Mohammed Qahtan to Yemen Times: “There are no redlines in dialogue”
Mohammed Qahtan is a member of the Supreme Committee of the Islah Party and a leader in the Joint Meeting Parties. In a time when much controversy is spread over this Islamic conservative Islah Party, which is Yemen’s strongest political party today, Yemen Times interviewed Mohammed Qahtan to clear some points on the party’s and the JMP’s position towards several current issues.
How is the dialogue progressing in light of the demands for the restructuring of the army before talks happen?
The national dialogue, which is currently at the preparatory phase and which will conclude with a conference that outlines the future shape of Yemen, is not related to the restructuring of the army as such, but rather a military issue.
But it is said that the Joint Meeting Parties are making the restructuring of the army a condition to any dialogue?
Not true. The restructuring of the army and ensuring security and stability are not tied to the national dialogue, but are rather the responsibility of the military committee, the president and the reconciliation government.
So even without the restructuring of the army, the dialogue will continue?
The restructuring is a long process that has initial and later phases. Removing signs of the military and armed tension from the streets, as well as unifying the army under the leadership of the Ministry of Defense and security under the leadership of the Ministry of Interior is an urgent mission.
However, the restructuring and reorganization of the army so that it becomes a national army in a democratic pluralistic system will take more than two years and longer than the transitional period. As for the three points I mentioned earlier which are removing signs of the military and armed tension, unifying the army under the Ministry of Defense, and security under the Ministry of Interior, are what we call the first phase of the restructuring of the army.
I understand from your answer that the Republican Guards will also submit to the Ministry of Defense?
But don’t you think that it will be a difficult task to get the 37 brigades of the Republican Guard, which have more sophisticated weapons and better training and are under the command of Ahmed Ali, former president Saleh’s son, to agree to this?
Everyone including the Republican Guards will have to unify and come under the Ministry of Defense. As for this high number of brigades, it is unheard of anywhere in the world to have this many without a formal structure. The trend is to have every four or five and in some cases seven brigades come together under what we call in military terms a “division,” a larger entity would be the “corps”, but to have 37 brigades just scattered around the country like this is unusual.
Why would Ahmed Ali submit to this new structuring and lose his prestigious position?
Ahmed Ali and the Republican Guards claim that they were protecting and obeying the orders of the legitimate and constitutional regime. The other side which is Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmed, head of the First Armored Division claimed – and it is true – that he is protecting the revolution. Now we have a new legitimate rule and all must unify for protecting it and work under it.
Are there any practical steps in this direction?
This is the essence of the Gulf Initiative.
The Gulf Initiative included many other steps, some proceeding this and they did not happen...
They will, gradually.
In summary, you are saying the dialogue will continue regardless of what happens on the military front?
It means that we will not stop one process because of a delay in another. However, it may be difficult – not impossible – to carry out a dialogue and have the security situation as shaky as it is today.
There are steps in the dialogue that could take place today, however the national dialogue conference will not take place until the first requirements of restructuring the army is completed.
Back to the question of dialogue – dialogue with whom?
With everyone without exception.
Even Ansar Al-Sharia?
We have not yet, whether inside the Islah party or the Joint Meeting Parties or in the National Council, made a decision on this issue yet.
But in my view, we have to launch a call to all the armed groups to leave their weapons aside, and if they have political demands to come to the national dialogue and we will talk about them.
But what makes them, or the armed groups in the Southern Movement for that matter, abandon their weapons and trust the central government?
The question should be the other way around. We as citizens and people of Yemen need guarantees from those armed groups who carry weapons, kill soldiers and terrorize the people that they will stop. What do
they want? Why do they do this?
Did you ask them?
All I know about Al-Qaeda is that they have a mission to free the Earth of US domination. Should we suggest to them that we move to the moon so that they free the Earth? They randomly kill people and this is unacceptable. If this is really what they believe in and have a global project for this, then they should look for another planet to exercise their mission.
Such a strong position on terrorism! So as Islah and JMP you are committed to fighting terrorism?
We believe that the war against terrorism is a national obligation and responsibility.
But what does the war against terrorism mean?
It means fighting Al-Qaeda.
It means building a complete national strategy to rid the country of Al-Qaeda by all means possible.
Do you as JMP or Islah have a proposal for what this strategy should look like?
The first step to establishing a national strategy to combat terrorism is through bringing new serious national leadership to lead the antiterrorism bodies and structures. What used to happen in the past is a sort of extortion of the West. We need to rebuild the situation based on a serious national foundation.
The new leaders need not come from the Islah Party or the JMP, but they need to be patriotic, serious and new.
Suppose we bring in the new leaders, now what about the strategy?
The new leaders will allow a new strategy to be devised and all the national resources will be aligned with this strategy to make it work.
So the situation as it is today is waiting for a new leadership before deciding on what approaches to fighting terrorism could be?
What used to happen in the past is a family’s extortion using terrorism as a card to demand money. Saleh and his relatives used it to strengthen their rule in Yemen. The army and the people were isolated from what was really going on. We believe that only with new leaders will it be possible to create a new strategy which resources and political will will support.
The stress on terrorism is because there is a lot of concern in the West as to what extent the new regime but mainly the Islah party – which includes an extremist trend like Zindani – will be inclined to fight Al-Qaeda.
We ask of our Western friends, especially the Americans, not to judge us based on their bad experience with the previous regime. They know well how in Somalia, for example, the strongest entity that stood against Al-Qaeda was Sheikh Sharif and his group and they are Islamists.
We ask of our friends not to use the same blackmail that used to be applied to them on us. We have a vision and a program and in fact all the political players in the scene today have visions on this issue. The entry point is through the state institutions that are tasked with fighting terrorism. They must be reformed. The popular and political forces will be supporters of those institutions, but it is not reasonable to ask the new government and its parties to create their own anti-terrorist institutions, or armed divisions, etc.
We want to reform the existing bodies and in the presence of serious national leadership, that is not family or political party oriented, we can make realistic plans to achieve this.
As for Al-Qaeda in Yemen, let me remind you that they like any other armed group that adopts guerrilla war tactics thrives on popular support and is given cover by the communities the armed group resides in. Therefore, if new national leadership came into play and the popular and political forces back it up, it will transform the communities from terrorist friendly environments to the opposite. This will tip the power balance in favor of the anti-terrorism bodies.
Simultaneously, when the Yemeni soldier feels that the entire Yemeni people is behind him and that he is not only following orders from the family in power, but is rather doing a patriotic mission, he will feel more powerful and more committed. The JMP can play a significant role in this mobilization.
What if the US demands the current Yemeni government hands over Zindani as an Al-Qaeda member?
The Americans said so and so, and accused Zindani of funding Al-Qaeda, etc. In return he said that he is ready to stand trial in front of the national justice system in Yemen. This position should be credited to Sheikh Zindani and as such, let the Yemeni courts decide if he is innocent or guilty, and let him do the penalty if proven so, which in Yemen is much harsher than in the States for such a crime.
But don’t you think it is impossible for Zindani to stand trial? His supporters will go mad and even act on it, which could prove dangerous?
The man says I am ready to stand trial and now we are saying it is impossible that he does so. Why? Let’s test his statement. There are no dangerous consequences; the man says willingly he is ready, what more can you ask?
As a politician I understand that there are no real charges. Our internal charter in the Islah Party stipulates that any member who is proven to support or be affiliated to any other organization is automatically kicked out of the party. We have great suspicions that these are rumors spread by the former regime. And as the proverb says: “seeing is believing,” so give me evidence and let the justice system take its course.
Let’s talk about another issue. How committed is the Islah Party to the protestors in the squares and why?
We are waiting for the government to complete the creation of its outreach committees for a dialogue with the youth in the squares. I hope this is done as soon as possible to sort out the squares because until now there has been no adequate communication with the squares.
For us in the Islah Party the squares have been a heavy responsibility, not only security wise, but also in financing the meals and so on. There are people who abandoned their jobs and regular lives for over a year now just to attend to the squares.
The outreach committee created by the government will be responsible for reaching an agreement with the squares to come to terms and guarantees that would allow the clearing of the squares. The protestors’ main demand is the creation of a modern state and so they should get a written agreement by the government endorsed by the prime minister that guarantees their demand – which is desired and legitimate – to be achieved through a series of steps. The protestors and others will create bodies to monitor this agreement from outside the squares.
For us in the Islah Party we have a commitment to the squares and no matter how exhausting this responsibility is we will not abandon them. It is not fair to ask them now to just pick up their stuff and leave and we will not tell them that they are on their own now. I believe they have legitimate demands and they should have an endorsed agreement to eventually allow them to leave the squares.
Why should the youth in the squares trust an agreement from a government many of them don’t even recognize?
I believe we will reach terms of agreement and eventually they will have to trust us because the reality is that we are the reconciliation government today. Having a signed agreement endorsed by the prime minister should be a strong guarantee and we will encourage them to accept it. If anyone has any suggestions we are open to hear them. In all cases this is the responsibility of the outreach committee that will hold a dialogue with the youth and come to an agreement with them.
Who will sign this agreement on behalf of the squares?
The youth will create mechanisms whereby they have representatives amongst them for signing the agreement. Even those who do not wish to be affiliated under any umbrella can come and sign on behalf of themselves even if there were thousands of them.
I really don’t believe this will be an issue because all the protestors agree on the one demand which is a modern state and will come to an agreement to achieve it.
What does Tawakul Karman represent for the Islah Party?
She is a member of the Shura Council of the Islah Party and is a young activist and one of the rare women leaders in the country. We are very happy that she received the Nobel Peace Prize which is not just a personal honor but also for her party.
But there were some signs of disagreement between her political demands and those of the party, especially before signing the Gulf Initiative.
There are no such disagreements. She is a member of the Shura Council and for now the council has not assembled for over a year and so our work as a party has been channeled to revolutionary frameworks rather than the regular organizational ones of the party.
Yet she was clear on her position towards Saleh’s immunity, for example, which was against your work as a party. Does the Islah Party allow its prestigious members to have such different directions?
It is not having different directions, our only disagreement was that she wanted recognition of the Presidential Council and the party did not. However, even with the issue of Saleh’s immunity we had the same point of view, but were forced to reach a political compromise through the Gulf Initiative.
However, Tawakul considered this initiative, which her own party signed, a betrayal of the revolution.
This is not her position alone. The protestors in the squares including Islah protestors were angry at it and we needed time to explain our position to them and convince them to give the political process a chance, which they eventually did. Tawakul Karman expressed her support of President Hadi and Prime Minister Basindawa right from the beginning.
You said that the Islah Party is operating through revolutionary frameworks including through the JMP. How long will the JMP remain together?
The Joint Meeting Parties is a voluntary collation that was created based on the convictions of its members, which are the same convictions that decide its continuity. Currently the agreement is that there is a need for the JMP to remain at least for the next ten years.
But what keeps the JMP together despite the vast difference in its members’ ideologies?
We called ourselves accurately the Joint Meeting Parties because we meet on some common grounds and from this foundation we realize we need to continue longer.
In established democracies, political parties compete according to political agendas and you don’t find in their campaigning programs issues like an independent justice system or a modern state, because the state institutions are there already established. The competition is for the stage thereafter.
For us in Yemen, the common concern which we all agree on is creating the state and so we realize that for this end we need to work together for at least ten years, or rather until the modern state which we all dream of is achieved.
The JMP and its partners that were yesterday’s opposition are in today’s regime. So who is today’s opposition?
There is no opposition during the transition period because it is based on reconciliation. Even the “opposing” parties to the political process are not in opposition. They are just late comers to the dialogue process. And we will not give up or stop trying to get them involved so that this transition is inclusive of all and that all are represented. This is the essence of the revolution through which the dreams of all Yemenis will come true.
There are signs of hesitation from some parties, I admit, but the early signs are positive that they would eventually join the national dialogue.
Including the Southern Movement chapters that demand independence?
There are no red lines in the national dialogue, even the unity is not a red line. No one has the right to limit the issues that should be put on the table, but the important issue is convincing the other and reaching an agreement. For example, I personally do not accept the separation and will not vote for it, but does that mean I exclude those who do and say no dialogue with you? Of course not. But rather I call for dialogue and reach an agreement.
I am convinced that the unity sentiment among Yemenis in the south is even stronger than in the north. I would imagine that if you pick up the phone and asked Ali Salim Al-Biedh [former president of South Yemen who is leading a secessionist movement from abroad], if you asked him: Sir, you are one of the pioneer Arab nationalists who fought for the Arab unity he would break down in tears. He would tell you: This is my dream that I lived for, but I was greatly wronged and this and that happened to me.
You said in the dialogue no one should be excluded, yet you in the Islah Party and in the government generally have deliberately excluded women from decision making positions!
Nobody can deny women and the youth’s participation in the revolution. They have proven their position practically and those who ignore them will lose.
Yet you ignored them!
Don’t take the representation in the new government as the representation of the Islah Party but as the National Council as a whole. I agree with you that having only two female ministers from our side is not much. But you must realize that women gaining their rights will not happen over night.
This does not justify or explain the deliberate discrimination you exercise against women, and please forgive me, but I personally condemn you for that.
I agree with you that it could have been better. Maybe in the future it will be so.
So where do women fall in the Islah Party’s future calculations?
This will be discussed in the national dialogue.
So you don’t have any specific vision on women?
We don’t have anything specific outside our program as the JMP and its partners. This is the 2009 National Salvation Program which we will present to the national dialogue process and conference.
This program does not talk about women or youth for that matter!
It may be the case, but we can’t devise a new program now. There is some mention of women and youth in the program though.
Women made up half of your squares and you are OK with having us “mentioned” in your program?
This program was before the revolution and surely women were an active contribution in the squares. But mind you, Yemeni women should not wait from the men to feel sorry for them, they should grab their rights by force.
During the national dialogue events, if women do not appreciate the way they are involved or represented they should head to the streets and start demonstrations just like they did against Ali Abdullah Saleh until they are adequately represented.
I admit that subconsciously we behave according to our culture and male dominated values. We don’t remember women until the very end, but women in the Prophet’ s time were respected and represented in all walks of life.
Are you telling me that the male dominated values then were not worse or the same as today?
Yes, it is true the Arabs had a male dominated culture even then.
I suppose then it is a matter of political will then, right?
Or the lack of it, you are right.
Moving on, does the Islah Party accept to work with people from the former regime outside the government?
We have no problem with anyone from the former regime except for Ali Abdullah Saleh and his family.
You don’t have a problem with any of the military or political leaders that supported Saleh’s regime? Your judgment is then not about what they have done, but rather their relation to Saleh. Isn’t this duplicity?
Our history tells us when the Republican–Imamate struggle took place, it took over seven years to reach a reconciliation, and that was only when the Hameed Al-Deen as the ruling family was excluded.
I am with excluding Saleh’s family on a temporary basis. I have no problem with Ahmed Ali being commander of a brigade somewhere in Hadramout, Sa’ada or Al-Mahara, etc. But for him to control almost an entire army and we remain hostages in his hands like this, with him in command of hundreds of tanks, artillery and thousands of rockets is something we can’t accept of Ahmed Ali or anyone else.
So you don’t have a problem with him having a military ranking and remaining in the system?
Despite what is being said that by not prosecuting them [former members of the regime] we should at least not have them in the system?
This was a wish we had but the national reconciliation and Gulf Initiative dictated otherwise, and we need to realize that politics is the art of achieving what’s possible.
What if he runs for president in two years?
We will not accept anyone running unless he has abandoned his military post for at least five years.
What about Saleh and his family staying in the country?
It is better for the General People’s Congress [Saleh’s party] to remove the ousted president from its leadership if it wants to thrive politically. As for him staying in Yemen with his family, as long as he is not politically active it does not really matter.
There was an initiative [All Out] that was suggested by Ali Mohsen and rejected by Ali Saleh that ten from each side should leave the country. But with the internationally endorsed immunity I don’t think Saleh will go anywhere, especially as there are others who will be disadvantaged if he leaves with all the money that he took during his regime, which is estimated at more than USD 15 billion.