Ambassador Feierstein's press conference with English-speaking journalists
March 12, 2011
Ambassador Gerald Feierstein
Mohammad al-Qadhi, The National
Nasser Arrabyee, Gulf News
Hamoud Munasar, al-Arabiya
Mohamad Sudam, Reuters
Nadia al-Saqqaf, Yemen Times
Ambassador Feierstein: Let me start by making a statement I think, and then we can go on to your questions, because I think that there appears to be some confusion about what our position is on the various developments and on the way forward. So let me reiterate what our policy is and what our position is. We have, for at least the last 6 months and probably longer than that- I can only speak from personal experience for the last 6 months- we have supported a process of dialogue between the government and the opposition to resolve the political issues that involve the parliamentary and presidential elections, constitutional amendments, election law reforms, and other issues related to voter registration and other aspects. And so we supported the national dialogue beginning with the February 2009, July 2010 agreements. In fact, I spoke about the July 2010 agreement in my own confirmation hearings in Washington last summer. And so that has been our position and our effort up to today. Since, of course, the beginning of the year- since January- there have been protests, demonstrations, and demands for change in the regime and those kinds of things. We understand that. Our view continues to be that regardless of the outcome of the negotiation, the only way to resolve these issues and to put Yemen on a path towards a positive future is through dialogue. And again, we have said this consistently: it doesn't support the position of the government; it doesn't support the position of the opposition. It supports what we think is the best interest of the Yemeni people, which is to resolve these issues peacefully through negotiation and dialogue. The President has put a number of initiatives on the table in the last six weeks since his speech to Parliament on February 2nd. The opposition has put some proposals on the table- their five point plan and other things. Again, we're not supporting one side or the other side in terms of what the process should be, but we do believe that there is enough on the table presented by both sides that there should be an agreement to sit down at the negotiating table and work through these issues. The concern that we've had from the very beginning and that we've expressed over and over again, is that if there is no dialogue, if there is no negotiation, then the prospect, the possibility of conflict and violence between the two sides grows every day, and we have seen again today what happens. Now we know what the claims are, we know what the press has reported; we know what the government's explanation for what happened is. There are differences between those two. We are not in a position to make a judgment about what happened this morning. All we can say is that as the tensions grow, as the positions of the two sides harden, the possibility for conflict grows. And we consider this to be very dangerous; we consider this not to be in the interest of the vast majority of Yemeni people. The potential for a very bad outcome is there and therefore we continue to urge, as recently as yesterday, with the statement issued by the White House, we continue to urge both sides to sit down and to see whether they can't reach a negotiated solution that identifies how we can move forward in this transition. Again, the U.S. position has been clear, and we've said it over and over again; we've said it in public; we've said it in the press, as well as to the government and to the opposition, that we support the process of change; we support the idea that we should implement the commitments that the President made in his February 2nd speech that he wouldn't run for re-election, that Ahmed Ali would not be the successor, and that there should be changes in the way Yemen is governed. We think that those are important commitments; again we're not making a judgment about whether Yemen should be presidential or parliamentary or any of these particular details, those are for the Yemeni people themselves to decide, but we do think that it's important that the sides reach an agreement about how to do this and that they do it at the negotiating table. So this is our policy; it's been our policy; it will continue to be our policy. And again, we don't think it's a policy that supports one side or the other, we think it's a policy that supports the people of Yemen. And with that I'll answer your questions.
The National: Today and during this week we have heard that the Yemeni security and military forces, particularly those forces that have been trained to fight terrorism, they are participating in cracking down the protesters. And we have heard also reports that they are using lethal and fatal gas that is not tear gas against the protesters. We have also heard from the medics in the field that some western embassies, I don't know if the U.S. Embassy is one of them, has sent some medics to check what kind of gas has been used- in this position what can you tell us about this? And also do you think that there is still a possibility after this today, what they described as a massacre; there have been reports that 1000 have been wounded today in this crackdown. So is there still any potential for a dialogue and how can the two sides- people are saying it's not the Joint Meeting Parties that is represented in the street, it's the whole people who are revolting against the regime- and when you call for dialogue with the regime, you are trying to repress the wish and the will of the people who would like to change the regime.
Ambassador Feierstein: There are a number of questions there, but let me begin with the one question about the use of force and violence. Again, our position on this has been clear from the very beginning. We are opposed to the use of violence or force to interfere with the right of people to gather or to demonstrate or to express their views. We've said it again publicly, we've said it privately. This is our position, we have not changed our position, and we have called repeatedly for the government to not use force or violence against demonstrators. Demonstrators and the opposition also have a responsibility not to provoke violence, not to incite violence. We understand that the government has a responsibility to maintain law and order, but that responsibility has to be carried out through peaceful means that don't lead to the injury of demonstrators. So that is the first point. The second point is we don't have the expertise to make any decisions about what kind of chemical agents were used the other day in the demonstrations. We are reasonably confident that the allegations that there was sarin or mustard gas used are not correct. First of all, if sarin were used, it's a highly lethal nerve gas, there would have been five hundred people dead, not one person dead. Secondly, mustard gas is a blistering agent that is very obvious if it's been used. Nobody has presented any evidence, nobody has presented anybody who demonstrated any of the symptoms of exposure to mustard gas or also of course to sarin. Based on our own best guess, we believe that probably what was used was tear gas and smoke. The eyewitness accounts of smelling sulfur and other things are consistent with what is present when smoke is used. And so, that's our best guess, but again I want to emphasize this is only a guess. We have not sent any of this, we haven't sent anything for any kind of technical analysis or any other kind of expert decision, but we are relatively confident in saying that what was used the other day was not a poison gas of any sort. That's the second point. The third point is again to go back to our position, and that is that the fact that the tensions are rising and that the friction and the potential for violence between the sides is rising only reinforces the point that we've been making over and over again, and that is that the only way to reach an agreement is through negotiation and dialogue. Now you can say that the JMP doesn't represent the people on the street- that's fine- but who represents the people on the street? At some point, somebody is going to have to step forward and say, "This is what the opposition wants." We are not saying that we're for or against any position. We're not saying that there is any particular way that we want to see Yemen move forward. What we're saying is that there needs to be some kind of a plan. And as I said in the Saba interview, and I've said before, the idea that the regime should be brought down is the beginning of a process, it's not the end of a process. You know, you can't simply say, "We want Ali Abdullah Saleh to leave," without being willing or able to say what it is that you want take his place. And the only way that you're going to do that in the absence, unless you're promoting chaos and anarchy, the only way to do that is to put ideas on the table and to talk about them. We want to see a peaceful transition; we want to see Yemen moving forward to a new reality, but it's got to be done in a way that maintains some kind of system and some kind of peaceful transition, and so far, saying that the masses are on the street, it doesn't give us anything to work with, because we don't know what those people want. If the JMP is not the representative of the people on the street, then the people on the street need to say who their representative is.
The National: Are you also confident that anti-terror forces are not used?
Ambassador Feierstein: We have not seen evidence that the units that we work with are being used for crowd control. We don't have any evidence, we maintain our relationships with them, and we haven't seen them on the street.
Gulf News: Your Excellency, are you thinking of the step after Saleh? This is very important and I'd like to start with this. Saleh in his last initiative said that he was very sure that the opposition is going to refuse. But he says this is only for the discharge of my responsibility. This was understood by a lot of Yemenis and observers that this means that this is the last and he has nothing any more. I want to say that do you think that the opposition now, that it is now ready to have a program, whether the street or the opposition? The people who would replace Saleh. Are you thinking of this step?
Ambassador Feierstein: Of the step after President Saleh?
Gulf News: Yeah.
Ambassador Feierstein: The President himself has said that he intends not to run for re-election, and so...
Gulf News: I don't mean after, I mean if something happens now.
Ambassador Feierstein: You mean, if the nitham yesquat?
Gulf News: Yes.
Ambassador Feierstein: Well, we haven't seen what it is. Our concern would be that if the "nitham" collapses, that there is nothing right now. And so we have said to both our contacts and civil society, and the students as well as to the JMP, that you need to tell us what it is, what your idea is, what your vision is of this transition plan, because we oppose simply saying that Ali Abdullah Saleh should go, without saying anything about what you think is going to happen next. We oppose the idea of chaos. We oppose the idea that this will lead to civil war or to violence. And therefore, for those people who are saying that they want President Saleh to leave, they have a responsibility to say, "If President Saleh leaves, this is what we're going to do, this is how we're going to manage the transition." And up until today, nobody has come forward, at least as far as we know, to say, "This is what we think is going to happen next; this is how we intend to organize in order to make sure that there's a peaceful transition." So this is what we've been saying.
Gulf News: But are you exercising pressure on the opposition to say this?
Ambassador Feierstein: Yes, absolutely.
Gulf News: But they didn't say this.
Ambassador Feierstein: No, they haven't said anything. Maybe they've said it to you but they certainly haven't said it to us. No, this is our problem. This is our problem with this whole situation, is that people are demanding something without any idea of how they will manage it, and how they will prevent a disaster for the Yemeni people.
Al-Arabiya: Sir, there is now, I think the situation during the last few weeks is completely different than before, it's influenced by Egyptian and Tunisian experience. So we have a new generation who started demonstrating in the street before the opposition. So have you any contact with the young people who are in the street? And you still have the same version as before, just opposition and Saleh and his ruling party only, I think this is the third angle for the change in Yemen.
Ambassador Feierstein: I agree completely. First of all, we're doing our best to try to reach out to the people on the street as well; to civil society and to the students. It's hard because again, there's no clear leadership. There are many people who say that they're the leaders but we're not sure what they're leading. And of course what the relationship is between the people here in Sana'a and the people in Taiz and Ibb and Aden and Hudaidah. But we absolutely do want to have a dialogue with them and to put to them the same questions about what is your vision, what's your program. But you raised a very important point and we've said again to both the government and to the opposition that as we go forward, there needs to be a role for these young people. And that they need to also be a part of this political process, in a way that goes beyond simply sitting at the gates of Sana'a University. We think that they should also be involved in the negotiations; we think that they should also have a seat at the table, to represent their own views and to make sure that the dialogue moves in a way that addresses their concerns as well. One of the things that we've said is that we think that the involvement of young people in civil society and people from all different walks of life in these political activities is a good thing. To have the population engaged in these political issues is very positive for the future of Yemen. And it's a big change from where things were until the end of last year when you had the JMP and the GPC and the 23.99 million Yemenis outside of the JMP and the GPC, who were completely uninterested and uninvolved in what was happening. Now you have an involved population, now you have people who are very much concerned and engaged with the political future of the country and that's a positive thing. The issue is, how do you take that energy and that engagement, and put it into a constructive channel? You know, make it a positive thing, give them a role- and it can't just be a role that ends with the negotiation or ends with the street demonstrations; it's got to be a role that goes on beyond that, that's got to go on to the implementation of agreements; it's got to go on to the voter registration, the poll watching and all of the things that are going to be happening over these next months. The young people need to have a seat at the table and they need to feel like they're being listened to and respected. So we agree with that completely.
Al-Arabiya: With the attacks against the people, I think that there's a kind of change with the young people and the government. So how can we tell them that the government has credibility? To get real negotiation, to reach a real resolution for the situation, because they're talking about revolution, not about implementation or reform.
Ambassador Feierstein: I think our view is that the only way you establish the credibility of the government is by testing them. If you refuse to engage with the government, how can you ever say whether they're credible or not credible? We're not naïve, and we understand that in the past, there have been times where the government didn't live up to the commitments that they made. And we understand that. Our view is that the situation has changed; that again because of the involvement of this population and because of what's happening in the region and because of the interest of the international community here, that we're talking about a very different situation than we were talking about before. But if you don't sit down with the government and say, "Ok, you've made this commitment, what are you going to do to implement it?" and to make that a part of the negotiation, a part of the dialogue, you build into the dialogue- and we've had this conversation many times with the opposition. And they say, you know, "President Saleh doesn't mean what he says; he's just using this as a stalling tactic." Well maybe he is. We don't know that. But maybe he's not. And even if he is, that doesn't mean that you have to accept that, and you negotiate these things and you sit down and you say, "We want concrete milestones; we want a commitment that on, you know, on the 1st of April, you're going to do this and on the 1st of May you're doing to do that." And you build that into the negotiations. But just sitting back and saying, "He's lying, he doesn't have any credibility, he's not sincere..."
Reuters: Your Excellency, this I think leads us to the next question. What can the President do more to convince the opposition to come to the negotiating table?
Ambassador Feierstein: Again, we have talked to the government about this. And we have encouraged the government to take concrete steps to show that they in fact do intend to make changes and we have suggested some things. For example, we've suggested that, without waiting any longer, that they go into the Parliament, and they withdraw the election law that was passed in November. We think that that would be very positive. We think that it would be very positive to make some changes in the government right now, and to remove some of the ministers who are known to be corrupt. We think that it would be useful to remove some of the senior security officials who have been involved in some of these violent or forced confrontations with demonstrators, particularly in Aden. So we think that these kinds of things would have a positive effect on the atmosphere, and that they would give people a certain amount of confidence that in fact, their views are being heard. There may be other things that could be done. So we do think that it makes sense for the government to try to take some concrete steps right now, without waiting any longer, and make them very public, and demonstrate to people that there's movement. We do support that.
Reuters: Do you have any security concerns as the protests are spread out all over the country and Saleh cannot remain in power until the end of his term, because of the spread out of the...
Ambassador Feierstein: I think our concern is that the situation inside of the country will become more and more chaotic, and that we will see more and more clashes, more violence between groups here. Of course, we believe that the uncertainty and the instability is helpful to al-Qaeda and to the extremist groups. We do have that concern, but right now our focus is really on trying to address the political issues that are confronting us now. And in order to put Yemen on a path towards stability and security in the future; and let me make one other point while we're on this issue, because we have security concerns certainly, but we also have serious concerns about the direction of the Yemeni economy. And I think that people need to recognize that while the country is focused on these political issues and on the confrontation about the future of the regime, the fact is that for both global reasons and for internal reasons, the Yemeni economy is going to face huge challenges in the coming weeks and months. We have rising food prices globally; we have rising fuel prices globally. This is going to have an impact on all Yemenis. We also have, because of the budget situation here, and because of the economic impact of this political uncertainty, we have some very specific challenges here inside of Yemen and I think that, the fact that we're not able to address these political issues means that we're not paying the kind of attention that we need to pay both as the government of Yemen, the private sector here, and the Friends of Yemen, that we're not able to address these critical economic challenges. And I'm afraid also that that's going to have a very negative impact on the Yemeni people in the near future. So we need also to pay attention to that.
Yemen Times: It's obvious that you feel that Yemen is unsafe. For Americans, let's say. One reason is that you're telling all your citizens to leave the country and you're trying to stop the ones from coming into the country. Where do you see the direct threat to American citizens today?
Ambassador Feierstein: I think that our travel warning was clear in saying that our concern isn't for the immediate situation. Our concern is about the potential for a situation that could deteriorate rapidly if we don't have progress on the political front, if this kind of chaotic situation grows, if the level of violence in the society grows, that our concern is that the situation could deteriorate very quickly and that it would be difficult at that point for people to get out safely.
Yemen Times: When you say violence, is it like targeted? Are you talking about people looking for Americans and shooting them down?
Ambassador Feierstein: No, we're talking about the potential for civil war and generalized conflict.
Yemen Times: Like Libya now?
Ambassador Feierstein: Like Libya now.
Yemen Times: But do you think it's fair to compare Yemen to Libya?
Ambassador Feierstein: Yes. Absolutely.
Yemen Times: Why?
Ambassador Feierstein: Well, I think that you have relatively weak institutions here, you have a heavily armed population, you have a history of violent conflict in the country, and you have a number of people who are already talking about the possibility of using violence in order to achieve their goals.
Yemen Times: Who?
Ambassador Feierstein: Some of the tribes.
Yemen Times: You've heard the tribes saying that they're going to use violence?
Ambassador Feierstein: I think it's out there, absolutely.
Yemen Times: Because I have heard the contrary, that the presence of the armed tribes is actually a balancing force to not having violence.
Ambassador Feierstein: Right, but what it increases is the risk is that the balancing will end up in armed conflict. Armed tribesmen armed on both sides of the issue who think that they're balancing the other side, that is a potential scenario for violence, and this is of concern to us.
Yemen Times: Because you can't control it.
Ambassador Feierstein: Of course.
Yemen Times: The opposition wants, like you said, real practical points to prove that the President is sincere this time, and you talked about three. What about the point about removing his sons and nephews from positions of power? Is that asking too much?
Ambassador Feierstein: Again, it's up to the President to decide what asking too much is. I would say, from my own perspective, that it's more likely that you could have that conversation as part of a process, and part of an agreement, as opposed to making it a precondition to negotiation. So my view, our view, is that if you go into negotiation, then everything is on the table, and you can ask for whatever you want to ask for. It may be agreed, it may be disagreed, and both sides have the same rights to put whatever they want on the table. But this idea of sitting there and saying, "We're not going to talk until you agree to do everything that we want in advance," is not a negotiation.
Yemen Times: You're talking about them as 2 equal parties but that's sincerely not fair, because it's the government, and then you have opposition parties that were until a very recent time, were not even able to do anything. The Islah, or the Socialist party or the Haqq or Nasserite or any of the other parties- if you look at Yemen's political history, if they had been able to do anything before the demonstrations in Egypt, it's like sometimes you say they rode the wave, and got an advantage of having the protests, but before that, they weren't that strong.
Ambassador Feierstein: That's true, and so it's perfectly fair to say that the situation is different today than it was before. Again, we were very clear in our position we were disappointed that the negotiations didn't reach an agreement prior to January this year. I think that generally the perception, at least the perception of the government prior to January of this year, was that our position was closer to the opposition because we were pressing for negotiation and agreement through the dialogue, which was the opposition position. But there's no question that the opposition in February of 2009, July of 2010, put themselves forward as the party to negotiate with the government. The situation has changed now where the opposition is in a stronger negotiating position than they were before, and now they're refusing to negotiate. So the situation has improved their position and now they won't engage. And I think that the point, of course, was that in the situation in Egypt, the people were going to the streets to demand the negotiation with the government. Here the government is offering negotiations, and...
Yemen Times: No but Egypt they said after Mubarak goes down...
Ambassador Feierstein: If you look at it, they actually started talking before Mubarak went down.
Al-Arabiya: You know, Saleh after the last election in Egypt and in Jordan, how the change of Saleh, they stopped dialogue with the opposition, they take some measures. So after the situation, Saleh said that it's a storm, regional storm. So do you think that America is convinced that Saleh continue until 2013. When do you think that he should leave?
Ambassador Feierstein: We don't think that it's up to us. Look, I'm not here to be Ali Abdullah Saleh's lawyer. I don't have to defend what he thinks or what he says. But looking at it from the outside, what we want is what is acceptable to the Yemeni people. Whether he stays until 2013 or he leaves in 2011 or he goes in 2012, not our issue. Our issue is that we want there to be an agreement that allows for a peaceful transition and transfer based on dialogue and negotiation and that can also address the other issues.
Yemen Times: Does the U.S. have a problem with the Islah taking power, being an Islamic ideology?
Ambassador Feierstein: I think that what we would like to see is a free and fair election...
Yemen Times: Even if it happens like Hamas and Palestine?
Ambassador Feierstein: Well, we have problems with Hamas in Palestine, but also because they're a terrorist organization and they support violence and terrorism against Israel. So if you're saying, Abdul Majid al-Zindani, Abdul Majid al-Zindani, as you know, is on the terrorism list both of the United States and the United Nations, and so would we have a problem if he were elected President, absolutely...
Yemen Times: Or of the Salafi wing of the Islah party becomes more prominent...
Ambassador Feierstein: This is speculative, of course; it's hard to say what our view would be without knowing exactly what it is. Zindani is on the terrorism list and therefore we would have a problem with him taking any kind of position in the government.
Yemen Times: Final question: You were talking about, you want some of the opposition parties to come up with a clear mandate (plan) for transition, so this clear plan for transition, you mean is like what they are going to do with oil subsidies... what are you talking about?
Ambassador Feierstein: No. We're not talking about a political platform; we're talking about how it is that they envision a transition. They want Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down. That's fine- then what do you do next, what is the process in terms of the constitution, in terms of elections, in terms of the timetable for all of these things, in terms of who is going to govern during this period until you can have an election; all of those kinds of details about what it is that you're proposing on this specific issue. We're not...
Yemen Times: If the opposition say that, if they come up with this in the next two days; then what?
Ambassador Feierstein: Well then I think that our recommendation would be that if the opposition has its plan and the government has its plan, then they need to sit down and work through these issues and come to some kind of an agreement about how to do that....
Yemen Times: You're concerned that they don't have an alternative and the country will go (??). You wouldn't have that concern anymore, that what if Saleh goes...
Ambassador Feierstein: I think that if there's a clear understanding and a clear process on the table that we can look at, and we can assess, and if it's something that reflects the will of the Yemeni people and that they can put it on the table and negotiate this and reach some kind of agreement about how to move forward, then we have no problem with it.
The National: Yesterday, we have also heard that some of the young people, they have started, it's not that they are not doing anything. The opposition there is doing some work, and also these young people. I have spent some time with Hamoud last week, and we talked to them and we were very impressed with what they were thinking. It was like a qat session forum, and they have their own ideas and they would like to put it on paper. You can say they are thinking now how to start like a new constitution, how to start a transitional council... They are thinking about these things.
Ambassador Feierstein: We have heard similar things and that's great. We would encourage them to continue.
Gulf News: To make something clear in my mind. I understood that you disagree with the opposition to refuse the initiatives of Saleh. This is what I understood.
Ambassador Feierstein: We disagree with the refusal to engage with President Saleh. We're not saying that they should accept the initiative or not accept the initiative. But they need to sit down at the table.
Gulf News: They shouldn't refuse sitting down.
Ambassador Feierstein: Correct.
Al-Arabiya: In this moment, the opposition, under pressure of the people in the street, now many people (??) refused any kind of negotiation between the opposition and Saleh because they said, it can be bad for them.
Ambassador Feierstein: But that's a recipe for chaos. The JMP comes and says, "Well, we can't talk because the street doesn't support the talks." But then, are you the political leaders or are you not? If you're not, if you're not willing to make your own decision and to try to shape where the street is, then why are we talking to the JMP? We should go talk to the street. If they're making the decisions, we should talk to them. If the JMP wants to be the leader of the opposition, and wants to maintain, and wants to represent, then they need to make these decisions and they need to explain to the street why it is that they're doing these things. And like I said before to your other question, we think that they need to bring the street into the process. We think that the street should also be there, but again, as we've said publicly, we think that the solution to the problems, whether, regardless of what it is and we're not making any judgment about what the right answer to the problem is, but we believe that the solution is through dialogue and negotiation, not through street protests. Street protests don't achieve anything. And if they're blocking an agreement, then that's a bad thing, because it means that they're increasing the likelihood that there's going to be violence and Yemenis will die for no good reason. Why promote a solution that's going to kill people when you have a solution available to you that will have a peaceful solution?
Reuters: Your Excellency, Secretary Clinton said in a Senate session that Iranians are involved in supporting the opposition. Are there any evidence? Clinton said that.
Ambassador Feierstein: We certainly have concerns that Iran sees the turmoil in the region, not only here in Yemen, but in Bahrain and elsewhere, as an opportunity to expand their influence in the region. Do we have any particular evidence to say specifically that the Iranians are providing greater support for groups here in Yemen? No, I mean I wouldn't say that I can say that they've provided money or they've provided weapons or they've provided anything else in particular. But certainly it is a concern that we have, and it's something that we're watching very carefully.
Al-Arabiya: Last question: How many American citizens left Yemen?
Ambassador Feierstein: I don't have a hard number. Again, we saw the Foreign Minister to explain what we're doing as far as the official community, our advice of course to the unofficial community is only advice and it's up to them, but as far as the official community, what we were doing was limited and our position was that we were going to maintain all of our ongoing programs and policies. So we're not, for example, stopping our economic assistance programs or doing any of the other things, and Minta's still here so we're doing all of our public diplomacy stuff. So we're reducing but not substantially and we're still going to be very much here.
Yemen Times: Do you have evacuation plans?
Ambassador Feierstein: We always have evacuation plans.
Yemen Times: For the citizens.
Ambassador Feierstein: For the citizens, and one of the reasons that we made the decision that we made; and let's be honest about this, we have a huge number of American citizens here, we have somewhere, it's not a hard number, but we probably have somewhere between 70 and 80,000 American citizens living in Yemen. Most of them, almost all of them of course, are dual nationals. We don't know how many of them would actually leave, but all of them would have the right to ask for assistance leaving if that's what they wanted. And therefore, this has a big effect in terms of our thinking about things like evacuations.