Sanaa, Asharq Al-Awsat- For the first time, former South Yemen President Ali Nasser Muhammad has confirmed to Asharq Al-Awsat that he met the post-union former Yemeni Vice President Ali Salim al-Bayd in Beirut in the presence of well-known Yemeni politician and tribesman Sinan Abu-Lahum. This was the first meeting between the two men after the events of the civil war in South Yemen in January 1986. Muhammad says that the meeting discussed the current problems of Yemen, but he avoided talking about the details of the meeting and what was discussed in it.
In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat via E-mail from his permanent residence in the Syrian capital Damascus, Ali Nasser Muhammad discuses all issues concerning Yemen today, including the investigations into the assassination attempts on his life.
The following is the text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Where does President Ali Nasser Muhammad stand regarding what is currently taking place in Yemen? Is he in favor of the union, “disengagement,” or “secession?”
[Muhammad] The strugglers in Yemen, the north and the south, fought for the Yemeni unity, and fought wars for its sake in 1972, 1979, and other wars in the central regions that continued for more than 10 years. These sacrifices were crowned by signing the union agreement in 1972, to which we have the honor of signing. We also participated in halting the wars in the central regions in order to implement the union peacefully as a strategic aim for which we all struggled. On the one hand, the union has been a historical dream that formed the aspiration of all Yemenis to build a single strong united country that supports their abilities, improves their lives, raises their standard of living, and places them among, even at the forefront of the countries in the region; on the other hand we consider the union to be a strategic and not a tactical option. Anyone who deals with this principle as tactics is the one who distorted this dream and principle on the ground through practices that lead to secession; otherwise we would not have seen this increasing tension in the south, which is the result of ignoring the demands of the people. These demands were simple and feasible to fulfill in the beginning of the activities of the Southern Al-Hirak, because what was required was the recognition of the political dimension of the southern issue, and its legal and legitimate dimension, and to fulfill the requirements of the recognition of these two dimensions. That was all. However, this was ignored, patch-up attempts were made in dealing with the issue, and the authorities wagered on time, distributing posts and funds, oppressing Al-Hirak, muzzling the people, and militarizing civil life. Time has proved that this wager has been a losing one.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Your role in the march of “reconciliation and forgiveness rally”, was it out of love for the south, or out of a desire to spare a new generation the consequences of the southern conflicts?
[Muhammad] I do not claim that I played a complete role in the reconciliation and forgiveness rally. I only was a part of a complete operation, comprehensive roles, and combined efforts to make this brilliant, leading, and promising experiment succeed. The rally has been a translation of our crystallized conviction of the need to turn the page of the past, which we all are responsible for, both its positive and negative aspects. The first step in the right direction was the recognition of the mistakes, the participation in this recognition, refraining from prevarication, looking forward to the future out of keenness on the unity of our people and their social peace, and looking responsibly into the requirements of the present and the horizons of the future. This experiment has been tantamount to a revolution against mistakes, shortcomings, and narrow vision. The rally was launched by the Radfan societies, from whose proud mountains the 14 October revolution against British colonialism was launched. Unfortunately, the authorities dealt with the reconciliation and forgiveness activists in a negative way that reached the level of attempting to stir up sedition rather than utilizing this experiment and generalizing it across Yemen, the country that suffers from revenge, tribal, political and other problems that threaten civil peace in the country.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that the situation in the south might reach the return to partition after nearly two decades of the establishment of the union? What could possibly lead to this?
[Muhammad] The strength or the lack of strength of the union is not measured by the number of years, but by the quality and quantity of deep-rooting it, or the quality and quantity of the way that was used to destabilize and distort it even in the hearts of the people as a result of consecrating the divisions, the dysfunctional citizenship of the southerners, and the dealing with condescension and according to the principle of victor and vanquished. This is primarily due to the political, military, security, and administrative situation that was imposed after the 1994 war. In 1994 I warned against this, and I announced my warning in the media only one month after the war ended. The situation then was decided militarily, but not politically, because no one vanquishes the sons of his own country. I said then that the tension would express itself one day, and it might be in a bloody way, and this was what happened through the Southern Al-Hirak after nearly a decade and a half of the war.
The continuation of these practices, especially the oppression of the peaceful Al-Hirak by force and by weapons, the strangulation of the democratic margin, the detention of the political and media activists, and the suspension of the newspapers with Al-Ayyam veteran newspaper at their forefront in an unprecedented way in its half a century of professional career, all these are indications of more tension, and more dangers threatening the union and the future of the country in general. All these problems require the arbitration of dialog in order to ease the tension in which the country lives.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are there specific solutions that can spare Yemen the dangers of returning to partition?
[Muhammad] Previously, we have called repeatedly for recognizing the southern issue with its aspects of political and popular demands. In the light of the latest developments, we have called on more than one occasion for a national conference for comprehensive, complete, and unconditional dialog. We have said that dialog is the only solution for all our problems in the north and in the south. Dialog has primary requirements including the release of the political and media detainees and kidnapped people, the lift of the ban from all newspapers, and the rehabilitation of the political and civil life as we pointed out before. However, every time we call for this, or we hear of a call for dialog by the authorities, we see more dangerous and more wretched practices, such as oppressing and killing peaceful demonstrators, and killing innocent children, women, and elderly in Al-Majalah in Abyan, and Rafd in Shabwah on the pretext of hunting down Al-Qaeda members who originally escaped in a well-known and famous operation from the political security prison in Sanaa.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your opinion, is Yemen a candidate for civil war?
[Muhammad] The situation of Yemen no longer can bear civil war or wars. Therefore, we warned more than once against the “Somalization” of the country as a result of the faulty practices and failures in the north and in the south. Today, Yemen needs security, stability, justice, equality, and equal citizenship. The brethren and friends should help Yemen politically and economically to get out of these consecutive crises.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think that the regime in Yemen is prepared to offer concessions in exchange for preserving the unity of the country?
[Muhammad] Personally, I do not call these concessions. If the ruling regime does not consider itself a part of the country, or places itself above the country and the people, you can then ask it for concessions. What is correct is that the regime should offer sincere dealings and not concessions. This is required today more than at any time in the past in order to stabilize the country and get it out of this historical dilemma. What political gains will there be if we lose the entire country?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are reports that state that foreign sides are involved in nurturing the Southern Al-Hirak with the aim of destroying the stability of Yemen. What is your opinion?
[Muhammad] The Southern Al-Hirak has its popular base, its leaders, its structure, and its program, which I believe is governed primarily by popular and national entitlements nurtured by the justice and clarity of the cause. The real stability of Yemen lies in dealing with this issue in a way that satisfies the southern citizens, because they are the ones harmed, and the source of nurturing the Southern Al-Hirak. The southerners always stress their commitment to peaceful struggle, which is approved by the Constitution and the law.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Today Yemen is at war with the Al-Qaeda Organization. Do you think Al-Qaeda has become deep-rooted in Yemen? What are the causes of this?
[Muhammad] The emergence of the issue of Al-Qaeda to the surface still is exaggerated in the light of the political failures, the war in the north, and the oppression in the south. This makes many people at home and abroad suspicious; even some senior government officials expressed suspicion, including Prime Minister Dr Ali Mujawwar, who has pointed out that the issue of Al-Qaeda is exaggerated, and called for a plan similar to the Marshall Plan that would cost 40 billion dollars, to rescue Yemen. Whether Al-Qaeda has simple or exaggerated presence, it has become deep-rooted as a result of a number of helping factors, including the absence of stability across the country, and not settling the deteriorating problems of the citizens through peaceful and political solutions.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your opinion, why are you personally exposed to attack within Yemen, despite the fact that you have not explicitly declared your support for the demands of the Southern Al-Hirak?
[Muhammad] There are those who attribute this issue to political bankruptcy, others consider it due to fear whose motives I do not understand, and some people attribute it to my commitment to the weapon of unity. However, I am sure that there are individuals or powers, with influence over the decision-maker. These individuals and powers portray the situation differently to the decision-maker; this applies to my stances and the stances of others at home and abroad. On the basis of their portrayal and their exaggeration of the situation, some unstudied stances are adopted, and these stances escalate the disputes and widen the gap between the different viewpoints. All this is in harmony with the political and media failure that expresses itself one time by attacking the person of Ali Nasser Muhammad without a convincing justification and without cause, another time by closing down Al-Ayyam newspaper and arresting its publisher Hisham Ba-Sharahil, a third time by targeting others, a fourth time by flattering others, and so on.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Naturally every now and then there is the brandishing of opening the dossier of the 13 January 1986 conflict. What is your comment?
[Muhammad] Every now and then we see stances in the media that are tantamount to brandishing the opening of the dossier of the 13 January conflict. There are those who shed crocodile tears over the martyrs of January 1986. However, in our viewpoint, this is brandishing of opening a file that we closed through reconciliation and forgiveness that has been a disturbing march for anyone who thinks of stirring up sedition and hatred. Moreover, there are people who were deeply involved in this dossier, and who now are in senior positions in the state; therefore, how can we reconcile this issue? It would be better than all this to establish political breakthrough and national reconciliation in the country that is living through multi-dimensional crises and that has had more than enough of tragedy in its situation.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] there are reports that say you’ve recently met with former Vice President Ali Salim al-Bayd in Beirut. Is there any truth to this, and if so what were the issues you discussed with him?
[Muhammad] I believe that in the light of the communication and information revolution there is nothing secret any longer. This meeting took place with the attendance of the great Sheikh Sinan Abu-Lahum. We discussed Yemen, and the latest political and security developments. Recently talking about Yemen has become a subject for all salons inside and outside Yemen, and even across the entire globe (even on Mars, whose ownership is claimed by some Yemenis). There is no talk except about the events and developments in Yemen. After the exaggerated talk about terrorism and Al-Qaeda, Yemen has become the focus of attention of many research centers, newspapers, and satellite channels in the world,
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Has the current Government offered you any senior positions in an effort to neutralize anger in the south? Would you accept this?
[Muhammad] Our stance is firm and clear in this respect. Personally, I do not see any possible benefit in the policy of absorbing anger, to which you referred in your question; in fact I was one of the first to criticize it. In this case, there is no difference between having old or new offers. I am not looking for status or position, because I have tried all the positions from governor to president. All that interests me is to solve the problems of the country.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In the past, you’ve spoken a number of times about attempts to assassinate you in Damascus.
How far have the investigations progressed? Have those responsible been brought to justice?
[Muhammad] This case still is in the hands of the authorities concerned, and it is not served by revealing information about it.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why do you think demonstrators in the south raised your picture and chanted your name?
[Muhammad] The fair-minded testify for our experiment in government. The street remembers the government experiments it witnessed during a certain era when the comparison becomes a fait accompli. The people wanted to replace these experiments with better ones, but it seems that so far they have not found that better experiment. You can find the real and satisfactory answer to your question by asking the opinions of those who raise my photographs and the photographs of other former presidents.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you advise your sons to work in politics, or to steer away from it?
[Muhammad] It is illogical to advise my sons either to work in politics, or to steer away from it. This would be contrary to the universal and human laws that say that every person has his abilities, tendencies, and talents through which he asserts his presence, identity, and personality. Encouraging self-independence is required today more than at any previous time. Praise be to God, I am not in government today, and hence no one can involve my words into the issue of bequeathing power, which has become a disturbing and controversial issue.