What's Behind The Protests In Yemen Yemeni protesters are calling for the immediate resignation of long-time ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh, an important U.S. ally in the war on terror. Gregory Johnsen, a Fulbright Hayes fellow and Yemen scholar, will explain what's driving the protests and where they might lead.

What's Behind The Protests In Yemen

What's Behind The Protests In Yemen

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Yemeni protesters are calling for the immediate resignation of long-time ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh, an important U.S. ally in the war on terror. Gregory Johnsen, a Fulbright Hayes fellow and Yemen scholar, will explain what's driving the protests and where they might lead.


Another front in the Arab revolution recently erupted in violence. After weeks of peaceful protest in Yemen, government forces have killed more than 50 people in Sana'a, the capital. Demonstrators are demanding the immediate resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

After 32 years in power, he now says he'll leave by year's end, but that's not enough to appease his opponents. President Saleh is a longtime ally of the United States in its war on terror, and Yemen is a key front in that effort. But now Saleh is warning of an expanded civil war.

If you've lived or worked in Yemen, tell us, what do we need to know? If you have questions about what's at stake, call us at 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

With us from Cairo is Gregory Johnsen. He's a Fulbright-Hays fellow and wrote "See Ya, Saleh" in Foreign Policy magazine yesterday. Gregory Johnsen, thank you so much for being here.

Mr. GREGORY JOHNSEN (Fulbright-Hays Fellow): Thanks so much for having me.

LUDDEN: So what is your best guess? Will President Saleh stay in power through the end of the year?

Mr. JOHNSEN: Well, it's looking increasingly unlikely that he can hold on much longer. There's just a critical mass of people who are aligning against him. This past Monday, a key general and someone who's backed him for the past three decades, one of the most powerful generals in the military, a man named Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who's from the president's own tribe, defected from the president and essentially said that he was with the protesters against the president. And after that, the floodgates really opened, and the resignations and defections have been pouring in all week.

LUDDEN: And give us a sense. Who is - I've heard about dozens of military and political defections. Who - who's defecting and how is this playing out?

Mr. JOHNSEN: Well, essentially what you have is this individual, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar. He commands the 1st Armored Division, as well as the Northwest Military Zone. And Yemen as a country is divided up into four military zones. So immediately after his defection on Monday, the commander of the Eastern Military Zone also defected. So within a matter of minutes, the two top generals, who are responsible for the security of half the country, had abandoned the president. And then it was just a series of other individuals who continued to abandon the president throughout the course of the day.

Now what the president appears to be reduced to is relying on his immediate family - that is, his eldest son Ahmed, who commands the Republican Guard and Yemen's Special Forces, as well as a quartet of nephews who command things like the Yemen's equivalent of the Secret Service, central security forces, and so on.

LUDDEN: Can you just give us a sense kind of, of - you know, the atmosphere there? I mean, I've been reading that some of these defections were quite public. Some of them were calling up Al Jazeera television to announce their defection. People were seen throwing their party membership cards in a bonfire, if I understand correctly. What's the atmosphere like, do we know, there?

Mr. JOHNSEN: Right. Well, it really depends. So on Friday, when this unfortunate bloodbath took place, when right afternoon prayers on Friday a number of snipers opened fire and killed about 52 protesters in a matter of minutes, Al Jazeera was covering this very well, as they have most of the revolution throughout the Arab world over the past couple of months, and they showed really horrific images of young men and boys being brought into a mosque that was serving as a makeshift triage center. Most of them had bullets in their heads, above their eyes, or coming out of the back of their skulls. And it was really, really graphic.

And then on Monday, as people sort of had the time to really digest these images, that's when you saw a number of people - it was almost like a line, if you will - that was waiting. Al Jazeera had a number of them on call waiting, I think, who one after another said that they were abandoning the president, that they were either resigning their post or that they were joining in and supporting the protesters.

LUDDEN: And are these people in Yemen? They're not just foreign diplomats around the world? They're people in the country doing this publicly?

Mr. JOHNSEN: Yeah. It's been a great mix. You had diplomats from Moscow to Washington who are resigning, as well as a number of people in the country itself, both politicians who are resigning and army officers who didn't give up their post but announced that they were with the protesters.

LUDDEN: So now since this general that you've mentioned announced that his troops would protect the protesters, have we seen protests continue? Have they increased? What's happening on the streets?

Mr. JOHNSEN: Yeah. Well, what's basically happened is that his troops that are loyal to him, which actually they have a camp very near where the protesters are by the - by Sana'a University in the capital city, they have moved in and taken over security for the protesters, and the troops that are loyal to the president have fallen back.

And so tanks that belong to his eldest son Ahmed now encircle the official residence, the presidential palace. And so over the past several days there's been a very tense stalemate, standoff that's going on between these two opposing sides.

LUDDEN: That does sound pretty volatile.

Mr. JOHNSEN: The potential for violence is there. I think many, many people hope that there can be some sort of a negotiated outcome. And it should also be pointed out that this general who defected is not a hero riding in on a white horse.

He's someone who's been very closely aligned with the regime, and many of the protesters are very suspicious of his motives. So while they'll welcome him at the moment in order to get rid of President Saleh, they're very worried about what could happen in the future.

LUDDEN: We're talking about Yemen and how its protests have erupted in violence, part of the widescale Arab revolution we see. If you've lived or worked in Yemen, let us know your thoughts, 800-989-8255. Or email us at talk@npr.org.

LUDDEN: You write, Gregory Johnsen, that you write and have just told us people are skeptical of this general, high-level general who's defected. What -how do you see his movement? I mean, is this - is he truly now cast his lot against the president?

Mr. JOHNSEN: Yeah. He's clearly come out against the president, but the reasons for him coming out are still a little unclear. There's a lot of rumors and a lot of speculation coming out of Sana'a right now, but no one really knows for sure what's happening.

One of the initial theories was that he had really come out against the president, almost as sort of drawing a line in the sand so he could put the president and the president's five heirs - that is, the president's eldest son and his four nephews - on one side and say those are the people that absolutely have to go, while the rest of the president's tribe, people who are allied to this general, could maintain their very lucrative posts within the military and intelligence command structures. So that's one theory that's out there right now. But this is a general who, throughout his career - and he's well into his late 60s if not early 70s - has really shied away from the limelight. Not a lot of people in Yemen know much about him.

LUDDEN: What about a political opposition in Yemen? What's - does it exist? How strong is it?

Mr. JOHNSEN: It does. There is what's called the joint meeting parties, which is a really - a very eclectic grouping of six political parties, many of them former enemies. So you have Islamists from the Islah Party who are in this coalition. They've allied themselves with socialists, who for a long time in Yemen were their enemies.

And they've done this largely because President Saleh has grown so strong that none of them could, on the political arena anyway, oppose them by their selves. But they've they've really - they're really quite weak. And so throughout January we saw them attempting to get these protests started, and they failed.

It was only when Hosni Mubarak stepped down on February 11th that we saw the student activists come to the forefront, and that's when these protest in Yemen really took off.

LUDDEN: Do we know how much of the country that President Saleh controls?

Mr. JOHNSEN: That's a very good question, Jennifer. There is a lot of the country that he no longer controls. So for instance, in the far north of the country, in the governorates of Saada, where Yemen has been fighting a civil war on and off for the past seven years, he appears to no longer control that.

His governor in one of the remote governorates in Ma'rib was attacked with a knife and stabbed. He's been transported back. It appears that tribes have taken over the security in that governorate, and there are a number of others where the military has either abandoned some of their posts or tribes have stepped into the vacuum and taken over security.

So it's really a very fluid situation. No one knows for sure how much of the country he controls. But clearly it's a decreasing amount daily.

LUDDEN: Hmm. Now, besides the resignation - immediate, I guess, resignation of the president - what else are protesters asking for in Yemen?

Mr. JOHNSEN: Well, they do want to see the removal of his five heirs - of his eldest son, Ahmed, as well as his four nephews. But really they want this whole regime swept aside. And they would like, you know, the same things that America continues to talk about as being traditional values - freedom of speech, democracy (unintelligible) elections, things of that nature.

There are a number of different draft resolutions and different drafts of potential transition governments that are floating around among some of these groups. Many of them are quite articulate and very-well educated and have a good idea for what it is that the future holds.

LUDDEN: Okay. And let's see here. So you do not know - they're not united necessarily. I mean, there's not - you mentioned an opposition group. But are they coordinating together to kind of put their demands forth, or is it not so organized?

Mr. JOHNSEN: Right. Well, what's happened in Yemen is that there's a very fractured - outside of just the political opposition within parliament - it's a very fractured country, so there are, there are many different interest groups. For instance, in the North there's this rebel group, the Houthis, that have been fighting a civil war that I mentioned earlier. In the South there's a number of people who are who've come together and are joined under this broad umbrella group, calling itself the Southern Movement. Many of them are actually arguing for secession.

But what we've seen over the past several weeks is that all of these groups have put aside their own narrow interests in favor of this one demand that the president go, that he step down. And that's been something that's united them throughout these past six, seven weeks of protest.

But the fear that a lot of people have is that once that common enemy of the president is gone, that these temporary marriages, these temporary alliances, won't be able to withstand some of the difficult decisions that have to made in governing a country that has as many different opinions as Yemen does.

LUDDEN: All right. We're talking about Yemen's Arab revolution. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Francesco(ph) is on the line from San Francisco, California. Go right ahead.

FRANCESCO (Caller): Hi. Saudi Arabia is our best friend. And six months ago, when there was a revolt that in Yemen, they sent troops. Now they send troops to other countries. And then they trained the al-Qaida, they sent them to Iraq. What's going on? I just want to know your opinion.

LUDDEN: Right. Saudi Arabia. Good question. Thank you for the call, Francesco. What is Saudi Arabia's position in this, do we know?

Mr. JOHNSEN: Right. That's a very, very good question. Saudi's position on this is far from clear, largely because within the royal family in Saudi Arabia there are a number of different decisions. But essentially the choice that Saudi Arabia has to come - or the question that it's grappling with - is does it want to see chaos and the potential for armed conflict in Yemen, or is it better that another regime within the Middle East might fall?

And they're very concerned about another regime falling for the implications it might have on Bahrain, where as the caller rightly pointed out they've sent troops. So Saudi Arabia is really in a very difficult position. And they're very worried and very anxious about what's happening on their southern border.

It's - the Saudi-Yemen relationship is very similar to U.S.-Mexico. So Saudi Arabia is very, very concerned about problems from Yemen coming across their borders. And that's something that I think is keeping a number of the princes and King Abdullah up late at night.

LUDDEN: Hmm. All right. Let's take another phone call, Alex(ph) in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Hi there.

ALEX (Caller): Hello. I have a question. Considering the fact that all Middle Eastern allies of the United States, except for Israel, are non-democracies -in fact, more specifically, they are led by A) strongmen, totalitarianists or by monarchists, like King Hussein of Jordan, who also had seen a lot of protests taking place behind closed doors - what is the probability that if Yemen falls, which is an American ally supposedly, what is the probability that an anti-American regime will rise up, even a quasi-democratic anti-American regime along the lines of an Islamic republic or potentially Islamic republic regime, either Shiite-led or Sunni-led?

LUDDEN: Okay. Thanks for that call, Alex. Gregory Johnsen?

Mr. JOHNSEN: Right. Alex, I think you ask a really great question. What we've seen in Yemen is, yeah, the U.S. has partnered with President Saleh, but it's never been this close partnership. For much of the 1990s, President Saleh was persona non grata.

The U.S. had very little to do with him because of his support for Saddam Hussein during the First Gulf War. It's only been after September 11th that the U.S. really started to draw close to President Saleh. And even after that, he was an ally that was more frustrating for the U.S. than anything else. They could never quite get him to do what it is that they wanted him to do.

And so I think the real concern or the real frustration that a lot of people in Yemen have right now is that over the past decade the U.S., at least in their view, seems to have placed its momentary security interests above what the U.S. calls its traditional values, and they've made a deal with Saleh.

And now I think that the United States in a post-Saleh Yemen will actually have a very good opportunity, along with the rest of the international community, to reverse that balance and continue to push for what it calls its traditional values.

LUDDEN: But can you explain that - that Yemen has turned out to be quite a key front for the U.S. There's been a lot of some (unintelligible) cooperation with counter-terrorism. I mean we've had drones targeting certain people in Yemen, right?

Mr. JOHNSEN: That's absolutely correct. In the immediate aftermath of September 11th, there was an al-Qaida franchise in Yemen. The U.S. and Yemeni governments did a very good job of destroying that, and in fact by 2003 had beaten it.

It was only in 2006 that al-Qaida really resurrected itself within Yemen. And that's that group that was responsible for the Christmas Day attempted attack on - in 2009 - as well as the more recent parcel bomb plot.

And so certainly there's an al-Qaida presence there, but this is something that has to be dealt with more long term. The U.S. is not going to be able to defeat al-Qaida militarily just by raining missiles down on Yemen. It's something where the U.S. is going to have to take a bit of a broader view and start to see Yemen as more than just a counter-terrorism problem that has to be solved, because it needs to convince that people within Yemen that it's not al-Qaida versus the United States, but it's al-Qaida versus Yemen, and the U.S. is on Yemen's side.

LUDDEN: All right. So we'll keep watching carefully here. Gregory Johnsen, a Fulbright Hayes fellow, joined us from Cairo. Thank you so much.

Mr. JOHNSEN: Thanks so much for having me, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: And we have to say goodbye to one of our own today. You would not be able to hear many of the guests we have on this show if not for the work of longtime NPR engineer Neal Ellis. When we connect to a studio or SAT phone, Neil is the guy to make sure you hear every guest. And tomorrow is his last day with NPR. We thank you for everything and we will miss you.

Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. We'll look at how researchers are using technology to measure emotions. Have a good weekend. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

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