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  Reports
Interview with US ambassador Gerald Feierstein to Yemen
[12/March/2011]
By Lutfi Noaman

SANA’A, March 12 (Saba)-
Lutfi Noaman: The interview is for both Saba News Agency and for al-Syasiah newspaper. The question deals with the recent travel warnings that the U.S. administration issued to Americans, not to visit Yemen and for those that are already here, for them to leave. Diplomacy actually makes a big difference in the lives of people, so how can that take place- how can you provide more security for both countries through diplomacy. This is what you said in Taiz University.

Ambassador Feierstein: Let’s start with the issue of the warning, the travel advisory that we provided to citizens yesterday. I want to emphasize that we issued that as a precaution only. We don’t see anything right now that has changed the situation but of course we are concerned about the possibility that the situation may deteriorate. And so as we said in our statement, we are issuing it because if the situation deteriorates, we believe that there could be difficulties for people to evacuate safely. We of course are working very hard to make sure that that situation doesn’t happen, and we’re encouraging our friends in the government and in the opposition and elsewhere in the society to also work very hard to prevent that situation from occurring. But we need to be able to respond in the case of an emergency. I saw the Foreign Minister yesterday; we discussed this issue. I assured him that the Embassy is not closing, and all of the programs that we are working on will continue.

Lutfi Noaman: And that’s the role of diplomacy?

Ambassador Feierstein: I think that the current situation, the current role that the U.S. Embassy and other embassies are playing right now is a perfect example of the importance of diplomatic engagement on these issues. Security and stability in Yemen is an important issue for the United States, and it’s been our view for some time now, going long before these current developments in the region, that the key to ensuring that Yemen is a secure, stable and prosperous country in the future, involves our cooperation on economic development, on social development, on political stability. And so we’ve been able to use our good relationships with government, with the opposition parties, with civil society and others to try to encourage them to continue the dialogue and to find solutions to the issues.

Lutfi Noaman: In the first weeks of your time here, you described the relations between Yemen and the United States as being stronger than before. And now, after a few months, you have seen important developments such as the bomb packages, Wikileaks after that, the important visitor (Secretary Clinton), joint conferences convened in Yemen, a presidential invitation that was later postponed, and the official announcements that may have been misunderstood at some stage.

Ambassador Feierstein: I think that all of these actually are evidence of the strength of the relationship, and our commitment to increasing the level of cooperation between our two countries, not only at the government-to-government level, but also at the people-to-people level. And the visit of Secretary Clinton here was a very important step in that direction, because not only did she meet with President Saleh and his senior government officials, but she had the Town Hall Meeting at the Movenpick Hotel and that gave her an opportunity to speak directly to civil society and to many personalities in the country, and to hear their questions and their concerns. And the role that we’re trying to play now in encouraging dialogue and negotiations to solve Yemen’s political problems are also part of the same trend. When I first came, last fall, we worked hard to try to explain to the Yemeni people that U.S. interest in Yemen is much broader than our joint efforts to combat terrorism. And this is still very much a part of the effort that we’re making to engage positively with the Yemeni people, to work on the issues that are of greatest concern to the Yemeni people, and those are right now of course the political confrontation bthreut beyond that, the economic and social issues that affect the majority of Yemenis.

Lutfi Noaman: Since as you mentioned Secretary Clinton’s visit which was actually the basis for this interview, and you also mentioned cooperation between the two peoples [Yemen and U.S.]. What you said was included in Secretary Clinton’s remarks, including respect and cooperation with the people, Yemeni security, stability and unity. What do you see as the ways to achieve these goals, without shaking the relationship with the government?

Ambassador Feierstein: Well, we see, and of course our view of international relations all around the world is that they’re really between peoples as well as between governments. And we think that a strong people-to-people relationship actually contributes to stronger government-to-government relations. For example, I spoke to the seminar that was organized by the National Defense University here two weeks ago, and I mentioned to them that for example, in implementing our economic assistance programs, we couldn’t do it if it were not for the cooperation that we have with Yemeni civil society organizations and non-governmental organizations. We recognize that in terms of our joint interests in promoting security and stability here in Yemen, that it doesn’t involve only security assistance, but it also involves economic assistance, and again, our ability to help the Yemeni people achieve their own goals and to ensure that they have good economic opportunities and strong social institutions into the future. So our ability to maintain a strong relationship with the government of Yemen, it depends on the strength of our relationship with the Yemeni people.

Lutfi Noaman: In the context of Clinton’s visit and your efforts in dialogue between political parties, Clinton met with officials and civil society members. And there were official statements issued from the Embassy about those. However, none of those statements were issued addressing her meeting with the opposition. Why did you not issue a statement about that, or should we wait for Wikileaks?

Ambassador Feierstein: Did we not mention the meeting with the opposition in our official communiqué? We did.

Lutfi Noaman: In one of the lectures you delivered, you addressed Wikileaks. You said that you need to maintain a certain level of confidentiality so that people you talk to feel a certain level of comfort. Does that mean you maintain that level of confidentiality so that the opposition figures enjoy that level of comfort?

Ambassador Feierstein: We’ve certainly made no secret of the fact that we met with the opposition. And we think that meetings with the opposition not only here but all around the world, are an important part of our ability both to explain what U.S. policy is, as well as to hear their own views and their own ideas. Our expectation in the U.S. is the same, that embassies that are in the United States will also meet with the political opposition to the White House. So this is part of all of our responsibility as diplomats, and we’re very open about that, but of course in our discussions, unless they’re in public fora like the meeting at the Movenpick, generally we believe that the details of the discussion should remain confidential. People should have the confidence in knowing that what they say to us privately will remain private.

Lutfi Noaman: You keep on assuring during your efforts to encourage dialogue to solve problems. These regional, inspiring circumstances, that inspire political forces in Yemen, it seems that the ideas that come from those inspiring circumstances are not very well received. The United States was welcoming of the initiatives proposed by President Saleh in Parliament. The effect of your efforts [to encourage dialogue] were not readily evident, because of the sit-ins that continue until today.

Ambassador Feierstein: We believed on the 2nd of February, and we still believe, that the concessions that the President offered and the commitments that he made formed a good basis for return to dialogue. And that’s still our view, our view hasn’t changed. The situation in the region as you said has created a certain level of expectation here in Sana’a but that hasn’t changed our central thought, which is that there needs to be a dialogue and there needs to be a negotiation and agreement between the various parties about how to move forward. The President has put his ideas on the table, and now as of the other day, the opposition has put some ideas on the table from their side. And now we have an understanding at least of what the positions of the various parties are. But now, there needs to be a dialogue, there needs to be a negotiation about these ideas and about how we can find solutions that are acceptable to the opposition and acceptable to the government. And this has been the effort of the U.S. and of the Embassy really, actually going back before the events in Tunis in January, going all the way back to last year, our effort has really been to encourage the two sides to sit down together and find acceptable solutions to their differences. We’ve also been very direct with our friends in civil society and in the street protests, that the idea of “isqat al-nitham” [fall of the regime] is not really the answer to the problems, that there needs to be an idea of how to move beyond the change of leadership to build strong, stable, secure institutions of government for Yemen. So our question is always, if President Saleh leaves, then what do you do on the next day?

Lutfi Noaman: Saleh recently declared that it would be the Yemeni people, and not another party, that would be the judge between the two sides (between the ruling party and the JMP). That is, when they have negotiations and they hold debates. The people are the guarantors of implementation of the initiatives that the President promised. In your vision, how do you think that the public is able to be that guarantor and supervise the implementation of those initiatives?

Ambassador Feierstein: Well this an interesting point. First of all, let me be clear: we agree with the President entirely on his assertion that it’s up to the Yemeni people to decide whether or not an agreement is acceptable or unacceptable. We believe that the activism of the young people on the street should be seen as a positive thing. These are young people who are engaged in the debate about the shape of their society in the future, it’s a society that they’re going to inherit and they’re going to eventually be responsible for. And so it’s right that they’re very interested in playing a part in directing these future developments. And so in our conversations with the government and with the opposition, we’ve encouraged them to think about how they can engage these young people in the hiwar [dialogue], in the negotiations- maybe as observers, or as people whose questions or concerns are taken into account during the negotiations. And then also to think about how you can keep them involved in the process as it goes forward, for example in preparing for the elections, in registering voters, in doing some of the other jobs that will have to be done as we go forward -what role can these young people play to make them feel that they’re a part of this process.

Lutfi Noaman: What is your comment about the recent developments as far as the demonstrations- the “imitating demonstrations”- as well as the initiatives presented by the religious scholars, and their expectation of a khalifate system within the country, the opposition’s opposing of the presidential initiative with 8 points, and the dialogue that some claim is “clinically dead.”

Ambassador Feierstein: I think that our sense of where we are now is that little by little, we’re seeing an exchange of ideas about how to solve this issue through dialogue and political understanding. As we discussed, the President has put his ideas on the table, the opposition has now put their ideas on the table. There are some neutral parties, the ‘ulema and the sheikhs who are trying to go back and forth between the sides and narrow the differences. There have also been of course efforts to reach out to the students and the young people who are at Tagheer Square. So right now we see some positive signs that things are moving in a good direction. Now of course there is still the concern, the anxiety, about the possibility of what happens if there’s not an agreement- is there a potential for violence, might one side or the other side decide to try to use force? This is a great concern for us as well and one reason that we’re trying to be very active in encouraging the sides to continue talking, because we believe that if the talks stop, then the potential for violence is there. Now, there are many ideas of course on the table for what Yemen should look like in the future. Some we agree with, some we don’t agree with. But the important thing is if you’re building democratic systems, then people are free to bring their ideas to the table and to let people look at them and make their own decisions. If people want to propose that there should be an Islamic khalifate in Yemen, let them form a political party and run on that platform and see whether people support it or don’t support it. As the President says, these things should be decided at the ballot box.

Lutfi Noaman: I remember three American announcements about what is happening here in Yemen. The latest was “people deserve a better response.” The first one was, “we call on the opposition to avoid provocative actions.” Between them, there is a contradiction as to the freedom for the demonstrators to express their opinion. Can you please define the response that people are deserving of? Did the opposition actually avoid those provocative actions in order to be more entitled to protection of the peaceful demonstrations? And finally, what is the benefit of the oppositions flip flopping on their positions?

Ambassador Feierstein: In terms of our statements, what we’ve tried to do is to comment when we think it’s appropriate to comment in public about the developments, and to share our own thoughts. I think our position is consistent.

Lutfi Noaman: But, no constancy in politic!

Ambassador Feierstein: (We try!) It’s not always easy. There’s a famous line from Walt Whitman where he says, “You think I contracted myself? Ok, I contradicted myself.” Our position is that people have the absolute right to demonstrate peacefully. It’s the responsibility of the government to ensure that right is protected and respected. If the demonstrations go beyond peaceful protest and begin to include some kind of violence or property damage or threats, then of course they’ve exceeded what is their right. And the government also has the responsibility to maintain law and order. So the scope for demonstrations should be very wide, the government should be very flexible about how it deals with these demonstrations, but the demonstrators also have a responsibility to respect the laws and to respect other people who may or may not agree with them. But we’ve also been clear in saying we don’t believe that the demonstrations are the place where Yemen’s problems will be solved. We think that the problems have to be resolved through this process of dialogue and negotiations. So it’s not enough to say that the street demands are there; there also has to be some practical discussion between the sides about how we can move forward in a way that protects Yemen’s interests and the interests of the Yemeni people into the future. The specific comment about “We think that Yemenis deserve better answers” was in response to the President’s comments about the role of Israel and the United States and Tel Aviv and the operations room and we just said that we need to be serious about the way we talk about these things.

Lutfi Noaman: There is no doubt that strengthening the Parliament, and conducting the scheduled elections. Is the delay of elections indicative of strengthening the Parliament? Do you expect elections in 2011?

Ambassador Feierstein: I think that the Yemeni constitution does provide for handling a situation where elections are not realistic. We’re coming up to the point of course, where the government would have a responsibility under normal circumstances to call the elections. I think that later this week, we’ll be at the sixty-day point. But clearly under the current circumstances, it would be unrealistic to move forward with an election process right now. And our position has always been that it’s more important to ensure that the elections be free and fair and legitimate and credible than it is to have them on a particular day. So we do hope that there’s a parliamentary election this year but it should take place on the basis of an agreement between the government and the opposition about the framework, about the details. The President has already committed to re-doing the voter registration list which is an important decision on his part, which we support completely. That has to be done. So there are many preparatory actions that have to be taken before you can have a good election.

Lutfi Noaman: You said “free, fair, legitimate, and credible” but you didn’t say “secure.”

Ambassador Feierstein: I would say that “secure” would fall under the “credible” category.

Lutfi Noaman: There are ongoing discussions about change in the regime, not the fall of the regime. From Presidential to Parliament. By observing the situation here in Yemen from the United States, what do you think is more suitable for Yemen?

Ambassador Feierstein: We think what’s more suitable for Yemen is whatever the Yemeni people think is more suitable for Yemen. We’ve always, going back long before this current crisis, our position has always been that we don’t have any views about the specific elements of an agreement. We’ll accept anything that meets the desires and needs of the Yemeni people.

Lutfi Noaman: Going back to demonstrations, there are slogans that those opposing the regime raised. There were slogans that say “America will no longer rule us.” I saw this on Suhail. There was a slogan that says “Death to America.”

Ambassador Feierstein: Our comment is that we don’t rule Yemen, we never ruled Yemen, we have no desire to rule Yemen.

Lutfi Noaman: Have you evaluated the Yemeni government’s ability to make use of the assistance received? And what is the role of the Yemeni people, in coordination with the Friends of Yemen, in creating a joint program that responds to the needs of Yemen? And facilitating overcoming the obstacles they face, either by the Yemenis themselves, as the Friends of Yemen claim; or by the Friends of Yemen, as the Yemenis claim? (both sides claim that the other side is creating obstacles)

Ambassador Feierstein: Are we talking about security assistance?

Lutfi Noaman: Assistance in general.

Ambassador Feierstein: On the security side, I think that our evaluation is that the capabilities of the Yemeni security forces are improving. Definitely there is a benefit from the training and assistance programs. On the economic development side, of course the challenges are huge. So our assistance, the assistance of the Friends, I hope is making a positive contribution, but we need to do much more and we need to work much longer. Of course it’s also our view that we as the Friends and the government can provide a basis, a foundation, for economic development and for addressing the needs of the people. But we won’t be successful unless we also bring the private sector into the picture and that at the end of the day, it’s the private sector that will invest in the economy, that will build the factories, that will create the jobs, that will make the decisions that will put Yemen on a positive path for the future. So we need to work together as the Friends and as the government to create a proper atmosphere for investment, both domestic investment and foreign investment.

Lutfi Noaman: The trust fund to support the development of Yemen, which was adopted in the United States in New York in September 2010 is expected to be announced at the Friends of Yemen meeting in Riyadh in March. Would you explain this trust fund?

Ambassador Feierstein: We do hope that it’s announced; we’re still working very hard on putting the arrangements in place. We expect that it will be a fund that will be for 5 years for 750 million dollars. It will be managed by the World Bank and we will work of course very closely with the government of Yemen in deciding what programs or projects we should use this fund to finance.

Lutfi Noaman: You said in a previous interview “Yemen is not a failed state, but rather a state of challenges challenges.” Can you tell us the number of those challenges, and talk about the possibility of cooperation between the Yemeni people and the Friends of Yemen in facing these challenges?

Ambassador Feierstein: I think that that’s still correct. You’re adding more challenges to make it even more interesting. I think this meeting in Riyadh at the end of this month is going to be an important opportunity for the Friends. We hope that by the time we come to Riyadh there will be a process for moving forward on solving these immediate political challenges, and I hope that if that happens, that we can use Riyadh as an opportunity to really sit down and have a very serious, very detailed conversation with the government of Yemen about how we can work together over these next few years to address some of these critical challenges, again, especially the economic challenges. And so in a sense, you can say that for this past period of time, again even before this latest political situation, we have been focused on looking back on addressing some of the problems of the past about the elections, about the constitution, about the conflict between the opposition and the government. But we hope very much that we can use Riyadh as an opportunity to look forward and to think about how we can address the challenges of the future.

Lutfi Noaman: Where have you reached in terms of training the Yemeni authorities in limiting the al-Qaeda influence that is intimidating the world?

Ambassador Feierstein: We touched on it a little bit before. I think that there are two components to addressing the al-Qaeda issue here in Yemen- not only al-Qaeda but extremism. The first, of course, is the role that Yemeni security forces have in limiting the ability of al-Qaeda to operate in Yemen, to plan and to train, and to undertake attacks against the United States, against Yemen, against our friends. And we think through our training and assistance programs and the efforts of the Yemeni military and security forces, that the capability is improving, and that the efforts against al-Qaeda have increased over these past couple of years. But we also recognize that over the long term, the solution to the problem of extremism in Yemen, as it is anywhere in the world, really involves the economic and social development of the people. Because we believe that if the people are optimistic about the future, they won’t support some of these very destructive extremist forces.

Lutfi Noaman: What do you think about the experience of the dialogue with extremists? The dialogue that the Yemeni government conducted with the returnees from Afghanistan.

Ambassador Feierstein: I think that generally speaking, we believe that it’s important for people who want to come away from their association with extremism and violence have an opportunity to do that, and so we support rehabilitation efforts and ways of reintegrating these people back into their societies, but it has to be real. So when you have a dialogue with people who really have not made the decision or the commitment to abandon extremism, then it creates confusion and problems.

Lutfi Noaman: Your activities since your arrival have been positive, your important movements have been quiet, and not provocative until now. You have visited important Yemeni cities and you’ve visited many types of Yemeni people, including Yemeni Jewish people? Why, in the context of these visits, have you not visited the southern cities? Is that related to a security concern about the situation there?

Ambassador Feierstein: No, actually, when I first came, I asked permission to visit Aden but at that time the Yemeni government felt uncomfortable. So it’s still very much on my list. I have said to the government that I hope, while I’m here, to have an opportunity to visit every governorate in Yemen. Unfortunately right now because of this current situation I am more or less stuck in Sana’a. But as soon as we’re finished, I expect to have a number of other trips in Yemen.

Lutfi Noaman: Some analysts predict the fall of Yemen, and the shaking of Yemen’s stability. They expect Al-Qaeda to create their own little government. How much do you agree or disagree with this vision.

Ambassador Feierstein: This is a concern, is that if there is a collapse of the dialogue and more problems for the government, more security challenges for them, that this provides opportunities for al-Qaeda to increase their activities here. We don’t think it’s happened yet but we are concerned about it.

Lutfi Noaman: In the same context, some politicians present federalism as a solution for the southern issue. Others see it as the beginning of secession so they refuse it completely. In this context, do you see federalism as a beneficial proposal, as an influential observer yourself?

Ambassador Feierstein: Of course, our country is also a federal system, so we like federalism. We believe of course that Yemen has, as a law, a decentralization program. We believe it’s a good law actually and a good program and we support it. Our experience is that when you bring government closer to the people, then popular support for the government is stronger. So we certainly are doing what we can to support the implementation of the government of Yemen’s decentralization plans. But we’ve been very clear also in always saying that we do not support any secessionism or separation. Our view is that a decision was made in 1990 to unite Yemen, and that was a final decision and it’s not something that’s open for discussion anymore.

Lutfi Noaman: On the Arab street, the people are adopting the same slogans as the Democrats during the U.S. elections, such as, “Change we can believe in,” and “Change, we can do it.” But they are not thinking about the consequences.

Ambassador Feierstein: Right. That’s exactly right. To be clear, the U.S. position is that we support the change. We support the constitutional and legal reforms. And so, the only issue for us isn’t whether there should be change or not; it’s how the change happens. We believe in change that’s undertaken through a process of negotiation that answers those questions about what does it mean when it’s finished.

Lutfi Noaman: If you had small messages you would like to be carried on your behalf to the Friends of Yemen in the Riyadh meeting, the GPC in Yemen, the public including the youth, what would those messages be? What personal message do you have?

Ambassador Feierstein: I think that the message is that the U.S. is standing very firmly on the side of the Yemeni people in trying to address these critical challenges. We support the demands for change. We believe that the change should come through a peaceful process of dialogue and negotiation. It should be something that puts Yemen very firmly on the path to a very good and positive future. The U.S. will do everything that we can to support that process for change. On the part of the Friends, we hope that when we meet in Riyadh at the end of March, we can have a very positive conversation about how the Friends can support the government of Yemen and the people of Yemen in achieving their goals.

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UPDATED ON : Thu, 31 Jul 2014 18:43:57 +0300