Nadia Al-Sakkaf is the editor-in-chief of The Yemen Times. She spoke by telephone with The Media Line’s Felice Friedson:
The Media Line: Nadia, did Yemen go through a revolution?
AL-SAKKAF: It was a semi-revolution for Yemeni women in terms of being able to participate strongly in the public sphere in a way they had never done before. For certain women, it was the first time ever they had a voice which they could display publicly and feel safe and accepted by the male-dominated society. But other than that, I don’t think it had any sustainable or institutional element so I wouldn’t say it was a revolution, I would say it was a phenomenon that happened for a purpose and doesn’t have any long-term consequences.
TML: You recently reported in The Yemen Times about an alarming amount of explosives found in Aden. Tell us what is going on in the aftermath of this uprising.
AL-SAKKAF: Well, during the uprising, there was lots of state control and the policing was not as strong as it was even before. The rule of law was not strong. But with the uprising, it was chaos and so the armed men were very prominent and had guns and all sorts of weapons, from heavy to light artillery, accessible to everyone. They also had armed groups of militias and gangs—whether it was just gangs or both—there were more organized groups with ties to Al-Qa’ida. This allowed them to spread a gang mentality and obviously a lot of resources were available and found by people.
TML: A lot of munitions were delivered by the United States to Yemen. Was this weaponry used by those opposing the government?
AL-SAKKAF: As far as I know, they said there is no direct evidence that the weapons the U.S. Government has given have been used against protesters. However, it’s not about what sort of weapons were there, it’s about the availability of weapons. There are warlords from everywhere—from the States to Somalia to the Gulf region—who are benefiting from these conflicts. You have Yemen on the United Nations “list of shame” naming governments who use child soldiers, yet, last year President Obama authorized significant support for Yemen’s army, including weapons. Why do you have a government on the same list—being accused of using weapons against civilians and having child soldiers – while another government is providing weapons regardless of how they are being used?
TML: President Ali Abdullah Saleh is in New York seeking medical treatment but he says he is going to return home to Yemen before the elections. Yet, his successor, Abd-Rabu Mansour Hadi, is running unopposed. So what do you make of this?
AL-SAKKAF: I don’t think Saleh will be in Yemen before elections. The agreement and the deal of him being in the United States was to allow Yemen peace during the elections. He will have to come back anyway to hand over the power to Hadi. So officially, he has to be Yemen after the elections. Having a lone candidate has been a controversial issue for many Yemenis and a lot of them are not interested in participating in the elections because a lot of them feel it is a referendum. They don’t have [other] people to choose from. I am, however, in favor of the elections because I feel it is Yemen’s chance to turn a page and to allow us to really move into transition in an official way.
TML: Where do you go from there?
AL-SAKKAF: Preparation for the elections is happening as we speak and everything is happening according to plan. There are security measures deployed to make sure it happens peacefully, including having security people around the elections centers. Another measure that will help this happen peacefully is not having Saleh in the country because having him not around, his supporters will be less persuaded to create any conflict. After the elections happen on the 21st, when Hadi will officially become the president of Yemen, then he will follow according to the Gulf initiatives road map which will last between two and three years. It has a list of items and a clear map on all levels, whether it’s economic, political or restructuring of the constitution and so on.
TML: You were instrumental in creating a book breaking through the stereotypes and telling the experiences of female candidates. Are we going to see any women running in this coming election?
AL-SAKKAF: Surprisingly, there were already two female candidates who have already voiced their interests. One of them was Tawakkul Karman and another was Al-Hamdi, who is the daughter of a former president of Yemen. Those women and other male candidates who had voiced their interest in running for president were not allowed to do so because the parliament closed the door and counted out everybody other than Hadi. So this election is a closed election, or rather it is just a referendum regarding the next president. Following this, there will be a parliamentary election in I suppose three years time. I think then [there might be more female participation] depending on how the transition goes and whether the committees for constitutional reforms will have more female representation. It depends on the two to three years and how we conduct ourselves and how visible the women are.
TML: How far has this unrest—you don’t call it a revolution—set Yemen back in the past year?
AL-SAKKAF: Unfortunately, I wouldn’t call this revolution a “popular” revolution. I don’t think it’s one that grows from the community. It is one that is mostly political. Yemen has gone through a lot of protests, in fact three years ago it started with Tawakkul Karman in what we called a freedom square in front of the cabinet. There was a protest every Tuesday. It is just because of the uprising in Tunisia and Egypt that it became more publicized and more visible and it made a difference. In Yemen, we have been holding banners and heading to the streets for three years before 2011. Now, if you talk to the people in the protests and in [Cairo’s] Tahrir and Freedom squares, if you ask, “What do you want?” they say “I want to topple the regime.” And if you ask them, “What do you want as a citizen—as a man or woman, as a person?’—they say, “I don’t know.” So we have a problem here that the revolution and the uprising, whatever it is called, doesn’t relate to their daily lives, and that is a problem. Maybe later, a few years from now, there will probably be another revolution if the transition doesn’t go smoothly or if the new government doesn’t act differently than previous ones did.
TML: I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up the tribal communities and the dealings with Al-Qa’ida which are of utmost concern on a global scale. Do you feel that Al-Qa’ida has gained momentum in this unrest and that the international community could be doing more?
AL-SAKKAF: Well, there is one thing to know first: Al Qa’ida is real. Their presence in Yemen is a fact. Now, how big are they; how organized and how influential, these are various questions that have relevance and different answers from whomever you speak to. We know for a fact that the real threat in Yemen is not Al-Qa’ida per se, as an organization, but the Jihadi movement that is growing because of the lack of control and the lack of vision as a nation. Lots of women associate with Jihadis as an alternative because they don’t have any other association. They are not loyal to the country. They don’t have a certain vision they should follow. They don’t have something to unite them or something to believe in, so they go for any other cause. The international community has been thinking of Al-Qa’ida as a terrorist threat. They are thinking of arms and weapons and fighting them with drones. You can never fight terrorism by force. You can never fight terrorism with arms and guns because there will always be another Bin Laden. The best way I believe to fight terrorism is through security and this is by creating an intense alert among the community where potential Al-Qa’ida or potential terrorists groups are so that these communities reject Al-Qa’ida and give them a hard time. If the terrorists groups or Jihadis had found themselves unwelcome in Yemen, they won’t have been able to stay. But they find themselves welcome in many places because the places they go are poor, impoverished and they don’t have anything to believe in, Al-Qa’ida comes, gives them money and something to believe in. They feel an emotional void of not having a national identity as citizens.
TML: Are Yemenis talking about the Syrian situation; and what parallels do they see?
AL-SAKKAF: Syria is beyond my understanding. Russia’s position and the Arab League. I don’t know what they are waiting for. Having 100 people killed every day doesn’t seem a good enough reason for the world to act seriously towards it. Even the Security Council is reluctantly doing things. I just don’t know how something like this can exist without somebody putting an end to it. Yemenis are having protests every day in honor of the Syrians and they are, in different places, heading to the streets saying Syria is being burnt, where is the UN and where is the intentional justice? That’s all we can do ourselves as this point as people: condemn and head to the Streets and try to support the people in Syria. Politically speaking, it’s something I don’t understand.
TML: Among Middle Eastern countries, some align themselves with Iran, others don’t. Where do the Yemenis see themselves?
AL-SAKKAF: Yemen as a country, the official stance deals neutrally with Iran. There’s a political representation here and the political representation of Yemen in Tehran. But believe that there is a lot of tension. A lot of Iranians are feeling continuously unwelcome in the country [Yemen]. Some Iranian development projects or businesses have been closed down and people who have visited Iran are having a tough time with Yemeni security.
TML: I was in Yemen over a year ago with you, Nadia, and things have changed quite a bit since. At that point there was a coffee conference taking place. It was backed by USAID and many others that were looking toward the future of the coffee industry. Is there any discussion of economic development? Is it even on the radar?
AL-SAKKAF: Definitely. The discussion is there. There is supposedly a plan on paper. How much of that plan really gets implemented and how seriously that plan is taken depends on the people implementing it. So far, the economy has been the second priority in Yemen, not number one. The number one priority in Yemen has been politics. Until improving the economy becomes the No. 1 concern, I don’t think much will happen in terms of the country’s economic prosperity.
TML: You are a strong proponent of breaking the glass ceiling and moving women’s rights forward. Have you seen anything positive in the past year or has this, too, taken a back seat?
AL-SAKKAF: It has moved forward. If not for anything, it has moved forward because of evolution—because today is a better day than yesterday. People are learning more; more people are there in different positions—especially women. And so, it’s progress. Now, last year in 2011, how much has there been a difference in terms of women in decision-making positions? Well, Yemeni women have been more at liberty to participate in politics than women, for example, in the Gulf countries. However, the rise of Tawakkul Karman winning the Nobel Peace Prize was a big boost. Then, as political leaders recognized in the streets, it was also a big push. Beyond politics, if you look at businesses, a lot of women who owned their own businesses suffered a lot during the recession in 2011 and because of the uprising. A lot of women lost their jobs. If there was a family, and there was a choice to make for a boy or a girl, because of poverty and economic recession, they had to choose to educate the boy and not the girl. Still, society does not allow for women to rise in public when it comes ownership of money. That is the hardest glass ceiling we need to break, which is access to capital and becoming business owners. It is one thing to be a political leader because it doesn’t really pay much unless you are a corrupt politician. But otherwise, there is a gap between men and women that is based on economy.
TML: Nadia Al-Sakkaf, editor-in-chief of The Yemen Times, continued success. Thank you.