SHAFAQNA – A member of one of Yemen’s most powerful political dynasties, Yahya Mohammad Saleh, nephew to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and former Chief of Staff of the Central Security Forces, opened up to me this November on Yemen’s inner politics, from Paris, France, where he granted me an exclusive interview.
While many I’m sure, will chose to remember only his last name, and with one flick of the hand dismiss what the man has to say, I would advise that readers indeed pay heed, as for several decades Gen. Yahya Saleh witnessed the rise … and fall of many great political agendas and conflicting ambitions in Yemen, thus making him an invaluable guide.
Maybe more to the point, Mr Saleh has always operated against the grain in a system plagued by inertia. Often referred to as a maverick and a grand reformist, Mr Saleh has spent his decades in power quietly promoting and enacting change while others built flamboyant careers by leveraging God and nation.
Unlike most of Yemen’s old guards – whichever side of the river they are standing on today, Yahya Saleh has always defied conventions, forever pushing boundaries so that Yemen could truly sit a reflection of its people: politically independent, sovereign, financially empowered and socially progressive.
Unknown to most of his critics, Mr Saleh has been a long time advocate … if not the only one worth mentioning, for women rights at a time when a certain fanatic elite worked to disappear women back to the confines of their homes.
A player in his own rights, Gen. Saleh has always been more than just Yemen’s president’s nephew. Today, he is breaking his usual silence to offer his people a way out of war and territorial fragmentation.
At a time when Yemen continues to be torn apart by conflicting binaries – diseased by those paradigms Saudi Arabia imposed on the region to the tune of its own brand of theocratism, a new class of politicians has emerged; one bent on returning Yemen to its democratic aspirations and assert secularism as the new Republic’s bedrock.
“Either Yemen will rise a secular democracy or the region will,” warned Yahya Saleh from his hotel in Paris.
CATHERINE SHAKDAM – Mr Saleh speak to me of Yemen. Not the Yemen mainstream media has insisted on ignoring or misrepresenting but the real Yemen. The Yemen that remains to this day at death’s door courtesy of a very inhumane blockade and a punishing military campaign.
What is the point of all this? Is there an endgame to this war at all, or is destruction a end in itself?
YAHYA MoHAMMAD SALEH – My main concern today is to the people. Political wranglings are what they are, and nations will always promote those parties they feel will forward their immediate agendas. It would be foolish, and frankly pointless to seek vindication or even revenge. Yemenis have suffered too much for anyone to still ambition victory. What victory can anyone claim when children are dying in their hundreds and their thousands?
What future is their to build when we are losing an entire generation to cholera and diphtheria?
In war there is only loss to be had.
While politicians, experts, and activists have the luxury of their idealism, heads of state have to beat the burden of pragmatism, and realism. War has engulfed Yemen, and our duty is to find a resolution.
As a Yemeni I stand of course with my people. As a former state official, and military officer I also understand that serving my people means looking at the bigger picture. We can no longer afford to ONLY want to be right against our appointed enemies … this war has gone on for far too long and too many lives have been forfeited for anyone to still dare argue political righteousness.
Yemen needs peace. Yemenis deserve a future which will be theirs. To achieve this all parties need to return to the negotiating table. Doing otherwise will only lead to more destruction, and THAT would be criminal.
The Republic ought to be reasserted and reaffirmed … if not, Yemen will be lost to intolerance, fanaticism, and the region will be more unstable for it. The responsible to do, the only argument worth having today is towards peace and stability.
CATHERINE SHAKDAM – How would you formulate Yemen’s political and institutional future if you could?
YAHYA MOHAMMAD SALEH – Evidently peace needs to be formulated through the ballot box.
Yemenis deserve the democracy they so bravely fought for in 1962.
It is interesting how quickly we forgot History and how willing we are to rewrite it to fit political narratives.
Yemen has a vibrant democratic past. Maybe not in the way that western capitals would define it, but democratic nevertheless. Even when Yemen was organised as a kingdom back under the reign of Queen Sheba, decisions were made through consultancy via the Shura Council. Yemen tribal system is organised according to such principle as well. To look upon Yemen and deny that democracy is in fact part of our traditions is to reject Yemen’s true nature.
I would like to simply return Yemen to its roots, and use our traditions to architect a new democratic beginning – one anchored in secularism and progressive liberalism.
Of course this will require courage and decisive reforms. The real question is can we afford not to?
Can we deny that for every day Yemen is at war, we are empowering those very parties: terror militants, to build a safe haven?
The only victory we should worried about is that we ought to claim against terrorism.
CATHERINE SHAKDAM – You speak of Yemen’s republic and Yemen’s democratic future with great confidence, but how do we move past the status quo? How do we return to the negotiating table when all parties seem so very determine to war each other to the bitter end?
YAHYA MOHAMMAD SALEH – Let’s start with ending Yemen’s blockade. Civilians should not have to pay the price of an elite’s ambitions. A country should not be held ransom to anyone’s political agenda.
Yemen has been set back decades. The reforms the former government successfully implemented in terms of women rights, social empowerment, education, and economic reforms have been wiped out. Our focus now should be towards rebuilding our future, and securing the integrity of the region as a whole.
I refuse to demonise any one party for the sake of being right. It is not about being right but about doing the right thing by Yemen.
I love my country, and my duty is to our people.
CATHERINE SHAKDAM – What now?
YAHYA MOHAMMAD SALEH – What now? Now we have a responsibility towards all Yemenis to rise above political disputes and political vindication.
Now we fight for peace and end war.
Now we absolutely must find a way forward to protect civilian lives. Too much blood has flown for any one party to dare argue otherwise.
For every day we cannot broker a resolution more Yemenis are paying with their lives and their livelihood.
Peace is no longer a question mark to ponder over, but a national obligation.