Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's a Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on The Brian Lehrer Show, Walid Al-Saqaf, founder and administrator of Yemen Portal, a news and multi-content aggregator focused on Yemeni news, talked about the protest in Yemen and his own free speech advocacy.
Anti-regime protests in Tunisia have ignited public demonstrations in other pockets of the Arab world. In the last week, Egyptians have taken to the streets of Cairo en masse to demand the resignation of their leader, Hosni Mubarak. Most recently, on Thursday, Yemeni protesters flooded the nation's capital city of Sana'a to call for their president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to cede control of the government.
Yemen is one of the poorest nations in the Middle East, and Saleh has presided over the country's deterioration for the past 32 years. While protesters are railing against the same kind of corruption and improper governance that Tunisians and Egyptians face, Walid Al-Saqaf said that Yemen's movement appears to be less revolutionary and more conservative than the others taking shape.
So far they have not had same high feeling that people would long for, which is to remove the regime. They are starting with the idea that this regime can remain so long as there are certain conditions met...They also claim this is merely a matter of time before they actually call for the other extreme demand of removing [Saleh] from power if he doesn't listen. They're essentially giving him an ultimatum.
However, Al-Saqaf asserted that weaker demands from protesters didn't mean Saleh's regime was any better than Mubarak's in Egypt or Ben Ali's in Tunisia.
These demonstrations were led by the opposition party, unlike the spontaneous ones in Egypt. They had to be politically correct...so they are dealing with it diplomatically, and that does not reflect on whether they think the regime is better or worse.
Al-Saqaf said that the country was on the brink of civil war, one that's been a long time coming. For years, instead of using oil revenues for public works and infrastructure needs, Saleh used government money to keep Yemen's fractious, disparate centers of influence—including Al-Qaeda—loyal to the regime. As that money runs out and Yemen's natural resources become depleted, the country is heading for a big crash.
The idea is that [Saleh] has been playing a role in which he would simply provide these different powerful elements with what they needed over time, and they would be loyal to him despite the fact that he may be violating the law by alowing them to purchase or use weapons, or to have their own laws. As time passed, the resources got depleted and the oil is getting depleted and he is not able to pay enough for those to be satisfied, so he is trying to find compromises. It was really a failure from the beginning, because the money that has been sent to appease those power centers could have gone to education or infrastructure. It's a matter of time before the whole country collapses, and I feel like there's a better chance of things being corrected if a transition takes place now, before it's too late.
While protests in Yemen are of a different character than those in Egypt and Tunisia, Al-Saqaf said that the overarching problem facing each nation's populace is the same.
All of them have one common denominator, which is injustice, social injustice. All of those regimes had privileged certain groups in society and amassed wealth through illegal means like corruption...There's one interesting case in Tunisia where at the beginning people would say, "This is only a protest for meeting ends, to get bread and so forth." But in reality, they said it's not only for that, it's for dignity...The people needed to be the rulers, not the other way around. If Tunisia did it, why shouldn't we do it?
Meanwhile, the US is preparing to navigate a very different political landscape in the Middle East. While the future is uncertain for all parties on both sides of the globe, Al-Saqaf said that there's one thing above all others that the US should keep in mind following the conflicts in Yemen, Egypt and Tunisia.
Don't enforce dictators, don't rely on them, don't think they will help you out. If there's only one lesson the US should learn, it's that having dictators as your allies is never a good idea.