London, Asharq Al-Awsat—As well as the threat of terrorism and the country’s political divisions, Yemen now faces the possibility of another wave of popular unrest thanks to a series of controversial economic reforms.
On Wednesday, a series of protests in the capital Sana’a left one dead, according to press reports, after soldiers fired into the air to break up a protest against the lifting of fuel subsidies. Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Yemen’s deputy interior minister, Brig. Gen. Ali Nasser Lakhshaa, about the latest violence, and the security problems facing the Arabian Peninsula’s poorest, most unstable state.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Recent reports say riots broke out in the capital as a result of lifting fuel subsidies. Has the situation been brought under control?
Maj. Gen. Ali Nasser Lakhshaa: The situation in the capital is now calm. I say this not because I am the deputy interior minister, but because it is true. The situation is stable, although some protesters burned some tires. These were dealt with in a peaceful manner by the Interior Ministry’s security forces.
Q: Do you expect the protests to continue or spread to other areas?
I do not expect more protests because the decision to lift the fuel subsidies was made by all partners in the political process.
Q: The responsibility for security in the capital, Sana’a, has been transferred to you. What does this step mean?
First, I want to make it clear that the transfer of the responsibility for security in Sana’a to me is normal and is standard practice. It is natural for the interior minister to delegate some duties to his deputy, but the prime responsibility rests with the minster himself. We work as a team to find a security solution in order to prevent crime in the Sana’a region.
Q: Some have linked this step to reports that the interior minister, Maj. Gen. Abdo Al-Tarab, has resigned and left the country . . .
There are reports which say Tarab resigned, but they are untrue. Tarab is currently in Saudi Arabia to perform the Umrah [Minor Hajj pilgrimage] and he will be back on Friday. The reports about his resignation are baseless.
Q: After taking responsibility for the security of Sana’a, have you devised a plan or a strategy to protect the capital?
There are plans already in place but we need financial funds and resources to implement them. We are working with the Defense Ministry, the intelligence service, and other security departments to plug the gaps. We are coordinating with each other and exchanging information to preserve the security of the country and the capital, and reduce crime. I do not want to pre-empt the situation, but the plan is going well, and we need at least a month to re-evaluate the situation.
Q: What are the threats currently faced by Sana’a?
The biggest threat is the spread of weapons among citizens, which leads to the presence of armed groups, and subsequently leads to confrontations and security problems. There is also the increase in unemployment which terrorist groups use to attract the unemployed to join them. This problem concerns us all, but we expect it to be solved once the government ratifies an array of economic reforms dealing with unemployment and economic problems, such as the lifting of fuel subsidies. There is a long list of reforms which will be announced after the next government meeting on Sunday.
Q: Can you tell us about some of these expected reforms?
They revolve around a number of issues which concern citizens, and [the reforms] will make their lives easier, among them for example is the abolition of taxes on agricultural products and equipment, including all solar energy equipment which is currently classed as agricultural equipment. They also attempt to redress failures in the administration and finance sectors. We hope these measures will help eradicate the budget deficit.
Q: Do you think there is a threat to Sana’a from the Houthis?
The threat of the Houthis was removed after the signing of agreements with them which facilitated their withdrawal from Amran, and now members of the armed forces are deployed there and are in control of security.
Q: The assassinations of army and police officers are continuing. What efforts have you made to end this phenomenon?
We are planning on taking positive steps to end this phenomenon, and we have cooperated with the national security and political security services, and the Defense Ministry, in pursuing those involved in these incidents and apprehending many of them, as well as apprehending the leaders who planned these operations. A number of people involved in such incidents in Sana’a and other governorates have been eliminated, and we now expect those arrested to be referred to courts next month; and the trials will be public.
Q: Are there any statistics on the number of the officers who have been killed this year?
I do not have the [precise] numbers but they are around 150 during the last two years.
Q: You made many changes among security commanders. Have these changes been successful?
Performance improved significantly but we need more time to see the results more clearly. The interior minister is implementing the decisions of the National Dialogue Conference regarding the restructuring of the Interior Ministry in a manner which corresponds with the establishment of a federal state. We have noted a great improvement, but we want the public to say that, not us.
Q: Does the Interior Ministry need outside help to improve security?
We welcome any help from outside, especially from our Arab friends and those in the Gulf. We have strong relations with many countries and are constantly cooperating with them in all fields. We hope that this develops into a permanent program which meets the requirements of the security services, and allows them to maintain optimum readiness to carry out their tasks.
Q: Attacks continue to take place on the border between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, most recently the death of a number of Saudi soldiers. What is your plan to restore security in that area and do you coordinate with the Saudi security services?
We do coordinate with the Saudi security services to help impose security in the area, and we exchange information and ideas which contribute to the elimination of this phenomenon. We are working hard to fight the infiltration through the border to serve the security of both countries. We also cooperate closely in the fight against terrorism, which has led to the arrest of terrorists and the targeting of their hideouts. We hope this cooperation continues in a way which serves the security of both countries.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.