By Cynthia Johnston, Reuters March 29, 2011
SANAA - Western countries should support protests seeking to remove Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to help build strong ties for the future, an opposition figure who is a rival of the current leader said on Tuesday.
Sheikh Hamid al-Ahmar, a key tribal figure who also belongs to the Islamist party Islah, said a post-Saleh Yemen would be able to control a regional arm of al-Qaida, which uses the impoverished Arabian Peninsula state as a base.
"I think that the international community, the United States and the Europeans, should stand firmly with the Yemeni nation," Ahmar told Reuters in an interview, adding he wanted them to call directly for Saleh's departure.
"They should do what they did in Egypt. We don't need what is going on in Libya. We don't need that much support. But support like what was done in Egypt would be sufficient enough to finish things," he said. "We would like them to really buy the friendship of the Yemeni nation by supporting them."
Direct talks in Yemen to broker a transition of power following weeks of pro-democracy street protests have stalled, but indirect contacts are ongoing and political sources say a deal is within reach.
Western and Saudi allies of Yemen say they fear that the stalemate could spur clashes between rival military units, especially in the capital Sanaa where the president still holds significant sway.
Washington wants to avert any chaos in Yemen, fearing it would benefit al-Qaida. Its Yemen wing claimed responsibility for a foiled 2009 attempt to blow up a plane bound for Detroit and for U.S.-bound cargo bombs sent in October 2010.
"I think Yemenis would be capable to free Yemen of terror within months," Ahmar said. "I don't think a few people would stand in front of a nation. They would stand in front of a regime which is not serious in fighting them."
VAGUE ON POLITICAL ROLE
Ahmar, a business tycoon from the same powerful tribal federation as Saleh, said he did not rule out serving in a future government if asked by the Islah party, the biggest member of an opposition coalition that also includes leftists.
Speaking in his late father's compound in Sanaa while a peacock wandered in the yard outside, he said he would be content to live as a normal person if and when Saleh leaves. But he said he would serve if called on.
"I would be happy if Islah ordered me to be in any position . . . We are looking for an institutional Yemen, where we see a stable country and no ultimate power for anyone," he said. Ahmar, who like the president hails from the north, had been increasingly critical of the president even before he threw his weight behind the protest movement. He has at times been seen as one of several potential successors to Saleh.
But Ahmar said he would support a southerner as president, repeating an assertion he has made before. He said this would help unify a fractious country where analysts say Saleh's fall could precede a new bid for secession of the south.
Political sources say talks on a transition deal have focused on potentially transforming Yemen's government into a parliamentary system that could also have a strong prime minister, whom the opposition wants to choose.
Ahmar said he saw the chance of reaching a political deal in which Saleh would leave power at around 50 per cent, saying a deal was nearly reached on Saturday before direct talks stopped. He said people would press on with peaceful protests.
"It would continue what happened in Egypt, what happened in Tunisia . . . People are going away from him. His own people. It will continue. He will find himself alone very soon," he said.
"You will find more people in the streets and you will find fewer people standing with him . . . We are patient, we will continue. We think we will win, God willing."