By Omar Oweis
Political activist Tawakkol Karman has said that Yemen is witnessing a full counter-revolution waged by the Houthi clan with financial and military backing from Iran. The General Coordinator of the Revolution’s Youth Council and Noble Peace Prize Laureate added that the group is working in alliance with deposed president Ali Abdullah Saleh with the aim of undermining the Yemeni Republic and effecting a coup against the revolutions of 11 February and 26 September. She stressed that Yemen is facing an Iranian project against the entire region and that this project is expanding because of what she described as the “conspiracy” by the rulers and regimes of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region against the Arab Spring. Their war against democratisation, she claimed, is effectively replacing the Arab Spring with an Iranian version.
In her first interview after the Houthi seizure of the Yemeni capital Sanaa, Karman told Arabi 21 that the revolution’s youth are in communication with each other and that their mobilisation will be better organised and more conspicuous. She said that everyone will see and hear their voice peacefully and more prominently after the government is formed and that the voice of the revolution’s youth will emerge in the form of peaceful mass rallies and activities which will focus on a number of demands of the government. These include the insistence that the state should impose its hegemony, disarm the militias, combat corruption, establish solid state institutions among which should be the army and the security agencies, and finalise the draft of the constitution. This important document, said Karman, should lay the foundations for rights and liberties, combat corruption and guarantee democracy and the rule of law. She added that the youth will remain in a state of peaceful and civil struggle until victory is achieved.
The peace laureate explained that the call for demonstrations in Revolution Square has been postponed along with all other moves until after the formation of the government. There has to be a focus for the people’s demands, and President Abd Rabbuh Mansur cannot do anything at the moment.
Karman stressed that there has been clear and systematic obstruction and stalling by the Houthis with regards to naming the new prime minister, giving the group more time to win territory before his name is revealed. This, she said, is a major cause for concern, because any delay in the formation of the new government puts Yemen into a very dangerous position. The current political vacuum opens the way for further violence, with armed groups seeking to exploit the situation.
The full text of the interview follows:
Arabi 21: What is going on in Yemen? How would you describe the present scene?
Tawakkol Karman: The State of Yemen is suffering from a full counter-revolution, the forces of which have occupied Sanaa. These Houthi militias are supported financially and militarily by Iran. The aim of this counter-revolution is to undermine the Yemeni Republic and to effect a coup against the peaceful revolution of 11 February as well as the revolution of 26 September that erupted against the rule of the Imams. The Houthis are seeking to undermine the state to boost their sectarian project to seek vengeance for both revolutions.
We are facing an Iranian project that is targeting the entire region. This is able to expand thanks to the rulers and regimes of the region conspiring against the Arab Spring and their war against democracy. Consequently, the Arab Spring has been replaced with an Iranian version.
Q. How would you explain the swiftness of the fall of Sanaa to the Houthis without any resistance? What are the causes of the obvious collapse of the armed forces?
A. This is due to the fact that most of the armed forces used to be commanded by the former regime under the leadership of the deposed Ali Abdullah Saleh who entered into an alliance with the Houthi militias. The armed forces, therefore, are part of the counter-revolution. They didn’t all collapse. The commanders handed over and surrendered; they were ordered to by the former regime that ruled Yemen for 33 years under the control of Ali Saleh and his family. These army commanders belonged to him and were submissive to him, and they are the ones who have betrayed the army and Yemen when money came pouring in via the Houthi militias and via Saleh. That was money from Iran, whose aim is to bring down the Yemeni Republic and along with the entire region.
Q. In your assessment, what is the size and strength of the Houthi groups in Yemen?
A. The Houthi militias are not as big or as powerful as some might imagine. Had it not been for the support they received from the former regime and from the Iranians they would not have been able to change things in Yemen. The peaceful 2011 revolution has been betrayed and stabbed in the back by the Houthis. They pretended to be with the revolution while in reality they were expanding and turning the ground upside down piece by piece, first in Saadah, then Amran, then the war they waged against the Jouf in 2011 and finally by bringing Sanaa down.
Had it not been for the peaceful revolution, the armed Houthi groups would not have seen the light of day and would have remained under siege in the caves of Saadah. The peaceful revolution called on the Houthis in 2011 to abandon their arms and join the political process. What happened then was the betrayal of the revolution by the Houthis and their betrayal of the notion of peaceful action. These militias used to pretend to be with the revolution while at the same time proceed to turn the ground upside down and seize the provinces one after the other in full coordination with Saleh, who assisted them and surrendered the military barracks to them. This was also coordinated fully with Iran.
The Houthis exploited and benefited from the deterioration of the state, especially while it was in a transitional phase post-revolution, with a lot of confusion. Without Saleh and the Iranians, the Houthi groups are insignificant. It was the power of arms that gave them a loud and prominent voice. They chose violence while the state’s strategic option was not to resort to violence against them. This is the product of the revolution itself, namely not resorting to violence, and it continues to be the option. We prefer not to respond to violence with violence and to resist violence with peace and to bring it down with peace too.
Q. What would you say about the peace and partnership agreement? Has this agreement saved Yemen from sliding into civil war?
A. Thus far, the Yemeni people insist on not confronting violence with more violence so as to avoid a civil war; this is aside from the agreement that was signed. The strategy is the same, and that is to refrain from confronting violence with further violence. This is what saved Yemen from a sectarian war that the country was being pulled down into. This is the essence of the peaceful revolution, which was the strategic choice of all Yemenis. Peace is the sole way to end despotism and terrorism. A peaceful culture is deeply-rooted in the Yemeni mindset, despite the fact that there those who want to drag us towards violence. So far, the Yemenis have not abandoned the strategic peaceful option.
As for the peace and partnership agreement, very regrettably the Houthi groups did not implement it. This has been tried more than once, but the Houthis have breached agreements consistently. They do not agree to implement anything that is agreed on in the peace and partnership agreement. They just want their rights without attending to their obligations and responsibilities. They will always come up with a pack of feeble excuses to avoid their obligations, especially with regard to pulling out of the regions they seized by force, and surrendering their weapons. The party that failed to honour it was the Houthi group.
Q. What is the significance of the Houthi signing of the security addendum of the peace and partnership agreement although their fighters are still in Sanaa?
A. The Houthis did indeed sign the peace and partnership agreement but even before the ink was dry they went on the rampage and attacked the homes of 11 February revolutionary figures. They also attacked the national security and air defence headquarters. This is highly significant. Nevertheless, we hope that what they will abide by what they signed. We await their implementation and we shall pressure them peacefully and by taking to the square so as to implement it.
Q. Do you really think that once pressures are exercised on the Houthi group that they will abide by the peace and partnership agreement?
A. Yes, if pressure is exercised on the Houthi militias as well as on the remaining state institutions so as to implement the agreement and the outcomes of the national dialogue. There is nothing stronger than the voice of peace and there is nothing more powerful than non-violent pressure. We trust our people. The people of Yemen are strong and they will never succumb to the grand conspiracy that is being hatched against them and they will not surrender upon the fall of Sanaa.
The capital may have fallen, but so too have the Houthis fallen morally. They will fall further in the coming days because the Yemeni people are conscious, strong and wounded deeply as a result of the betrayal of the Houthi militias; they are ready to wage their struggle to the last moment so as to force all the parties that signed the partnership and peace agreement to implement all of its articles and to abide by the outcomes of the national dialogue for the sake of building the modern civil state. We are fully confident in our people; men and women, the young and the old. They are able to force commitment upon all the parties; especially that the Houthi group continues to fall morally further day after day. It will continue to fall morally until it falls politically, quite soon.
Q. Do you believe that the Houthis have exploited the social and economic demands of the Yemeni people?
A. Yemen’s economic decline started before 2001. The economic crisis was one of the main reasons for the 11 February revolution that erupted in the face of oppression, despotism and corruption as well as against security and economic deterioration. The talk about the failure of Yemen, or that Yemen was nearly a failing state, predates 2011. The deteriorating economic situation preceded the revolution. Any political transformation should be paralleled by an economic transformation. Such economic transformation was promised by the countries that sponsored the Gulf Initiative. When the initiative was signed there was a clear item stipulating economic support for Yemen and improving the living conditions of the citizens. Regrettably, the sponsoring states of the initiative and of the transfer of power agreement did not implement what was promised in terms of economic support for Yemen.
In addition, the armed militias, and especially the Houthis, are a main cause of the crisis that emanated from economic deterioration because of their military takeover in an important province like Saadah and the subsequent wars they waged on Aljawf and on Amran. Then came their siege and seizure of the capital Sanaa. Any country, no matter how great or big it may be and how strong its economy happens to be, if there exists within it armed groups in this way, besieging it, robbing and looting its provinces and doing the same thing to its capital, such a state would definitely fail completely and would decline economically.
So, the primary and most important reason for the economic decline is the armed militias, especially the Houthis and their unacceptable conduct in the north, and Al-Qaida in the south. In fact, the Houthis bear the primary responsibility for what has become of the situation because they were our partner in the national dialogue and failed to abide by the conditions that would have taken Yemen forward.
Consequently, the crowds that the Houthis brought down in the form of mass rallies and by means of sectarian mobilisation for the purpose of seizing the capital were not simply a rejection of the government’s decision to put up the prices of petrochemicals, nor were they for the purpose of improving the living conditions of citizens. They are the last to talk about the economy and about stability. Their expansionist wars and their armed militias have the bigger share in what led to the destruction of the economy and destroying Yemen’s chances of a decent living standard. Indeed, they have exploited people’s needs in order to accomplish political ends.
Q. How do you view the formation of the new government and the failure thus far to name its head? Are there disagreements about that?
A. This is truly worrying. The failure to name the prime minister so far is due to obstruction from the Houthis. They deliberately hinder the naming of a new government head because they seek to expand in the field before the prime minister is appointed. That is why you see them taking control of one state institution after the other and you see them occupying the country’s streets, buildings and homes. Although there was finally an agreement to name the new head of government, there has been systematic obstruction and clear delaying tactics by the Houthis to hinder the process.
Q. How do you view the practices of the Houthis, which have been rejected by many? What would be the impact on them and on the country in general especially after they stormed into the Sunni mosques?
A. This project is very dangerous for Yemen. This is not simply a project for the protection of a rebellious group only but it is a regional project spearheaded by Iran which is seeking to embroil the country in a sectarian war. This project is not at all distant from what goes on in Syria and Iraq. Some Iranian officials have already been talking about seizing control of an Arab capital, Sanaa. And this is a fact; Sanaa is indeed occupied by the Houthis.
Last week, in particular, was full of violations. They looted buildings, schools, charities and some mosques. They stormed into the homes of political opponents, not to mention exploiting children and arming them.
Had the Yemeni people not been sensible and wise, had they not been clinging to a peaceful process, thus far and to the last minute, violence would have been responded to with violence and the entire country would have been pushed into a civil war, although one may say that the civil war has in fact begun. So far, though, the Yemeni people have refused to meet violence with violence and have refused to transform this war into a sectarian conflict. The Houthis have been seizing Sunni mosques and expelling their imams. They have been banning and expelling Sunnis and assaulting them while imposing their own appointed imams.
Such practices could certainly lead to civil war. Yet, Yemenis are not known for Sunni-Shiite conlfict. The Yemenis are one people who recognise their pluralism, coexist and cooperate together. Regrettably, this Iranian project is aimed at turning Yemen into an arena of sectarian war. Only the Yemeni people are capable of confronting and defeating this project. It is the Yemeni people who have thus far resisted being dragged toward this despicable possibility.
Q. Don’t the Houthis have the right to participate in political life and in governance, especially given that they were part of the revolution of change in 2011?
A. Of course. We have always appealed to the armed Houthi groups to transform into a political party. We continue to ask them do so and be active partners in the political process. Their first ever participation in the revolution happened when we called on them to abandon their weapons and join the ranks of the revolutionaries. They did indeed take part in the National Dialogue Conference and in all of its committees. They were the most effective and most vocal party inside the conference, and the outcomes were to their satisfaction.
We also invited them to participate in the formation of the government as a political party but they refused. Even now, despite their racist and sectarian practices and their use of violence to bring down the institutions, the capital, Amran and Saadah, they have been included in the peace and partnership agreement which states explicitly their participation in the government. As such, all doors are open before them for political action. However, thus far they have refused true partnership and are proceeding with the implementation of a foreign agenda to bring down the Yemeni state instead of forging a national partnership.
Anyway, we hope that they will come to their senses and place the interests of Yemen and the Yemenis first. They should know that the Yemeni people are appealing to them not to be embroiled any further in the destruction of the state because the people will not accept this and will stand up against them.
In order to achieve this they are required to abide by the most important outcome of the outcomes of the national dialogue and the agreement over the transfer of power, namely the handing over of weapons. This would apply to all armed groups, foremost among them the Houthis. Arms should be the monopoly of the state alone. They may participate in the political process. However, what is happening so far is that they are refusing to surrender their weapons to the state. In fact, what they have been doing is disarming the state.
Q. Where are the youth of the revolution? Why have we not found them playing any role in recent events?
A. The youth of the revolution are peaceful. They do not believe in violence and have never resorted to violence. Consequently, you are certain not to hear their voice when the sound of bullets, artillery and betrayal is so loud. The peaceful youth of the revolution were a main factor of success in the first phase of the revolution that led to the downfall of the corrupt Ali Abdullah Saleh and his family. They were very effective in the transitional phase that led to the selection of a new president and the formulation of national dialogue outcomes. They were involved actively in the follow-up to the process of transferring power and implementing the outcomes of the dialogue.
Today, they are also active in refusing to allow the country to be dragged into violence. The youth of the revolution are in communication with each other and their dynamic will be more organised and more conspicuous after the government is formed. Everyone will see and hear the voice of the revolution’s youth, in a more peaceful way and in a much bigger way, after the government is formed, as they call for an end to corruption and for standing up to disarm the armed militias, build the state institutions, restructure the army and the police and establish the authority and hegemony of the state over all parts of the republic. I would like to stress that everyone will hear the loud voice of the youth after the government has been formed. Today, too, their voice is loud in refusing counter violence with violence.
Q. Why have you changed your mind and retracted the call for organising a rally on Sunday evening? Instead you affirmed non-participation in any activity prior to the formation of the government.
A. Indeed, I was one of those who called for demonstrations in the revolution squares. These were supposed to take place on Sunday night. However, we then decided it would be better to postpone them until after the government is formed. Yet, some youth did demonstrate and their activities were positive and in opposition to the armed militias. But we, as components of the revolution’s youth and many of the other forces, preferred to postpone taking to the revolution squares and postpone all of our moves until after the formation of the government so that there would be a specific party to which our demands can be submitted. The president cannot do anything now. Therefore, we have to wait until the formation of the government is done so as to submit our demands to a specific authority that is supposed to be in a position to meet them.
Q. What would happen in case the formation of the new government is delayed or hindered?
A. We would be facing a very serious and gloomy situation. This would lead to prolonging the state vacuum, which would in turn increase considerably the potential for violence. Armed groups would seek to exploit this situation further. However, in any case we have to try to the best of our ability to maintain the peace. God willing, the government will be announced soon.
Q. How do you view the suicide operations that Al-Qaida has been carrying out against the Houthis?
A. I oppose any suicide operation carried out by Al-Qaida against the Houthi militias. I consider these attacks to be acts of terrorism no less hateful than the acts of the militias that are occupying Sanaa.
Q. How do you view the stance of the international community towards the crisis in Yemen?
A. Not up to our expectations. The Yemeni people have been let down by the international community after placing their confidence in a process sponsored by internationally. In fact, the international community let the Yemeni people down in the first instant when it failed to deal seriously and decisively with Ali Abdullah Saleh and permitted him to play a political role, first as head of the Popular National Congress Party while knowing that he was engaged in the process of undermining the political process and the Yemeni Republic. They failed to attend to this and failed to confront it.
There was only a mere warning from the international community when Saleh was in fact orchestrating all the sabotage operations aimed at obstructing the transitional process. These included damaging power lines and oil pipes, forging alliances with the armed groups (Houthis and Al-Qaida), the assassination attempt on the life of the provisional president, the attempts to thwart the National Dialogue Conference, and other operations.
So, the international community did not play its role during the first phase, failed to punish Saleh and allowed the Houthi militias to spread and ignored all their violations. To date there has been no firm and decisive position on the part of the international community against the Houthis. It would harm the security of the region and the security of the entire world for the Houthis to continue to be treated in such a way.
Q. How do you view the role played by the competent UN envoy Jamal Ben Omar?
A. He played a good role in the previous phase while trying to sponsor the transitional process. He tried to steer it in a serious manner. However, he also made mistakes. Regrettably, it was not up to him. The matter lies in the hands of the Security Council member states who failed to undertake their responsibilities. He does not have the right to veto; he was only a UN envoy. The five permanent member states did not carry out the role expected of them.
Q. Are way facing a scenario similar to that of Hezbollah in Lebanon or is the Iraqi scenario likely to be repeated in Yemen?
A. We have two strategies. First, the Hezbollah scenario in Yemen, whereby the Houthis would become the principal power brokers and manipulators. They may even play that role in a much more powerful way than Hezbollah itself in that they may have overall control of all state institutions. Second, the downfall of the Yemeni state, and this is not only because Yemen is targeted but the entire region is as well, starting from Riyadh all the way to Dubai. This is the plan of the Houthis. I would like to reaffirm that we shall resist this plan. We shall not allow the implementation of a plot that will turn Sanaa into the gate through which Iran will bring down the entire Arab region.
Q. How can you resist this plot, the one you have just spoken about? And how can Yemen be delivered from its crisis, in general?
A. All, inside as well as outside, should come together. The Yemeni national forces should unite. The international community and the region’s states, foremost among them the Gulf States, should collaborate in order to abort this Iranian-backed project. Through our own unity we can together stop it and prevent the decline that is being plotted. We are capable of achieving this. Yemen is the one that will protect the security of the region and of the world. Of course, this is not simple. It requires the forging together of all the efforts of all parties in order to be able to make it.