Former Yemeni premier Mohsen Al-Aini tells Amira Howeidy that his country needs a political solution, not airstrikes by an Arab coalition
Friday,03 April, 2015
More than 40 years ago Mohsen Al-Aini, an Egyptian-educated Yemeni dissident, helped overthrow the Saudi-backed Imamate which had ruled Yemen for 1,000 years. Having served as the Yemeni republic’s first foreign minister in 1962, then prime minister for four consecutive terms, he was one of the leading players of the Yemeni revolution’s early years and a chronicler of its modern history. Now based in Cairo, Al-Aini, 83, is more concerned than ever about the future of his country.
“I haven’t slept in days,” he said early this week from his Cairo home.
His children and grandchildren, along with two million Yemenis living in the capital Sanaa, face daily Saudi-led airstrikes against the Houthi rebel movement which overran the capital in Septemberi, forcing Yemeni president Abu Rabu Mansour Hadi to flee Yemen earlier this week. Saudi Arabia said the strikes will continue until Hadi is able to rule.
“A brief power cut is agitating enough let alone experiencing this massive aerial fleet for such a long time — and for what?”
Yemen’s only hope lies in a political solution involving power sharing not guns, says Al-Aini. He is a vocal critic of the Houthis, their alliance with Saleh and the failure of Yemen’s actors to steer the country away from the spectre of civil war.
The alternative Al-Aini proposes is a presidential council that includes Hadi, former president and Houthi ally Ali Abduallah Saleh, former premier Ali Salem Al-Bayed and a Houthi nominee. The council, which would be formed under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council and Iran would then rotate the presidency between its members in six-month intervals during a set period of transition during which ex-president Ali Nasser Mohamed, a southern Yemeni leader, would head the government, aided by two deputies, the ex-premiers Abdelkerim Al-Iryani and Haidar Al-Attas.
The interim period would see elections held resulting in a parliament that would draft a new constitution and, finally, the election of a president.
“It’s difficult to conceive of a stable Yemen where power continues to be monopolised by one group to the exclusion of all others,” he says.
The Saudi-led Arab coalition of nine states, including Egypt, began air-strikes against Iran-backed Houthi targets on 25 March. By the time Al-Ahram Weekly went to press on Tuesday, 31 March, the death toll had reached 88, including 40 civilians killed in a refugee camp in northern Yemen. On Monday Human Rights Watch reported that 26 warplanes had struck populated urban neighbourhoods in Sanaa and in response the Houthi’s military wing, Ansar Allah, had fired anti-aircraft missiles from residential neighbourhoods. The airstrikes targeted Houthi air defence systems and pro-Saleh troops’ arms depots and extended from the capital to the coastal city of Taiz and Aden airport. They caused considerable damage to Yemen’s infrastructure, including at Sanaa airport.
“When you shell Houthi targets you are also targeting military installations that belong to the Yemeni army. You are also bombing roads, transportation facilities and innocent civilians,” says Al-Aini
“One would have hoped such an unprecedented coalition of Arab forces might serve Arab goals in Gaza, or against the Islamic State in Iraq, rather than pursue an American intervention,” he said.
The Houthis originated in Saada in northern Yemen and associate themselves with the Hashemites, descendants of the tribe of Prophet Mohamed’s great grandfather. They began as a religious movement in 1992, promoting the Zaidi sect of Islam but as they gained influence became the target of the Yemeni army which killed their leader in 2004, triggering an insurgency that lasted six years.
According to Al-Aini the reason the war dragged on was because Saleh and his son Ahmed, who was being groomed as Saleh’s successor, didn’t actually want to defeat the Houthis since a military victory would have played in favour of Ali Mohsen, the army commander, who had ambitions to succeed Saleh.
“Every time they were close to defeating the Houthis Saleh and his son would stop the war in the name of peace.”
Al-Aini believes that Yemen’s best opportunity to contain, and eventually remove Saleh came during, not after, the early days of the Yemeni uprising in 2011. Feeling pressure from the street and the opposition Saleh gave a speech in Taiz on 2 February 2011 in which he vowed not to renew his presidency or empower his son to succeed him. He invited opposition parties to form a government and enter into a dialogue with his own General People’s Congress Party.
“I felt there was a real opportunity there for the opposition but they didn’t believe Saleh,” says Al-Aini. After a series of mass protests across Yemen the situation deteriorated when, on 18 March, peaceful demonstrations in Sanaa came under attack. Fifty-two protestors were killed, prompting resignations from the regime, including Mohsen’s.
Mohsen and the powerful Ahmar tribe joined the opposition and, in Al-Aini’s words, “eventually took over, pulling the carpet from under the youth and the revolutionaries.”
The GCC stepped in with a transition plan that granted Saleh and his family immunity while remaining in Yemen in return for handing over power to Hadi, his deputy of 14 years, until presidential elections could be held. Saleh eventually agreed to the plan and Hadi, the sole candidate in the presidential elections that followed, won with an overwhelming majority in February 2012.
Al-Aini was vehemently opposed to the new status granted to Saleh. “In Yemen and with immunity? He should have left the country. If he stayed he should have faced trial.” How, asks Al-Aini, was Hadi, who had lived in Saleh’s shadow for 14 years, supposed to rule the country with Saleh still on the scene?
Saleh remained with his fortune, palace, republican guards, TV stations and General People’s Congress.
“Free of his presidential duties Saleh had all the time to meddle. At his house he received visitors from all over Yemen. His news was broadcast on TV. When he sent telegrams/cables he signed them: ‘the leader Ali Abdullah Saleh.’ He became stronger.”
Al-Aini describes the Gulf initiative as an endeavour to “thwart” the youth-led uprising through a “vague and unclear” agreement. Yemen was left with two presidents, two armies, and two media machines. With the Houthis in control of the north, the separatists the south and Al-Qaeda in Hadramaout, the struggle increasingly focussed on Sanaa. The floundering political process that followed offered little hope. Yemen, says Al-Aini, “had entered a dark tunnel.”
Such was the backdrop against which the Houthis advanced towards the capital. They met little, if any resistance, and overran Sanaa in September, attacking their political opponents in the process without eliciting any response from the state.
“Suddenly the traffic in Sanaa was being managed by armed young men. They started showing up at various ministries giving orders. Then they took over the defence ministry,” says Al-Aini.
Like many Yemenis, Al-Aini believes Hadi’s indifference towards the Houthi’s violations, and his failure to challenge their advance, was because, as a weak president with little control over the army, he was happy for the Houthis to attack powerful potential enemies.
It was only a matter of time before the Houthis placed Hadi under house arrest. They laid siege to his home and then forced him to resign. He eventually escaped south to his hometown of Aden where he sought to form his own militia. Followed by the Houthis he fled first to Oman, and then Saudi Arabia, from where he made pleas to the world to intervene and stop the Houthis from “pursuing Iran’s agenda and spreading the Shia sect in Yemen”.
The Zaidi sect of Islam — which the overthrown Imamate observed — has two branches: one is similar to the Sunni, the second closer to the Shia. The Houthis follow the latter, which makes them close to Iran. While Tehran provides the Houthis with various forms of support, including scholarships, Al-Aini says it is a mistake to equate Iran’s influence on the Houthis with claims it has a presence in Yemen.
Among the negative consequences of the Saudi-led aggression, says Al-Aini, is the way it has inadvertently strengthened the Houthis’ political position. Now, he says, they “will appear as the national force defending Yemen” while it is under attack.
Even worse than the airstrikes is the possibility of a ground force entering Yemen, a prospect that makes Al-Aini shudder. As part of the 1962 Revolution which overthrew the Imamate Al-Aini witnessed the catastrophic results of Egypt’s military involvement. A civil war ensued between supporters of the Imamate, funded and backed by Saudi Arabia, Jordan and supported by Britain, and republicans, supported by Gamal Abdel-Nasser who wanted to strengthen the Arab nationalist movement and deployed 70,000 Egyptian soldiers — almost half of the army — for the purpose. Thousands of Egyptians perished in Yemen, and the financial losses were colossal, before Egypt pulled out in 1967. The civil war officially ended under Al-Aini’s premiership with the signing of the ‘Compromise of 1970’ which integrated some figures from the ancien regime into the new political system.
“We never expected Egypt to stay in Yemen beyond 1963. There were political solutions,” says Al-Aini.
“I was critical of many aspects of Egypt’s Yemeni policy and in the end it was the Egyptians who paid the heaviest price, far more than the Yemenis.”
Having witnessed one ground incursion, he cautions “it must not happen again.”