The Man in the Middle of Yemen’s Transition: An Interview with Abdul Karim Al-Eryani

Since 1972, Abdul Karim Al-Eryani has had a hand in Yemini politics. He has held many ministerial and government positions, including as prime minister from 1998-2001. He is currently a close adviser of the president of Yemen.

In this interview, Mr. Al-Eryani discusses the current transition process in Yemen and the regional dynamics since the uprisings; al-Qaeda in Yemen; and what to do about Syria.

The interview was conducted by Walter Kemp, IPI’s Director for Europe and Central Asia, with assistance from Abdullah Alsaidi, Senior Fellow in IPI’s Middle East program.

Walter Kemp (WK): You have been a close adviser to the outgoing president of Yemen (Ali Abdullah Saleh), and now you are close adviser to the new president of Yemen (Abd Rabbuh Mansur Al-Hadi). That would suggest that either you are a survivor or even a king-maker, or perhaps not much has changed in Yemen. Can you tell us about your role in the transition process in Yemen?

Abdul Karim Al-Eryani (AKA-E): First of all I have never been a king-maker. But I have been involved in politics in Yemen since 1972, I have been in the government on and off since 1974, including in a number of senior positions like prime minister. I became a political adviser to the former president in 2001.

Theoretically, I am still in the same post, but the new president has issued two new decrees: one appointing a three-man committee to advise him (and I am one of them); and one creating an eight man committee for outreach with political parties, non-governmental organizations, and women’s groups to get them to agree to take part in national dialogue which is expected to start in October this year. So not a king-maker, but you could call it a spice in every government.

WK: Did you think about joining the protestors last year?

AKA-E: Someone said to me, “Come, why don’t you join us in the square?” I said, “I am in favor of change, but I can do more on the inside than you can do in the streets.”

WK: How would you characterize the transition process at the moment? From the outside, it looks quite precarious, but what is your impression from the inside?

AKA-E: The situation is precarious because of instability, and events like the latest tragedy when al-Qaeda bombed an army barracks killing 105 people (mostly soldiers), and injuring around 300. That creates the impression that Yemen is in a very precarious situation. However, taking into consideration the youth revolution and the popular support that it received, and when you consider that civil war has been avoided thanks to the intervention of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), these are positive steps. Furthermore, the president stepped down and the former vice president is a fully elected president of Yemen with the support of six million voters out of 12 million. The fact that he enjoys around fifty percent of the vote is an indication that the people of Yemen want stability, security, and development.

But the general weakness of the state and of governance throughout the country is still a serious problem. Before the revolution, the state was becoming very weak, indecisive, and frivolous. I think the long-serving president became tired of ruling. As the state became weaker and weaker, that gave al-Qaeda the opportunity to infiltrate remote areas of the country. Then came the youth revolution. The economic impact of all this has been devastating.

So yes, Yemen looks quite precarious. But we have a history of statehood which means that no matter how weak the state is, the national legacy takes over. However, the weakness today is happening in a situation that is totally different than in the past. People have so many weapons in their hands, people have many ideas in their mind, and that creates security problems for the country.

WK: You mentioned al-Qaeda. Already at the time of the attack on the USS Cole, people were saying that Yemen is a place where al-Qaeda was operating quite freely. Is it your impression that most of these people were from Yemen, or were they coming from elsewhere and exploiting Yemen’s “ungoverned spaces?”

AKA-E: As far as I know, the attack on the USS Cole was planned and carried out by Yemenis who were trained in Afghanistan. Today’s al-Qaeda, which is running a full-scale war against the Yemeni state (and the Yemeni state is fighting a full-scale war against al-Qaeda), is a multinational movement that has infiltrated Yemen over the past few years. The government is not only fighting Yemenis; they are fighting Egyptians, Saudis, even Mauritanians and Jordanians. That is why the US government today considers Yemen a more serious threat to US security than al-Qaeda in Pakistan, if you can believe that.

WK: Do you think that’s credible?

AKA-E: To tell you the truth, no. Just think of the massive difference in population between Pakistan and Yemen. No doubt, al-Qaeda is very active in Yemen. But if we can bring stability to the main population areas, al-Qaeda will not be able to penetrate there.

What is worrying is that al-Qaeda is coming very close to the Port of Aden. A few hundred kilometers west you have Bab el Mandeb, the choking point of international trade (from the Red Sea into the Gulf of Aden). There is great concern that if al-Qaeda captures Aden they could gain control of the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb. But I don’t think this will happen, especially now that the government is confronting al-Qaeda with full-scale war.

WK: If it’s so easy for pirates to operate in the Gulf of Aden, why don’t they link up with the terrorists?

AKA-E: The Gulf of Aden extends from Aden all the way to Karachi, so it is a large area to patrol. What is troubling is that the al-Shabaab movement is very well connected to al-Qaeda. Indeed, they recently declared that they have sent some of their fighters to help their brothers in Yemen.

WK: After that black day of March 18, 2011 when Yemeni government troops shot on protestors the army split. What efforts are being made to reunite the army?

AKA-E: The new president has good relations with both groups: the 1st Armored Division (that protected the youth revolution) and the Republican Guard. But the army is still split. We can still not say that it is unified under a single command and control. The United States is now taking charge of restructuring the army. The army needs to be put on a more modern footing.

WK: Some people think that there was too much external interference in some of the uprisings in North Africa, whether it was NATO in Libya or the GCC (Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf) in Bahrain. But you welcomed the GCC in Yemen. Why?

AKA-E: When the army split last spring, Yemen faced a civil war. The intervention of the GCC and the development of its plan, in cooperation with the government of Yemen, helped to stabilize the situation together with the UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Yemen, Jamal Benomar, who helped to negotiate the detailed implementation of the GCC initiative and on that basis change did take place in Yemen and the president resigned and a national election took place where a new president was elected. This took place under very stable circumstances compared to what happened in Libya.

WK: How would you characterize the relationship between Yemen and Saudi Arabia today?

AKA-E: I think the Saudis realize, for the first time that I can remember, that instability in Yemen will reflect itself on the security situation in their country–especially since many al-Qaeda leaders who escaped from Saudi Arabia fled to Yemen. For example, today, the man who is probably the world’s leading expert on undetectable bombs is a Saudi (al-Asiri) who works in a remote area in the eastern part of Yemen. He is alleged to have been behind a number of ingenious bomb plots, including the one that was foiled at the beginning of May. So the Saudis realize that instability in Yemen is dangerous for their own security.

WK: Let’s zoom out a bit and look at the region. With all of the recent uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, and all of the challenges of transition, what could be done to improve stability and cooperation among countries of the region?

AKA-E: As a collective group? They cannot do anything. They have different mentalities and different strategies. Each country will do what best suits its own security. But collectively… well, the Arab League, for example… I don’t want to be cruel, I don’t want to call it a dead horse, but…

WK: So how does the international community engage in the region?

AKA-E: Country by country. Countries of the region will never engage collectively. Of course among the GCC, I think because of Iran, there is a common goal, a common objective that they are working on. But take the case of Oman. Regardless of what the GCC leaders decide, Oman will always stand on what it thinks is best for its own national interests.

WK: Over the course of your life you have witnessed a lot of history in the region and in your country. Over the past few months it seems that history has its finger on fast forward. So much has happened so quickly. Are you optimistic about what you see? Or are you worried?

AKA-E: I think the changes are going to be permanent. A return to the pre-revolution period is impossible. However, no one today can predict when the fruits of that change will be harvested. The biggest concern in the minds of Arab liberals is the rise of Islamist movements. Now, I cannot say that these Islamists will be undemocratic, but we have to assess them. It’s quite possible that they might institute laws, especially in Egypt, that we haven’t seen since Muhammed Ali Pascha.

Sunni Muslims have not yet been tested. We know the Shia Islamists today, there is no ambiguity because of their behavior in Iran. But Sunni Islamists will now be tested. Are they going to be democratic? Are they going to be pluralistic? Are they going to accept norms that the 21st century has imposed on the lives of everyone? This remains to be tested.

WK: One final question. Many people, including the foreign minister of Russia, argue that the Yemeni model should be used in Syria. That is to say, the president should surrender power to the vice president. Is such an approach applicable in Syria?

AKA-E: I think that in Yemen, the initial idea for the president to step aside was taken by the president himself. We do not see that in Syria. There is also a sectarian dimension to the situation in Syria which is not present in Yemen. The Alawites in Syria must be convinced that the change is not going to create a backlash against them.

Today the Sunnis have not really comforted the Alawites, nor have the Alawites shown a willingness to relinquish power in order to win a safe exit with continued participation but not total control. The situation is very complex. I believe that Bashar will never rule, but he will never leave before a very bloody war that will last over a year.

WK: So what’s the solution?

AKA-E: Bashar must leave. But when would he leave, and where would he go? Furthermore, he still has a sectarian army, and they do not want to leave either.

WK: Thank you very much.