Yemen's President Hangs On, Despite Demonstrations Protesters in Yemen have been trying to force President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down. Les Campbell of the National Democratic Institute talks to Renee Montagne about Yemen's political future.
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Yemen's President Hangs On, Despite Demonstrations

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Yemen's President Hangs On, Despite Demonstrations

Yemen's President Hangs On, Despite Demonstrations

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Now to another Arab country in crisis. In Yemen, tens of thousands of demonstrators are back in the streets demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. He's ruled that impoverished desert country for over three decades and been an ally to the U.S. in the fight against Yemen's branch of al-Qaida.

In recent days, the Obama administration has said it is time for Saleh to leave. For what might come next, we turned to Les Campbell, who heads the Middle East and North Africa programs at the National Democratic Institute.

Mr. LES CAMPBELL (National Democratic Institute): Saleh has been saying for a while now that he'd stay to the end of his term, which is 2013, or he changed his mind a month ago and said to the end of 2011, this year. But I suspect this is not the end of this debate in Yemen. I think President Saleh has another trick or two up his sleeve.

MONTAGNE: And what does the opposition want, broadly speaking - him just gone, out of the country? What?

Mr. CAMPBELL: Well, I think you have to break the opposition into a few parts. The new factor in Yemen is the emergence of the grassroots, what are being called the youth, although they're not always young. A number of young university students that really are the heart of the protests, they were joined by tribesmen, and they're calling for Saleh to step down right now, no conditions.

The traditional political opposition, they're looking for something a little different. They're willing to negotiate a political solution. They're willing to have Saleh step down, perhaps with a transition to the vice president. But even the opposition coalition is torn. You have some that want to negotiate with Saleh. You have others that say we have to listen to the youth. They're basically being driven by the vitality and the legitimacy of the youth protests.

MONTAGNE: How much of a gap is there between the long-standing political opposition and this new grassroots or mostly youth movement?

Mr. CAMPBELL: Well, I think the gulf grows every day. At the beginning of the protests, there wasn't a huge gap. But as the youth protests gained in popularity - especially when people started to get injured and killed - they started to suspect the traditional opposition. They thought maybe the traditional politicians were usurping or taking advantage of their sacrifice.

What we're seeing now is a tremendous suspicion of the traditional political class, whether they're ruling party or opposition. The youth are worried that all of the sacrifice on the streets will all be frittered away if the opposition parties - you know, for want of a better term - cut a deal. That in a closed room somewhere soon, maybe with the Gulf countries presiding, the opposition and Saleh will cut some sort of deal that basically shuts the youth out.

MONTAGNE: Well, Saleh has been making much the same argument that Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak once made before he left Egypt, and that's that chaos would reign if he did not turn power over to, what he would put, safe hands, which may be part of what opposition leaders might think, too. Is that possible?

Mr. CAMPBELL: I think it is possible, although I'd probably add the proviso right now that chaos is already reigning.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAMPBELL: We already have lots of reports of tribal areas being controlled by tribal forces, not by the government. The government always had a tenuous hold on power, and it's diminished.

Having said that, the opposition - many of them have been ministers in previous governments - some of the opposition leaders held senior positions when Yemen was two countries, North and South Yemen. So these are pretty experienced people, and they also don't want chaos. And I think they prefer a negotiated solution.

MONTAGNE: And then you add in the fact that Yemen is a fractured country. It's got a Shiite rebellion in the north, a secessionist movement in the south, and then this rather active al-Qaida branch. Do you think there is actually another leader who can pull this country together?

Mr. CAMPBELL: I do think so. Yemen has always been difficult to govern. The central government doesn't have the ability to impose its will on the regions. Probably the only way to govern it is through de-centralization through a parliament that has some power.

One thing that Yemen has going for it is a multi-party system and a parliament that has existed since 1993, as well as local elected councils. Even the president himself is elected. So it's not President Saleh or no one. It's not President Saleh or chaos. It's President Saleh or any number of a group - six, seven, maybe 10 experienced politicians - that could all take the reins.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much for joining us.

Mr. CAMPBELL: It was a pleasure. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Les Campbell of the National Democratic Institute has made dozens of visits to the Yemen since he began studying that country in 1996.

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