal, or even 10,000.

There's no gas. There's a shortage of gas, of course. And the power is off more than it's on. Since Easter, the power is OK. We're getting it fine hours. But before that, we used to have it for two hours since the last month.

MARTIN: Abderrahim, is there any - are there any diplomatic efforts going on to try to resolve this crisis that you know of?

FOUKARA: Well, the Gulf Cooperation Council has had several initiatives to try and resolve this situation peacefully. And there have been accusations to Ali Abdullah Saleh that's he's - each time, there was such an initiative, he found a way to actually wiggle out of finding it. And I think the last one was just less than 48 hours ago. And I think the Gulf Cooperation Council, the feeling now is that they've actually given up on trying to solve it.

There are also tribes and members of the opposition who have actually told the Gulf Cooperation Council stop trying. This is not going to work. I have to say one more thing, if I may, Michel, I mean, in the case of Libya, for example, we know that the United States and other Western powers have told Gadhafi, this is what we want you to do. And, sure, international pressure is very important.

But the fact that international powers do tell a leader like Ali Abdullah Saleh that he should quit does not necessarily mean that he's going to quit. Ali Abdullah Saleh is a very shrewd and cunning political operator. And he still has some support. Remember that in Tunisia and Egypt, the army was crucial in ejecting Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali - the former president - and Hosni Mubarak in both countries.

Ali Abdullah Saleh still enjoys the support of the army, although parts of the army have actually splintered and joined the opposition. So he's not entirely hopeless yet - or at least that's how he feels.

MARTIN: Abderrahim Foukara is the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera International. He was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios, as he does from time to time, to keep us abreast on events in the region. Abderrahim, thank you.

FOUKARA: Great to be with you again.

MARTIN: Shatha al-Harazi is a political reporter for The Yemen Times and she was kind enough to join us by phone from Sanaa. Shatha, thank you so much for joining us, and do take care.

AL-HARAZI: Thank you very much.

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