JMP Chairman Sultan Al-Atwani to the Yemen Times:”The government doesn’t recognize what is going wrong on the ground” [Archives:2008/1206/Reportage]

November 10 2008

Mohammed Bin Sallam
Sultan Al-Atwani is currently Chairman of Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) and has spoken on behalf of the opposition coalition on various occasions. He demands that the Supreme Commission for Elections and Referendum (SCER) be reshuffled in order to operate according to the amended election law, stressing that all the aspects and causes of tension and political congestion must be cleared to help create a positive environment for free and fair elections.

Al-Atwani holds the view that partial deals with the authority have become one of the most important obstacles to the democratic process, adding it is necessary for the time being to reconsider national options, which are collectively agreed upon by all Yemenis. These options are as follows: the principle of national partnership, the multi-party system, the rule of law, equal citizenship and the broader involvement of people in power and decision-making.

With regard to the upcoming parliamentary elections, Al-Atwani has confirmed that JMP member parties still are committed to approving the proportional list as an alternative to the current electoral system. According to him, the voting quorum at SCER must be the majority of two-thirds of the commission's staff regarding issues related with appointments, recruitments, enactment of bylaws and approval of vote results.

The opposition leader has called for a stop to all the arbitrary practices and pressures, corruption and hostile policies targeting political parties, unions and civil society organizations. For further information on what is going on in Yemen's political ground, the Yemen Times met Sultan Al-Atwani, Parliament Member of JMP, and conducted with him the following interview.

First, let's discuss the electoral issue. What is your reaction to arrangements and procedures taken so far by the authority as part of its preparations for the upcoming parliamentary elections?

We have demonstrated a clear position about electoral arrangements and confirmed that elections in our country should at least meet the minimum requirements of integrity and take place in a safe environment. We made these suggestions prior to the most recent presidential and local elections in September 2006, assuring that any general elections must be fair and free.

Before the presidential and local elections of 2006, the JMP and the ruling General People Congress (GPC) signed the Agreement of Principles, and hoped that such an agreement would help the country conduct free and fair elections. However, GPC leaders have not remained committed to the agreement.

When it comes to the upcoming parliamentary elections, we attempted early on to create a positive electoral environment through issuing new legislation, reforming the old election system and reshuffling the election management body.

During the Parliament's sitting on last 18 August, GPC bloc and its members breached the agreement, annulled the proposed amendments to the election law and formed a new SCER in a way contravening the agreement we reached with them. They also named individuals to represent JMP in the SCER without consulting the JMP member parties, which is not in line with the principle of political parties' right to appoint their own representatives by themselves.

All the procedures so far taken by the GPC contradict the electoral legislation, the Constitution and the norms according to which political parties behaved during non-election times. We therefore labeled these procedures as illegal and any actions by SCER or its affiliate committees are also illegal. We clearly declared that we would never accept any procedure taken by the illegally-composed SCER, and therefore have refused to participate in voter registration committees in order for us not to submit to what takes place on the ground.

Can you tell us about your demands in this regard?

Our demands include the approval of the proportional list, which JMP views as fairly reflecting voters' wills, and which therefore may help overcome any discrepancies faced by the electoral process. We raised this demand after having seen that, in the current political situation, the single member majority system cannot possibly reflect voters' wills or the popularity of contesting parties.

The authority told us that it is difficult to approve the proportional list for the time being since it requires amending a particular constitutional article, which is impossible to be done now. It added if there is a need to amend this article, this must be part of a larger constitutional amendment to be studied and later agreed upon.

We have heard about a joint agreement between you and GPC to implement particular recommendations released by the European Union Election Observation Mission (EUEOM). Can you explain what happened in this regard?

In its report on Yemen's presidential and local elections in September 20006, EUEOM recommended that the proportional list should be adopted. Consequently, we worked harder after those elections to execute the mutually agreed-upon recommendations. There are other issues related with the election management body and voter registers. Some of these issues were contained in the proposed amendments to the election law while others were not as the authority claimed that it faced difficulty treating those issues.

Do you think the authority may respond to your demands before the upcoming elections?

We stress the necessity of annulling all the procedures made after 18 August, if we want to prepare well for the upcoming electoral process. The situation seems to have improved. And we always attempt to improve conditions of the electoral process and annul the post-18 August procedures. I think that the upcoming elections will not be conducted unless all the requirements of free and fair elections are met.

Does this imply that you are going to boycott the upcoming elections unless the government responds to your demands?

We have yet to determine whether or not we will boycott the elections. We have said that we will not run in elections according to GPC conditions, but neither will we boycott in order to satisfy the GPC.

This means we should work harder during the next time period to see our demands of ensuring free and fair elections fulfilled.

For us, elections are our main concern. We consider boycotting as an exceptional matter.

We need not be submissive to violations and discrepancies on the ground, we need to participate in free and fair elections.

Yemen's current turmoil is attributed by the opposition to the lack of a political will to reform a dire situation, coupled with poor policies pursued by the ruling party. How do you see this?

This is a real and authentic fact because if there is a serious political will, all obstacles to reform will be removed and situations will be reformed. The authority usually delivers speeches without any actions. It doesn't recognize what is going wrong on the ground. Consequently, serious political will tops the list of conditions that are necessary to resolve pressing problems in the nation.

Violent acts in the southern and eastern governorates warn of a real catastrophe. From your viewpoint, are the demands listed by citizens in these governorates legal or political and what do you think are the best solutions to resolve these issues and safeguard national unity?

The crisis or the so-called issue of southern Yemen is the result of poor policies practiced by the ruling party and its government. The demands raised by military retirees in these governorates are both legal and political, and we confirm that those citizens are entitled to raise such demands, be reinstated and participate in politics.

Dismissing citizens from their jobs, eliminating them from politics, robbing them of their property, exercising corruption against them and forcing military servants to retire all constitute a legal violation against the right of equal citizenship. We need to enjoy equal citizenship and have our human rights protected. Every citizen has the right to lead a peaceful and free life.

What happened is that government officials don't recognize what is taking place on the ground. They don't admit that there is a crisis, nor do they care about suggesting workable solutions to this crisis. They only paid attention to the behavior of some protestors who raised a flag of the former state of South Yemen and a picture of a former leader in that state, and therefore labeled them as secessionists. However, those protestors clamor for justice and equal citizenship, an issue we side with.

We called for suggesting solutions to this crisis but the government did not interact with our claims. Regretfully, the authority only deals with the real secession advocates: Habtour, Shabtour and Hantour – hinting to pro-government figures from southern governorates. The authority only communicates with these irresponsible individuals and dialogue with them and ignores the role of political parties that are really concerned about settling the crisis.

The primary reason why the authority refuses to dialogue with political parties is that they call for carrying out comprehensive reforms.

Is the government serious to end the Sa'ada crisis or does it intend to have Sa'ada calm until the elections end and then resume the war? And what is JMP position about this crisis?

At the very begging, the JMP suggested that the Sa'ada crisis be resolved by peaceful means according to the Constitution and law. We have been opposing the Sa'ada war since it first broke out. JMP insisted that the crisis should be settled without weapons and that the government must not confront any misconduct or illegal actions by Houthis with military and security troops. Such a problem should have been solved by the Constitution.

During the first Sa'ada war, which erupted four years ago, we called for a stop to the fighting; however, the authority saw us as being pro-Houthi since we didn't back its position. In fact, we do not support either the Houthis or the government. We supported efforts to cease the war, and called for ending it as soon as it erupted.

In addition, we called for the formation of a national committee to be in charge of putting an end to the war and treating its impacts. But under the Qatari government's supervision, the government and Houthis reached a deal, by which a Yemeni-Qatari committee was formed to end the war and treat its consequences. I was a member of this committee in mid-2007 when gunfire ceased and practical procedures were taken on the ground.

After the Qatari officials withdrew, the committee halted its operations, but the ceasefire agreement reached between the government and Houthis lasted up until the final days of 2007. Later on, we were surprised to see that the war had resumed. In early 2008, both sides of the conflict signed the second Doha-brokered deal. Although we didn't learn about the content or terms of this deal, we applauded all the efforts that led to this peace deal and put an end to the fighting.

When the fifth Sa'ada war broke out, it was fiercer than the previous ones, according to information we obtained. A surprise decision was taken to end the war, and we said that halting the fighting must be given precedence over other issues in order to prevent further bloodshed and the killing of citizens and troops. We applauded this effort to end the war once again, but worried about the lack of guarantees to ensure that clashes didn't resume. We hope that both sides remain committed to the ceasefire agreement in order for clashes not to break out once again.

As confirmed, there are forces that fuel the fighting according to foreign plans that want Yemen to experience endless crises. How do you see this?

I uphold this deduction since resumption of the war after it ceases at a particular time point is the result of efforts expended by war brokers to thwart any positive steps taken to end the war. The Sa'ada war actually exhausted many resources and killed numerous people: War brokers were the only beneficiaries from it. Both sides concerned are required to understand well that harboring war brokers and covering their opportunistic plots will destroy the whole nation.

Terrorism continues to grow in Yemen amid poor security. Who do you think provides funds to terrorists in Yemen? Are there any foreign conspiracies targeting Yemen's stability?

Terrorism has become a troublesome phenomenon both at the local and international level. In my opinion, growth and expansion of such a phenomenon seems to have relation with a horrible criminal plot that receives funding from inside and outside Yemen. I also believe that there are foreign players that don't want Yemen to stabilize. And due to its geographic location and prominent role in enhancing regional security, Yemen turned to be the cornerstone of terrorism.

It is no wonder that conspiracies from in and outside the country target Yemen's stability, and there are many individuals who support terrorism to retaliate against their political opponents, which is irresponsible behavior. It is often said that deals and negotiations usually take place among terrorists, al-Qaeda comrades or members of the Islamic Aden-Abyan Army. This phenomenon must be fought.

As we heard, the recent attack on the U.S. Embassy in Sana'a disclosed links between the attackers and violent acts in Saudi Arabia.

This problem needs to be settled before it worsens. I think that security problems must be publicized and disclosed in order for people to be aware of them and avoid their threats.

The issue of national security must be the collective responsibility of all Yemeni people and their government and the latter must not deal with this issue with high confidentiality. We don't know about any security agreements our government has signed with foreign parties.

Once interviewed by the Yemen Times, a former Yemeni interior minister revealed that the government indifferently accepted the entry of nearly 34,000 Arab Afghans, sent by former Saudi intelligence officer Turki Al-Faisal to stand against the Socialist Party or the so-called communists. Is the government accountable for hosting these terrorist groups?

Surely, I believe that the government is responsible for adopting these groups. During the Afghan war, the government learned about all those who went to Afghanistan to fight against the Russians, and all of whom were militants as viewed by the government in response to American demands. The then U.S. administration provided funding to governments and encouraged them to send their citizens to fight against the Russians.

Following the birth of the Taliban movement and the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. in 2001, those citizens turned out to be real terrorists even in the eyes of their governments that began treating them according to the American concept of fighting terrorism, which is why they comprised terrorist groups.

Some of these people became involved in a government security plan to confront the Socialist Party and other political opponents while others remained to operate alone.

I think that IDs of all those who participated in the Afghan War are recorded in the security authorities' agendas. Bandar Bin Sultan and Turki Al-Faisal, Saudi officials, are the main sponsors of any plots carried out by terrorist groups in Yemen.

I see no difference between those groups and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Thousands of Yemenis receive funding from foreign parties, be they those sent by Turki Al-Faisal to Yemen or others who were working in Yemen. I don't care about their names.

I only care about how they get the funds and the agencies that facilitate their transfer to them.

The combination of government service and trade activities is said to be responsible for rampant corruption in Yemen. Which means do you see are the best to fight corruption?

I don't think that corruption is symptomatic of mismanagement and lack of transparency.

The combination of government service and trade at the same time is one of the primary causes of corruption. The spread of corruption contravenes the Constitution. According to the Constitution, government officials, within the top four ranks in the state's job ladder, are not allowed to exercise trade activities even through their children. Apparently, these officials are not satisfied with their senior government jobs, and therefore tend to control other commercial businesses and deprive citizens of good living.

Amid the absence of accountability in appointments for government jobs, we see that the government excludes 'clean-hand' candidates and give the jobs to corrupt individuals and relatives, which is the main reason why corruption has become rampant in all the state's institutions. What makes the phenomenon worsen is that Yemen doesn't have a fair and honest judicial system, coupled with the lack of courts and prosecutions specializing in fighting corruption.

During the reign of former Yemeni President Ibrahim Al-Hamdi, the cabinet established finance and accounting department, plus auditing committees, a positive step that helped the state's general revenues increase unexpectedly. This achievement is the direct result of having political will. Within a short time period, Al-Hamdi raised the state's revenues, reduced corruption to the minimum possible level and reformed corrupt servants by the law.

These days, we never hear that a corrupt official was referred for questioning and interrogation even after being convicted of corruption charges. Most of the reports on corruption by the Central Organization for Control and Audit (COCA) disappear in drawers, which is a primary reason why corruption has turned out to be an immense threat to Yemen's development in various areas.

In the past, you said that having a parliamentary system would be effective to reform the government. Now, do you favor the parliamentary or presidential system?

We presented our viewpoint in this regard to reform the whole political system and the government, given that the system of governance is the main approach to political reforms.

We still hold the view that the parliamentary system is the best to help Yemen get rid of its current turmoil and this subject is under discussion. If the majority of Yemeni educated elites say there is another system better than the parliamentary one, we will adopt it.

However, we see that the parliamentary system is the best as it may help separate the three authorities (legislative, executive and judiciary) from each other, enhance accountability and have Parliament control the Central Bank of Yemen. This system doesn't exempt anyone from questioning and accountability.

Do you have any final comment?

I thank your newspaper for being highly concerned about pressing issues in the nation.

I would like to reiterate that Yemen is undergoing numerous crises in various areas, and such crises are no longer invisible.

In the JMP, we see national dialogues and consultations as the best and most effective means to tackle pressing issues and alleviate people's sufferings, as well as enhance justice, freedoms and equal citizenship.