Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh sat down Thursday for a brief interview with The Washington Post and Time Magazine in his presidential compound in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. This is the first interview he has given since he sustained severe injuries in an attack inside his compound in early June and was flown to Saudi Arabia for treatment. He returned to Yemen last Friday.
Q: We would like to inquire about your health. Do you have any indications of who might have been behind the terrorist attack that nearly killed you on June 2?
SALEH: Thank you for asking about my health. About the incident, there has been an exchange of information between us and the United States. And they promised us they would analyze the subject by the end of September. So we are still waiting for the analysis from Washington.
Q: You have authorized your deputy, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, to sign the GCC initiative [a plan for a transfer of power crafted by the Gulf Cooperation Council, Yemen’s Gulf neighbors]. Why don’t you do it yourself, now that you are here? And if you could explain to me what is holding up the agreement, and how close is the government to signing it?
SALEH: First of all, the vice president was delegated according to a Republican declaration [a declaration by the president]. And there isn’t any reason for it not to go through, whether I am in the country or out of it. There is nothing that would stop this declaration from going through.
Q: How close is the vice president to signing the agreement?
SALEH: The vice president is waiting for the other side. We are ready to sign the GCC initiative as it is. However, the JMP [the opposition coalition Joint Meetings Party] say that they want from this initiative one point: that the president or the vice president signs and that within 30 days [the president] leaves power. And then the 60 days that the GCC has mentioned — they [the JMP] say that is not enough for elections. What is important to [the JMP] is to remove the president from power, and the country would then go through chaos.
We are ready and willing to sign at any time. But we need to sign the GCC initiative as a whole, and we need timelines for the mechanism of executing it. . . . We are not holding onto power, we are willing to leave power as stated in the agreement, within the days and hours that will be agreed upon.
Q: Yet many say you are stalling. Three times you have offered to sign, only to back down at the last minute. Many in the international community think that you are buying time in order to consolidate power. What makes your commitment this time different?
SALEH: This is a misunderstanding. We are willing within the next hours and next days to sign it, if the JMP comes closer [to reaching an agreement]. We don’t want to prolong it. And we don’t want this crisis to continue. We want this country to get out of this crisis.
Q: And you are still committed to not running again when there are elections?
SALEH (laughing): As for me, I will retire — since the opposition has helped bring the president closer to retirement through the criminal act that happened at the presidential mosque.
Q: In recent days there has been heavy public criticism of you by Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar [a key military commander and longtime Saleh ally who broke with him on March 21], as well as the Ahmar clan [a powerful tribal family]. What is your response to this public criticism, and given the violence and mistrust that is unfolding, is it possible for all of you to remain in Yemen and work together?
SALEH: What kind of criticism?
Q: General Ali Mohsen put out a statement just the other day saying that you were driving the country to civil war.
SALEH: They make such statements every day. They are the ones who attack the military bases, the civilians and the protesters — the protesters who are moving around the city with the protection of Ali Mohsen and the Ahmars, using armed people. And they assassinate protesters from behind so they can blame the state.
And I believe that the American intelligence is following this up and keeping a close eye on it and that they know exactly what is going on.
Q: So can you live together with [Mohsen and the Ahmars] in the future?
SALEH: To be able to live with the other political powers, yes, there is no problem. But whoever was involved in the presidential attack and the incident two weeks ago that happened in Zubeiri Street . . . that resulted in casualties of both soldiers and civilians — regardless of who they are or what their positions are, we have to bring them before the law.
Q: Your crackdown on protesters has been violent. You have gotten international condemnation for using guns and heavy weapons against peaceful protesters. Why have you resorted to such violent crackdown measures?
SALEH: This kind of action is not possible in Yemen. The constitution has given the right to Yemenis to gather and protest and to express their views through the media. But these actions . . . these actions were performed by a group of people that wanted the blame to end up falling on the state. They claimed that they are protecting [the protesters] and ended up shooting them and using these actions. There is a sort of trend, a media trend, by some of the media to call for the toppling of regimes and their replacement by nationalists, socialists and various other movements.
And now they are moving toward Islamists, and a big evidence for that is they are making propaganda about the regime in Sanaa. They are saying that the government is the one that is oppressing the protesters, whereas [the protesters] are the ones who are oppressing the state itself by their actions. We are fighting the al-Qaeda organization in [the southern region of] Abyan in coordination with the Americans and Saudis. At the same time, American intelligence has knowledge that [al-Qaeda] is in contact with both the Muslim Brotherhood [the opposition Islah party in the JMP] and the military officers who are outlaws. And they [the Muslim Brotherhood and officers] told the vice president, “Give us Abyan, and we will stop the war in Abyan and the al-Qaeda network there.”
Q: Do you think Gen. Ali Mohsen and the Ahmars should be prosecuted, and will you transfer power as long as they remain in their own influential positions?
SALEH: This depends on the results of investigation and analysis that are coming from Washington.
Q: And will you transfer power if they are still in positions of influence?
SALEH: No. The GCC initiative is clear. It says to remove all the elements causing tensions. If we transfer power and they are there, this will mean that we have given in to a coup. If we transfer power and they are in their positions and are still decision makers, this will be very dangerous. This will lead to civil war.
Q: I want to ask you about Yemeni-U.S. relations, which is important: On the day you returned to Yemen. . .
SALEH: This is the last question.
Q: On the day you returned to Yemen. . .
SALEH: The Yemeni-American relationship is good. In fact, it has not been affected during the past 33 years. And we have relationships with many political powers in Washington, both in the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. There have been some differences during the last Gulf war because of the Yemeni stance, but then the Americans realized that we were right and that we were not just defending the Iraqi regime.
Q: But the Americans. . .
SALEH: And these were accusations by analysts, diplomats and so on that turned out not to be true.
Q: But the U.S. has asked you to step down.
SALEH: I am addressing the American public. I want to ask a question: Are you still keeping your commitment to continue operations against the Taliban and al-Qaeda?
If Washington is still with the international community in fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda, who have disturbed the world peace, that will be good. But what we see is that we are pressed by America and the international community to speed up the process of handing over power. And we know where power is going to go. It is going to al-Qaeda, which is directly and completely linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.