Interview with Galal Maktari, founder of the Independent Yemen Group

Filippo Dionigi met Galal Maktari, founder member of the newly established Independent Yemen Group, to discuss with him the events taking place in Yemen during the last two dramatic years, and the non-violence that has given way to factionalism.

Filippo Dionigi
1 April 2012

Filippo Dionigi met Galal Maktari, founder member of the newly established Independent Yemen Group, to discuss with him the events taking place in Yemen during the last months.

Maktari is a Yemeni who has lived in the UK for a long time, and studied for a doctorate u nder the guidance of the late Fred Halliday of the London School of Economics. He has worked as a lecturer at the University of Oran in Algeria, a consultant  in various Arab Gulf countries and for the las t 19 years as a college lecturer in the UK.  He is presently writing a book on the influence of foreign powers on   Yemen’s domestic politics.

Recently he was among the founders of the Independent Yemen Group (IYG), a charity which aims to connect Yemenis in the Diaspora and Europe and raise awareness about the sitaution in Yemen.  IYG also initiates and administers developmental and aid programmes utilising a markedly different approach to the socially engineered projects undertaken by international organisations such as the World Bank. “They have brought the Yemeni  rural economy to virtual  collapse” says Maktari “it was an underdeveloped economy and in many ways backward but still served the needs of the rural  population. But the impact of globalisation and high profile development projects administered by a high maintenance expatriate community, and an extremely corrupt local political infrastructure, have impoverished Yemenis greatly, causing wave upon wave of emigration”.

The Independent Yemen Group manages for example a literacy project accessed through internet  radio in rural areas and using local Yemeni NGO resources. It has also established an International committee for its Justice for Yemenis Project; campaigning on bahlf of Yemenis who suffered thirty three years of Human Rights abuses by the Saleh regime. Its work somewhat complements the work of organisations such as Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch, whose handling of these issues, while groundbreaking nevertheless, according to Maktari, often lacks an effective follow-up, due mainly to the selective application of international political will between different regions and situations.

oD: In December 2010 the General’s People Congress (the political formation headed by President ‘Ali Abdullah Saleh) unilaterally amended the country's electoral law, infuriating the opposition represented by the Joint Meeting Parties (a variegated coalition of parties). Was the Yemen uprising triggered by this event?

GM: I think we need to go further back in time. The real spirit of the revolution emerged earlier in the south in 2007 with the Herak (movement). In fact the whole phenomenon of peaceful demonstrations which have become the main trend also in the cases of Tunisia and Egypt, could be said to have actually started in Aden, south of Yemen, against the rule of Saleh, because of his mishandling of the entire situation and because of his attitude to the southern part of the country as simply “the booty of war”. This is what happened in fact after 1994 when the south fell under the control of the north and was “left open” for people to come. Many office-holders in the south found themselves summarily displaced by someone coming from the army, from one tribe or another. Massive expanses of land (some of them as big as UK counties) were appropriated by Saleh’s cronies. The whole army of the south was dismantled and so on.

There was a lot of grievance in the South. But the way resistance was approached was “Alherak" -  resistance only through peaceful demonstrations. Many people were killed and the news never got out about this, although it was well documented. Yes, after that the next step was in 2011, when the next phase began to unfold.

oD: so what exactly happened after the December amendments of the electoral law? The first rallies in San‘a took place in January especially at the University of San’a.

GM: We were all pleasantly surprised to see people gathering momentum in the series of January rallies. Then the violent reaction of the regime had a snowball effect on the process. The involvement of groups from civil society was also unexpected; mainly the women, the case of Tawakkul Karman is exemplary (although not the only one); and generally the young people, but not only them, all joined, leaving tribal affiliations behind them (which became relevant again, but at a later stage) and they all chanted the same slogan : “irhal irhal irhal…” (go, go, go…). You could see that there was a process of social change taking place that was really amazing .

oD: How were the Tunisian events and then the Egyptian events influential in this process of mass and pacific uprising?

GM: Well, as I said, the process started earlier with the Herak (movement) in the south, but obviously there were a myriad of connections between the northern and the southern activists. The youth were the key element in the uprising, but the other important element was that it was a peaceful process and still remains a peaceful movement.  The way they organised themselves in these squares was key, in such a way they had their own wardens to make sure that no one would come in with guns or any other weapons. They rigorously insisted upon this and it wsn't a simple decision. They suffered for this. Usually all these young tribesmen normally carry weapons. But this time they left these at home and went into the squares unarmed. Despite the fact that in Yemen weapons are everywhere there was relatively little collateral damage on the side of the civil population. That is not to say that hundreds of protesters were not killed and thousands maimed.

The Tunisian and Egyptian events acted as a booster to the revolution in Yemen. Once things got under way in Tunisia and Ben Ali was overthrown, the pace of change quickened and the Egyptian events swiftly followed. After that, everybody was thinking that the same would happen in the whole Arab world. But in Yemen it was already going on. The Tunisian and Egyptian events conveyed a sense of moral support to  the Yemeni protestors and helped them strengthen their resolve to carry on with the revolution. It also demonstrated the commonality of grievances of the Arab masses against their oppressive and corrupt rulers.

oD: So on the second of February there was the “day of rage”, but Saleh did not make any meaningful concession to this. Do you think at a later stage he may have begun to feel more pressure, for example with the visit of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton who also met members of the opposition and not only Saleh on her visit?

GM: But this is more related to American policy, and their determination to “handle” the situation. We could go into US security concerns over al-Qaeda in Yemen, but in my opinion this is highly exaggerated. Al Qaeda could be wiped out in no time in Yemen, especially if there were no people within and without the country manipulating and supporting it.

But more generally, the Americans like to “keep the lid” on what is going on and not just in Yemen. After the initial shock of 2011, they redeveloped their policies to start to deal more methodically with the Arab spring. As you can see, they began to deal with the Ikhwan (the Muslim Brotherhood) in Egypt, for example. 

This attempt to control the process rather than cope with a “runaway train” also happened  in Yemen. This is why Saleh was supported by the Americans and they still are supporting him; with the Europeans seemingly just following the American lead. The Americans like to keep the situation as it is, because if they lose control of Yemen they might also lose control of other very important areas as the Gulf, the other side of the Red Sea in front of Yemen, Somalia and so on.  This is why they are supporting Ali Abdullah Saleh. In fact he is still running the country as a shadow president.

oD: Can we go back to the events of the 2011? March 12 was the first serious repression of the Yemeni popular demonstrations, with seven killed by the security forces. On March 18, 52 protestors were killed by the security forces.

GM: exactly, that was Jum‘at al Karama (the Friday of Dignity).

oD: The escalation of the repression did not stop the uprising, however it may even have reinforced it. It was in April that an initiative for a peaceful transition was proposed primarily by the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The primary aim of the proposal was to obtain the resignation of Saleh and then hold elections for a new president.

GM: The situation at that stage was getting out of hand, and becoming too much to deal with. The main players at the international level were the Americans, whereas at the regional level the Saudis had prominence. It has to be mentioned that originally the plan included Qatar along with the other GCC countries, who then withdrew because of the way Saleh was dealing with the negotiations, playing for time. Every time a minor step forward was achieved in the negotiations he would have created an even bigger problem to solve. In that period, there was also the split within the army and in particular Ali Mohsen (head of the First Mechanised Brigade) abandoned Saleh particularly after the events of the Friday of Dignity. We can argue whether this was a family feud  between the al-Ahmar family and Saleh (all of whom belong to large Hashid tribe,  who have always fought each other over power positions), but the fact is that at that stage Mohsen leaned on the side of the revolution.

oD: Was this the tipping point for Saleh 

GM: Yes that is right. The position of Hamid al-Ahmar is very confusing too because he played around so much and he has extensive interests. At one point you might assume that it was more a tribal logic he was pursuing than a political position, but at other times you were convinced that the revolution has really pulled through and that one way or another it was dragging along behind it all the people within Yemeni society. The role played by the traditional opposition parties is another element in all this, too complex to be dealt with here, but according to many amongst the youth movement, they betrayed the revolution by accepting the GCC initiative.  

 Saleh was obviously very manipulative. When he was attacked in the Mosque he was still hoping that he would keep the lid on the situation. But Saleh could nevber have kept this kind of system and approach going without the support of the Saudis and the Americans. That is what kept him going for so long and why he is still there. The other day Alain Duncan (UK Minister for International Development) was in Sana‘a meeting the new president Abdel-Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and on his way out from the palace he saw Saleh coming in. Saleh was holding his meeting in the room next door to that of  Hadi. He is definitely acting as a shadow president. When you think that Saleh as the president of his party, still holds fifty per cent of the government (he recently threatened to pull out his ministers from the government), controls a great deal of the military and is hoarding  a significant portion of the wealth of the country - you have to ask:  Who is ruling in Yemen then?

oD: The months after April were characterised by tough negotiations. Saleh bought time in every way imaginable not to sign the GCC-led proposal. The opposition in May signed but Saleh did not. On June 3, Saleh is seriously wounded in a bomb attack which kills 11 and seriously wounds him.

GM: Yes during these months the protestors were caught up in the middle of what was increasingly looking like a tribal conflict which became particularly bloody. After the attack on Saleh a committee was set up to investigate the facts, and Mohsen Alahmar and others were implicated in the assassination plot.

oD: Saleh then receives medical treatment in Saudi Arabia where he remains until October. October seemed to mark the beginning of a counter-revolution.

GM:Yes, that is correct. October was the beginning of a counter revolution. He spoke to his supporters from Saudi and promised them a come back, and he did come back indeed.

oD: Which was nonetheless only partially successful. The UN Security Council then approved a resolution which demanded him to sign the GCC transition proposal and then came his resignations and new elections. UN envoy Jamal Bin Omar was among the key actors pushing for approval of the proposal.

GM: Yes, but the process was bound to go that way anyway. If it was not led by Ben Omar it would have been done by somebody else. The whole GCC initiative was due to the need of the hegemonic powers to have peace on their doorstep.  All this business of democracy and democratization after all is anathema to the Gulf States anyhow: so to have a real democracy in Yemen is not in their interest. They want peace because they do not want another Somalia in Yemen. They used both sides of this argument: those who wanted Saleh to remain overstated the risk of a new al-Qaeda-infested Yemen; whereas those who supported the GCC proposal also portrayed the risks of Yemen as regionally destabilizing.

oD: Eventually, in January, Saleh obtained an immunity law for himself and all those others involved in crimes they allegedly committed. He left the country only to return a few weeks later.

GM: And right after that there was the formation of the unity government. Half of its members were from Saleh’s ruling party and loyal to him. The other half were nominated among the ranks of the opposition. So the opposition became part of the government which was quite a contradiction in terms.

But the most important point here is the exclusion of the youth; the new government was designed like that because in this way Saleh would have maintained his control over the government. With this formula Saleh still controls the government, the army and virtually everything else. This is why the youth were eventually excluded altogether, although their representatives may have not made a difference anyway.

oD: So who is the new president, Abdel-Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, elected in the non-contested elections of February?

GM: I call him “the sphinx”. He has never said a word in nineteen years. He used to be in the military in the south, then he defected and was very skilfully deployed by Saleh in his government to show that there was a balance between North and South in Yemen. Saleh always called him “his deputy”, but as a matter of fact there was no legal procedure that ever guaranteed him this status - he just called him that.

During this whole period, he was in the shadows, so he was totally unknown. He was a very convenient person to fit into this picture, basically because of his anonymity. Other candidates would have created problems of internal struggles for power whereas he was neutral in a way. Maybe whoever wanted him there already knew that he does not have “teeth to bite”. How is he going to aquit himself? We have no idea. 

oD: What are the identificable items on President Hadi’s agenda?

GM: He will be a president for two years as a transition figure and he is supposed to facilitate and organise a national conference in which all parties and all constitutive elements of Yemen are brought together. They call it a national dialogue. But the genealogy of this dialogue is characterised by years and years of attempts which brought nil result. So, many are very suspicious of this process. On the other hand, there are others who are more positive about this in general, recognising that getting rid of Saleh was a first step forward. But in my opinion this has not really happened yet.

The second thing is that Hadi will need to use this dialogue process to deal with the situations in the south and the Houthis in the north as well as some other not so prominent issues. The Houthis were initially used by Saleh as a counterbalance to the rise of Islah (a Yemeni Islamist party) but then they began to develop their own claims and Saleh waged a devastating war against them; the so-called 'six wars'. All they were asking for, fundamentally, was to be left alone to practice their own Zaidi doctrines.

oD: On the other hand, the issue of the South is characterised by the fact that the internal front is fractured

GM: Yes in a way. But this is again a bit exaggerated also. Because, when you have a situation like the one that has pertained over recent months; breaking into factions is one obvious consequence. There is an old guard in the South who wanted to jump on the bandwagon of the revolution to demand secession. Notwithstanding, there are various issues that regulate the dialogue in the south, such as UN Security Council resolutions and the Jordan Agreement of 1994. But this old guard still looks for independence first, and then, perhaps, it would be willing to renegotiate unification with the north. Then there is the more genuine Herak (movement) which still demands autonomy and retribution for all the injustices that occurred in the South. But there call is for reparation within the framework of a united and democratic Yemen based on citizenship; just like the other young revolutionaries in the north. I think, despite the fact that there are many people with strong views; the majority of the people are for a united Yemen with a different kind of structure, for example of a federalist kind.

oD: So Hadi's first task should be to make the national dialogue work ?

GM: Yes the national dialogue needs to lead to the drawing up of a new constitution redesigning the institutional system and guaranteeing fresh elections.

But the real problem is that Saleh is still there, wanting to see the collapse of all this. Saleh will oppose this institutional restructuring, in particular the restructuring of the army which is a key item among the most urgent on Hadi’s agenda. If the army was to be restructured on a national basis, like a professional army, where merit is the norm rather than tribal affiliations, then Saleh would lose his control over the country.

This is where the Americans are meddling a lot. They are arguing that a restructuring of the army does not necessarily mean changing the individuals within the army, but simply changing the structure. Their aim is to bring Ali Mohsen back, but not to change the composition of the army over which Saleh has control through his sons and relatives. 

So the national dialogue, the south and Houthis issues and army reform are the top items on the agenda and they can work only if Saleh is kept off the political scene. The whole thing could easily collapse, spiralling out into yet more violence. If it goes in a successful direction then perhaps even the youth movement may eventually take up the chance to go along with the process, because they will maybe see that they have achieved their aims anyhow, although not all the conditions that they have been demanding.

oD: Even though the immunity of Saleh will not be easily accepted by the youth of the revolution…

GM: Nobody really accepted it, neither locally nor internationally, and I do not think it will be effective. At the end of the day there is still tribal law and shari‘a law, from which he will be forever running away. And if he ever comes here to the UK, we will be here waiting for him!

I think the revolution will carry on; but we will just have to watch to see how it will develop.



Filippo Dionigi is a PhD Candidate specialising on Lebanon and Hezbollah, he is presently organising the Graduate Conference of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (https://sites.google.com/site/brismesgs2012/)

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