Al-Hayat Did the [Arab] Spring achieve what the Muslim Brotherhood or the (political) Islamist movement in the Arab world had been dreaming of?
Qahtan It is difficult to speak of an Islamist movement in the Arab Nation. I do not think that there exists an [Islamic] organization with a global reach except for the terrorist group al-Qaeda. In reference to the Muslim Brotherhood movement, it is clear that it has been an influential school of thought present in many places throughout the globe, even in those places that have no [direct] relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. In Yemen we are called the Yemeni Congregation for Reform (Islah). We are an extension of the reform and renewal movement that originated in Yemen at the same time as the Wahhabi movement. Then, at some point, it [Islah] took inspiration from some of the modern renewals of the Muslim Brotherhood movement. Then in the third phase, it was influenced, in one way or another, by the graduates of the Islamic University of Medina [Saudi Arabia]. So we are a special, Yemeni, revised, and expanded version [of that movement].
Al-Hayat It is well-known that Islah emerged from under the mantle of the Muslim Brotherhood. Given what has happened in the Arab world... in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya ... even in Morocco, and what is also happening in Syria - not to mention that there are other candidate countries for the "Spring" - Was this the spring that the Islamist movements, given their long struggle with the regimes, had been planning for?
Qahtan I do not think that there was a specific, unified plan for the Islamist movements - neither for the Muslim Brotherhood nor for others. Every region or country has its own situation and circumstances, and the accumulation of these factors gave birth to the Arab Spring in a way that reflected the realities and political histories of [those places]. Here, we must emphasize that the Arab Spring revolutions were triggered by a [venting] of (mass) popular resolve to get rid of the corruption and tyranny of the ruling regimes. [The revolutions] therefore resulted from the public's [weariness of prevailing social circumstances] rather than political conflicts.
Al-Hayat Some say that the West, led by the United States, perhaps may have years ago opened the door to dialogue with the Islamist movements because of its frustration with the existing regimes in the Arab world. Has there been any contact between you and the Americans?
Qahtan As you know, we in Yemen - as a Yemeni reform movement - avoid characterizing ourselves as an Islamist group given that all of Yemeni society is Muslim. Second, we have been in contact and have held a dialogue with the West - both the United States and European Union countries - from the day we declared ourselves a political organization in 1990. I think that our inauguration ceremony was attended by the US ambassador, European ambassadors, the ambassadors of the permanent members of the Security Council and many of the brotherly [Arab] ambassadors.
Al-Hayat However, until recently the Americans were afraid of the Islamists. How did that fear subside?
Qahtan As far as Islah is concerned, I do not believe that we have seen a lot of Western reservations toward Islamists. We have been in touch [with the West] constantly.
Al-Hayat Are you saying that the Americans held no reservations [in communicating with you]?
Qahtan The Americans did indeed hold reservations toward the Islamists, but we have not been characterized in that way. Since early on, we were viewed as a moderate reformist current.
Al-Hayat What is your position on the "liberal" currents and the intellectual, leftist, and [moderate] groups?
Qahtan I think that everybody is with Islam. But people differ on the concept of Islam. But we are all with Islam and we don't disagree on that point. It is the identity of Yemeni society. But there are different concepts of Islam, and this is where people disagree.
Al-Hayat It is said that there is an agreement among the Joint Meeting of Parties (JMP) to maintain the alliance for 10 years. Is that true?
Qahtan Yes. We think that the need for the JMP in a post-Ali Abdullah Saleh Yemen is more pressing than ever. There is no doubt that - in light of the recent setbacks in Yemen - establishing a civil state and practicing democracy on a firm footing cannot be accomplished without a broad-based national coalition. We believe that the JMP is essential for that. And regardless of the terminology, there are nationalist groups, and there are people who struggled and have a nationalist history in the People's Congress who must become a vital part of a national alliance centered around a national program. [I call this kind of program] the pre-electoral program.
Al-Hayat So you are against the idea of abolishing the conference?
Qahtan Nobody has requested the abolition of the conference.
Al-Hayat I am talking about Islah.
Qahtan Neither Islah nor any party in the JMP has proposed abolishing the conference. Yemen must have three pillars. The first pillar - the most important one - is a broad-based national coalition, or a historic bloc that will move Yemen toward a true democratic transformation. This bloc would rely on the second pillar: Regional help from the [Arab] brothers. The third pillar is international aid from our friends.
No one shall be excluded
Al-Hayat There are some who accuse the JMP of practicing exclusion within its own ranks, even among its allies. Hassan Zaid, the Secretary General of al-Haq Party, said in an interview: "We have been calling for a partnership, so why is it that when a partnership has been achieved that we started excluding each other?"
Qahtan I find it difficult to understand this. Hassan Zaid is a member of the JMP. The minutes of the Supreme Council's meetings are available. It is him who started practicing exclusion. It is him who leveled accusatory against certain JMP members, i.e., Islah. In spite of [his statements], we ignored the matter and complained to the members of the Supreme Council. And I believe that the JMP operates under regulations. If somebody wants to propose an idea [to the JMP], there are mechanisms for that. On the other hand, some say that there is too much partnership, to the point where [the JMP has become] a [single] political party, or where persons such as Mr. Hassan Zaid have started to assume a role that surpasses their merits [for such a role]. But we reject such talk because we are part of a national partnership and we are not here to measure persons or [political] forces. We are all equal in rights and duties.
Al-Hayat The Houthis are part of the [issue of political exclusion]. It seems that there is a correlation between the Houthi claim that Islah is trying to repress them - these were their words - and corroborate Hassan Zaid's position [that certain actors are being excluded from decision making in the JMP]. [Zaid] has declared that Houthi influence in some governorates such as Taiz, Aden, and Shibuya, and other provinces has angered Islah. Has Houthi influence in those provinces angered you?
Qahtan We see the Houthis as part of the [Yemeni] nation. They have been presented with a great opportunity to engage in political action and to assume national roles. As for us, our national decision has moved from Islah's departments and institutions to those of the JMP. There is a dialogue between the JMP and the brotherly Houthis. We believe that the brotherly Houthis are being presented with a great opportunity to become a group or a political faction that takes part in the national dialogue and in the national political activity, and we encourage them to do so.
Al-Hayat So, what do you call the Houthis now. Are they not a faction?
Qahtan You've noticed that we are using the word "Houthis." I think that they can become a political faction and take on a party label.
Al-Hayat How do you explain the intermittent warfare between Islah and the Houthis in provinces such as Jawf and Hijjah, and how you explain the JMP's media support for the Salafists in Damaj given that the Salafists opposed the revolution?
Qahtan I admit that there has been friction between Islah and the Houthis in places. But, as Islah and the JMP, we have been able to overcome this problem. There has also been some tribal friction. I am certain that the next phase will be that of political maturity and will pave the way for everybody - including our Houthi brothers - to participate in building the nation and in shaping the country's future. I am confident that they will soon take a political position that reflects their political aspirations and ambitions. This is their legitimate right, and we will encourage them.
With regard to the conflict with the Salafists in Sa'da, nobody wanted it. And I think that even the Houthis would like to end this problem, and we hope that our Salafist brothers also feel that way. I heard that they were in favor of reconciliation and an end to the conflict. With regards to the media, its job is to report the news. I don't think that it has [expressed a bias towards] the opinion or position of Islah.
Al-Hayat Some believe that the tribalism upon which Islah is basing its tribal and political influence in the country will hamper the establishment of a civil state. How will you deal with tribalism? For example, do Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar and the tribal sheikhs within the Islah [movement] represent a hindrance in your quest for a civil state?
Qahtan Sheikh Sadiq, his brothers, and the tribal sheikhs are national leaders, whether [they are associated with] the JMP or Islah.
Al-Hayat Will you be able to liberate the state from tribal power in the future?
Qahtan Tribalism, insofar that it constitutes a sense of belonging, is not a problem in itself. The problem is [how the state] deals [with the people]. There is one nation expressed by the state, which regulates rights and duties within specific framework. The problem would be for the state to become tribal. However, tribalism as a sense of belonging is only natural.
Al-Hayat Will the women in Islah be given greater political rights than those they acquired in last year’s conference?
Qahtan I object to the word "given." I think that women will "take" their place and take on a role within Islah and society in a bigger way once the revolution is complete. Every day will be better than the day before.
Al-Hayat Through the Gulf Initiative and its operating mechanism [for a transfer of power away from the former Yemeni president and granting him diplomatic immunity], as well as a UN decision, the JMP ended up by becoming a partner to the regime. Why didn't you agree to the [first] initiative offered by President Saleh's at the Stadium of the Revolution at the outset of the crisis? [In his proposal] he offered you partnership and reforms, and also called on the JMP to administer the government and the state. Was your objective the removal of Saleh, after which you would accept anything, even partnership?
Qahtan First, partnership within the JMP takes place on a round table basis [and negotiations are conducted with the institution as a whole]. [What’s more] the positions with the JMP rotate. [The JMP] is not led by one specific group. It is an equal partnership. Second, let me ask you a question. Do you think that Saleh would have accepted to leave power were it not for the regional and international pressure in support of the Gulf Initiative? We have known him for years. We know what his speeches and initiatives mean. And I tell you that regional and international pressure is still necessary because Saleh is trying to get mold this initiative [to his liking]. Without regional and international pressure he will not leave power.
Al-Hayat What do you see in store for the future? You have swapped the president for his vice president. What is the difference?
Qahtan There is a big difference. Abed Rabbo Mansour has supported reform. By that I don't mean the Yemeni Congregation for Reform; I mean the reform process. [Abdul Rahman] al-Iryani is also an Islah supporter. And when the Quartet commission, which is led by Abed Rabbo Mansour and includes al-Iryani, Dr. Yasin Sa'id Na'man, and Abdul Wahab Al-Ansi agreed on a political and national reform program before the revolution, the president rejected it. Had he agreed to it, all of that would not have been necessary.
Al-Hayat There are some who argue that Islah more than a political party - that it is also an armed party and has a militia and enough arms to control the country.
Qahtan Islah is a civilian political reform party and strongly rejects the use of military force to achieve its political objectives.
Al-Hayat How would you reassure other currents of this - such as investors, members of the private sector, owners of capital - if you came to power in the future?
Qahtan If you are talking about Islah, then as a member [of that organization] I can tell you that Islah definitely does not aim to monopolize power apart from the JMP. We recognize the urgent need for the JMP to remain [in power for] at least the next two or three election cycles.
As the JMP, we shall continue to strive to present our point of view and reassure all societal groups on the soundness of our vision and that we oppose no one in particular.
Al-Hayat There are fears that a settling of accounts retaliatory actions will emerge. You realize that the regime has set up a large network of tribal, trade, and societal alliances. Will this alliance be targeted?
Qahtan The objective of this reform-minded revolution was to end the Saleh family’s domination over the republic. As for us, we have no specific agenda with regard to the People's Congress [the ruling political party in Yemen founded by Saleh in 1982], nor toward any gathering, commercial group or political force. On the contrary, we believe, as I said earlier, that Yemen can only be built on a broad-based coalition that includes all of its children.
Al-Hayat In the future, how will you deal with difficult issues such as al-Qaeda, the Houthis, and those advocating for an [Islamic] caliphate or an Islamic State in Yemen?
Qahtan First, with regards to al-Qaeda, it is not an organization with a national vision. It claims to be an international organization that wants to free the globe. They should move to the moon. They should go there and fight for planet Earth’s liberation from there. Al-Qaeda has no political program or vision specific to Yemen. We consider them outside the framework of the political process and therefore it is important to address the issue of terrorism as a national disease and a national challenge that should be completely and comprehensively addressed. Yemenis should not allow Yemen to be a haven for extremists, terrorists and murderers.
Regarding those calling for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in Yemen, we believe that the Islamic state after the death of the Prophet - peace and prayer be upon him - was based on the circumstances at the time. Today, we aspire to the unity of the Islamic nation but not through that kind of da'wa [proselytizing of Islam] appropriate to prior ages. We would like the [Islamic] nation to unite and for it to have a common Islamic market. We believe that the GCC countries have the potential to be pioneers in this area. In that regard, their experience can become a role model.
Al-Hayat What is the position of Islah on the charges raised by some Western regimes against persons and symbols in its leadership, such as Sheikh Zindani? [Sheikh Zindani] is wanted by the United States on terrorism charges. How would you deal with his case?
Qahtan Sheikh Abdul Majeed al-Zindani is on of Islah’s leaders, and has also presented himself as a [Muslim] da'iya and scholar in society. And I think that it is the right of any person to express any opinion, as long as they don't carry weapons against anyone. This is the crucial point with regard to the views he is proposing regardless whether people agree with them or not. This is his right. It is freedom of thought. With regard to the American charges, they are talking about freezing his assets, and Sheikh Abdul Majeed has no [bank] accounts as he has declared, nor is he a businessman.
Al-Hayat Have the Americans requested that President Ali Abdullah Saleh hand over Zindani?
Qahtan No. What we know is that the US Treasury Department made a decision to freeze his local assets. And we believe that these facts can be revealed through an open dialogue with the United States.