In Yemen, Will President Saleh Return To Power?
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
Now, an update on Yemen. The poorest of the Arab countries has a population of 24 million. There are persistent anti-government protests there. Activists say at least 30 demonstrators were killed by security forces overnight. Government forces have also launched a drive on a provincial capital, hoping to take it back from Islamist rebels.
Yemen's president of 33 years, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is in Saudi Arabia, having suffered serious burns from an explosion inside his palace. And Saleh is now calling for a peaceful dialogue.
Well, joining us from Cairo is Gregory Johnsen of Princeton University, who is a Yemen scholar. Welcome to the program once again.
GREGORY JOHNSEN: Thanks so much for having me.
SIEGEL: And first, to the extent that someone is ruling Yemen today, who would that be?
JOHNSEN: Well, I think that's exactly the problem. There is no one person that's ruling Yemen. The constitution says that the vice president, an individual named Abd al-Rab Mansur Hadi, should be the individual in charge. But he doesn't control many men with guns. He doesn't have loyalist loyalists within the armed forces. So what we have is a situation where Yemen is broken down into various different groups.
In the north, we have a militia who's really ruling. In the capital, we have the president's sons and nephews and their armed forces who are able to project power. And then in the South, we have Islamic militants such as al-Qaida who are attempting to install and enforce their own rule. So this is a, I think, a real key problem.
SIEGEL: Now recently, the world saw a photograph of President Saleh visibly burned, extremely burned. Is it conceivable to anyone that he actually might return to power?
JOHNSEN: This is what President Saleh and his family is really hoping, that they can drag out this crisis long enough that President Saleh can make some sort of a return and continue as president, or install one of his sons or nephews or someone close to him.
What they'd like to see is the continuation of this family rule. And that's been something of a demonstrators across the country have stood up and said that they are not going to accept it. So we have this very serious breakdown, where we continue to have people being shot in the streets, as they protest against this continued rule.
SIEGEL: Now, earlier this month, John Brennan, the White House counterterror advisor met with President Saleh in Saudi Arabia. Do we know what he told him?
JOHNSEN: We know that the U.S. has been pressuring President Saleh to step down. And the U.S. has gone on the record as saying they would like to see a smooth, peaceful transition of power, so that they can get back to fighting al- Qaida, and making sure that the organization doesn't take advantage of the current chaos that's going on in the country at the moment.
SIEGEL: Yes, one major U.S. interest in Yemen is attacking al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based there. Does that effort continue despite President Saleh's absence? And given the various scenarios, for whom might succeed President Saleh, is it likely that the U.S. effort would or could continue?
JOHNSEN: Absolutely. In fact, what we've seen is that the U.S. has actually ramped up strikes since President Saleh has left the country. We know that last week, on Thursday, the U.S. targeted an individual who's been on the FBI's Most Wanted List for several years. They missed him in this case.
But we know of a number of U.S. air and drone strikes that continue to pound al-Qaida forces, particularly in the southern governments of Abyan, where al- Qaida is involved in a very fierce fight with Yemeni government forces there.
However, I think there's a fundamental flaw in the U.S. strategy. I think the U.S. is sort of almost falling into a trap. And that is that it's attempting to go after al-Qaida with drone and airstrikes with a really militarily heavy response.
But they're ignoring sort of the broader picture. And I think that means that essentially what happens is that the U.S. can kill as many commanders as it wants. But what's happening in Yemen is that these commanders are being replaced very quickly and bringing in more and more recruits.
So I think there's an argument to be made that the increase in U.S. airstrikes actually serves to radicalize more individuals in Yemen, and make al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula stronger.
SIEGEL: Gregory Johnsen, a doctoral candidate at Princeton is a Yemen scholar and blogger. He spoke to us from Cairo.
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