Fear Makes Everything Possible
It is a time in Egypt when it is not welcome to write something serious that addresses serious issues. Everything borders on the ridiculous. Rhetoric has shifted to a medieval or primal state where basic values are being revisited. Is it OK to discard human rights because of the violence of non-state actors? Is it OK for the police to kill innocent civilians in the supposed act of protecting these same people from terrorism? Is it OK that we have a country without fair trials? Most of the time, in the state media, the answer is yes.
There is little public discussion permissible. The majority has made its voice heard: The mass of Egyptians trusts whatever the government does politically, but will continue to ask for economic reform. It’s a little strange that things such as murder, torture and fair trials have become something “political” that only concern the elite. As if it’s forgivable, in the eyes of the masses, that such actions occur in the name of the greater good. What greater good is there other than giving the poor their rights and holding those in power accountable, rather than targeting the innocent?
The argument is that terrorism forces us to take exceptional measures. In reality it’s fear.
The amazing thing about fear is that it makes everything possible. All of a sudden it’s possible to cure AIDS and hepatitis C without scientific research. It’s possible to grow as a nation and be respected without the government respecting democracy or its citizens. It’s possible to condemn some inhumane acts of terror, such as the slaughter of 21 Copts by ISIS in Libya, but not the murder of a thousand people in Rabaa.
It is unreasonable to ask those who are afraid to overcome their fear. How would they do that, in an Egypt that is ready to punish the weak for demanding their rights, a nation where there is no protection from rabid security forces driven by revenge? How can people overcome fear when the international community has opted to pursue interests at the expense of rights they had once agreed should be universal?
Today’s Egypt is a land of possibilities, mostly horrific. There are no means of petitioning the government. There is no elected body to attempt, even symbolically, to temper the dictatorial powers of the president and the army. I would go so far as to say there are no ministries, since state security officers can override the decisions of any minister or government official in the name of national security.
The result is the Egypt we see today, one that is trying to enforce the view that it is a democratic country with violence and intimidation, as well as lots of money invested in propaganda and Western public relations firms. We see an Egypt unwilling to represent the interests of its people, but willing to safeguard personal interests, whether in the form of military economic empire or civilian crony oligarchy. Both of these sets of interests are happy to engage in an unadvertised cold war over the country’s resources.
In 2011 many Egyptians defied tyranny out of courage. Today many are defying human decency out of fear. Fear is here to stay because there are no saviors in this world. There are oppressors painted as saviors and heroes painted as villains. The saddest part of this dark, ugly picture is that it was made possible by the blessing of the people, who were willing to justify the theft of rights. In a way fear kills dreams, but in another way, it makes other improbable things possible.
Urgent Need for Humanitarian Corridor in Yemen
The humanitarian emergency in Yemen continues to worsen.
In Aden, the southern port city where local fighters are trying to fend off a Houthi takeover, several neighborhoods have no water or power. Hospitals are begging for basics like antibiotics and bandages. There is no sign of a pause in the combat, with the Houthis’ leader vowing not to back down. The Saudi-led bombardment of the country, which has closed all sea and airports, is into its twenty-sixth day.
In the northern highlands province of Sa‘ada from whence the Houthis came, an airstrike hit an Oxfam warehouse full of aid supplies. A spokeswoman for the charity called the strike “an absolute outrage” given that the Saudi-led coalition that is dropping the bombs has the coordinates of all Oxfam facilities. Oxfam’s work in the area is centered around the provision of clean water. Yemen is a severely water-stressed country.
The International Organization for Migration has been able to arrange evacuation by air for only a few hundred of the estimated 13,000 “third-country nationals” in Yemen. Some 79 percent of these people are Egyptian or Sudanese. Egypt and Sudan are two of the countries in the Saudi-led coalition. Others have fled Yemen by boat for the Horn of Africa.
But the biggest problem for foreigners seeking to leave the Yemeni war zone—not to speak of Yemenis—is that land crossings into Saudi Arabia or Oman are closed. It is urgent for the belligerents to cease fire so as to allow civilians to escape the fighting through a humanitarian corridor.
Two Resolutions, a Draft Constitution and Late Developments
On April 14, three weeks into the Saudi-led air campaign called Operation Decisive Storm, the UN Security Council approved Resolution 2216. This legally binding resolution, put forward by Jordan, Council president for April, imposed an arms embargo on the Houthi rebels and former Yemeni president ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih and his son. There are also provisions freezing individual assets and banning their travel. Russia abstained. It seemed fully to endorse both the so-called Gulf Cooperation Council initiative, brokered by UN Special Envoy Jamal Benomar, and Operation Decisive Storm.
As the purported legal basis for UNSC 2216, Jordan’s proposal cited “a letter from the president of Yemen,” who has fled his country for Riyadh, requesting from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the League of Arab States immediate “support, by all necessary means and measures, including military intervention, to protect Yemen and its people from the continuing aggression by the Houthis.”
The April 14 resolution reads as if Saudi Arabia is an impartial arbitrator, rather than a party to an escalating conflict, and as if the GCC offers a “peaceful, inclusive, orderly and Yemeni-led political transition process that meets the legitimate demands and aspirations of the Yemeni people, including women.” This is unmitigated nonsense. And it is contradicted by the testimony of rules-of-war monitors.
The Security Council expressed “grave alarm at the significant and rapid deterioration of the humanitarian situation.” But it conspicuously neglected to demand a humanitarian ceasefire to halt the Saudi-led bombing campaign, even briefly to allow essential medicines and food to reach Aden and other cities whose populations face death, destruction and devastation.
It is a particularly caustic omission. Only the day before Ivan Simonovic, the UN’s deputy secretary-general for human rights, said that the majority of the 600 people killed since the start of the Saudi assault are civilians. Both the Saudis and the Houthis are to blame, he explained. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ spokeswoman, Ravina Shamdasani, noted rules-of-war violations by both sides. The World Health Organization recorded 736 deaths and 2,719 wounded since the onset of Decisive Storm. As Human Rights Watch put it on April 13, “The [Saudi-led] coalition and the US should investigate alleged laws-of-war violations by coalition forces and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid to populations at risk.”
By contrast, UNSC 2216 implies that only the Houthis are committing war crimes. Invoking Chapter VII of the UN charter as if circuitously and ex post facto to authorize Operation Decisive Storm, it demands that “all Yemeni parties, in particular the Houthis, fully implement resolution 2201 (2015),” “refrain from further unilateral actions,” and “unconditionally…end the use of violence.” No mention of non-Yemeni parties.
Instead of condemning war crimes on both sides, or calling forcefully for a negotiated ceasefire, UNSC 2216 implicitly condones the Saudi-led, US-backed escalation. An indistinct nod toward diplomacy “welcomes” the GCC’s restatement of a March 10 invitation to convene a “conference” in Riyadh. This proposal was disingenuous then, since the Saudis would hardly be neutral arbiters between a transitional regime they installed and a group they label “terrorists.”
Praising the resolution, US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, known for her past advocacy of humanitarian intervention, declared that “a legitimate transition in Yemen can only be achieved through political negotiations and a consensus agreement among all political parties based on the GCC initiative and the outcomes of Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference.”
The Jordanian-sponsored resolution gives the impression that these (unmentioned) actions support rather than defy international law. In nine separate paragraphs and clauses, UNSC 2216 lauds the GCC initiative, including its outcomes: the National Dialogue Conference and, thereby, and the draft constitution also facilitated by Benomar. It reaffirms “the legitimacy of the president of Yemen, ‘Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.” Moreover it condemns “any actions that undermine the unity, sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Yemen.”
UNSC 2216 and Power’s remarks in mid-April follow up on a measure passed by the Security Council two months earlier on February 15. Then, as the United States, other NATO powers and Gulf nations shut down their embassies in Sanaa and evacuated their diplomats, the world body unanimously voted for Resolution 2201, calling on the Houthis to surrender their military gains and all Yemenis to get behind the GCC initiative and the draft constitution produced with the assistance of the special envoy, Benomar, in the name of the National Dialogue Conference.
This first resolution reflected Gulf and great power anxieties about minority guerrillas capturing the capital, Sanaa, overthrowing the remnants of the central government, sowing chaos, and inadvertently leaving opportunities for Ansar al-Shar‘ia (a local ally of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or AQAP) to make even more mischief. Domestically, it appealed to some, especially in the governorates that made up independent South Yemen until unification in 1990, who prefer the interim government of Hadi to the Houthis, but who also aspire to independence rather than unity.
In February, as in April, the “international community” praised the GCC initiative and its outcomes as the only solution to Yemen’s woes, Hadi as the rightful leader and the draft constitution as a road map for the future. Actually, all three had already failed to deliver tranquility, social justice or a way forward.
The GCC initiative was hardly a blueprint for social justice in Yemen, and the draft constitution sold popular aspirations short. A refresher on the GCC initiative: In 2011 there was a mass non-violent uprising against Salih. It remained mostly peaceful, although security troops were regularly sent to shoot demonstrators and more than 50 demonstrators were killed on one day in March and Salih himself was seriously injured in an assassination attempt in June. While Salih was convalescing in Saudi Arabia, leaders who had tried to bridge the impasse between north and south in 1994 relaunched their National Dialogue. This project was commandeered by the GCC, who cut a deal with Salih, signed in Riyadh in late 2011, whereby he handed over presidential power to his handpicked vice president in exchange for immunity from prosecution for misdeeds in office, while remaining the head of the ruling General People’s Congress, which in turn technically retained a majority of 301 district-based parliamentary seats (although legislative terms had already expired). A hastily arranged one-candidate election in 2012 installed Hadi for a two-year term as transitional president. The revolutionary “peaceful youth” who had camped out in city squares for months on end in 2011 were mostly wary of this plan for limited regime change, and skeptical about GCC agendas. Also, note that Hadi’s term has run out.
In and of itself, the ensuing National Dialogue Conference was a sound idea, grounded in Yemeni precedents. It did help to tamp down tensions in 2012 and part of 2013. Some of its committees made real progress, thanks to some young and/or female intellectuals and technocrats. There were working groups on a range of issues—ranging from economic development to the Houthi and southern questions, respectively. But in the end the Conference did not produce the desired results. Most of the 565 delegates were aging politicians, veterans of past conflicts and corruption rackets. The dissident Houthis, the Southern Movement or hirak, and advocates of genuine change were under-represented.
The National Dialogue, moreover, became a donor-dominated “transitology” project. Delegates earned generous per diems to meet in the five-star Mövenpick Hotel in Sanaa with foreign “experts” on subjects like federalism. This last item was not on the Conference agenda or part of its mission statement or committee structure—but nevertheless a federalism proposal was a major outcome of the Conference, and a central feature of the proposed constitution. Still, the federal map produced by the Conference was dismissed in popular responses as inadequate to address the real need for a regime change or to end to power struggle in Sanaa. It was, moreover, the imposition of the division into six regions that prompted the Houthis to deploy so as to stop that division. The hirak also rejected this redesign.
The draft constitution overvalued in UNSC 2216 is premised on a “federal” solution to Yemen’s problems. There’s no doubt that the majority of Yemenis prefer decentralized local governance over one-man autocracy. Nor can anyone object to the numerous platitudes including promises to respect rights to asylum, health care and more. But the draft constitution, a product of the GCC initiative and foreign consultations, was not the answer to Yemen’s problems it was made out to be. It seemed bizarrely derivative of the flawed American-backed constitution foisted on Iraq in 2005, or the similar failed arrangements introduced in Afghanistan.
The envisioned government structure is not fully federal if that term means regional autonomy. The text specifies that the new House of Representatives shall consist of 260 members elected through a general, free, secret, direct and equal vote under the closed proportional list system. That is national constituency representation, whereby parliamentary representatives are elected from the whole country, not localities or provinces, as in the American or German federal systems. Yemen’s draft constitution would marginalize regional forces, notably the Houthi movement (Ansar Allah), based in the Sa‘ada governorate in the far north.
Moreover, oddly, the draft constitution stipulated that the south (the newly designated but ill-defined regions of Aden and Hadramawt) shall be represented in the House of Representatives based on “the land and population formula” at a share of 40 percent. This formula would give the south more seats than they had in the current (although legally defunct) 301-member legislature, or than they would earn based purely on population. It looked like a bid to win the support of southerners. At the same time, contrarily, the proposed national charter divided the south into two large regions in the “federal” system, a notion that is anathema to many hirak activists, whose demands are for the restoration of independent southern sovereignty.
The draft constitution also created a new upper house of Parliament called the Federal Council, comprised of 84 members—12 from each of six newly created regions, six from the city of Sanaa and six from the city of Aden. This apportionment is cockeyed because the ostensible equality of representation from each of the six purportedly federal regions is skewed toward the former capitals of North and South Yemen, respectively. Other large metropolitan areas, notably Ta‘izz, but also Hudayda—situated geographically, politically and metaphorically between Sanaa and Aden—were relatively under-represented.
Finally, the draft constitution specified that the president and vice president shall be elected together on a single ticket, provided that they are not from the same region. And yet the national constituency vote virtually guarantees a majority of conservative, status quo politicians from the more populous former North Yemen.
None of these provisions satisfied popular aspirations.
Under the leadership of the new Saudi King Salman, the members of the GCC (except Oman) pulled together a war coalition including Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, backed by the United States and Great Britain. They rammed a flawed, legally questionable, unbalanced resolution through the Security Council that seemed to authorize a military operation that has closed all of Yemen’s air and sea ports, caused a nationwide power outage, killed hundreds, wounded thousands, displaced tens of thousands, incapacitated emergency and medical facilities, halted food imports and terrorized millions.
When I began this essay my conclusion was to be that it is the responsibility of the Security Council, the Obama administration, other world powers, and American, British or European scholars familiar with the many intricacies of this conflict to call unequivocally on all parties to stop fighting, bombing and rearming: to give diplomacy a chance, halt the bloodletting, show empathy for innocents caught in the crossfire. I honestly don’t know what is going on inside the UN. But I hope the secretary-general and others are about to embrace the #KefayaWar hashtag. And that the US policy establishment will pay heed. And that otherwise a community of concerned scholars will speak out.
Image: Samer al-Shameri
Open Letter from Yemen Scholars Protesting War
We write as scholars concerned with Yemen and as residents/nationals of the United Kingdom and the United States. The military attack by Saudi Arabia, backed by the Gulf Cooperation Council states (but not Oman), Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, the UK and above all the US, is into its third week of bombing and blockading Yemen. This military campaign is illegal under international law: None of these states has a case for self-defense. The targets of the campaign include schools, homes, refugee camps, water systems, grain stores and food industries. This has the potential for appalling harm to ordinary Yemenis as almost no food or medicine can enter. Yemen is the poorest country of the Arab world in per capita income, yet rich in cultural plurality and democratic tradition. Rather than contributing to the destruction of the country, the US and UK should support a UN Security Council resolution demanding an immediate, unconditional ceasefire and use their diplomatic influence to strengthen the sovereignty and self-government of Yemen. As specialists we are more than aware of internal divisions within Yemeni society, but we consider that it is for the Yemenis themselves to be allowed to negotiate a political settlement.
Robert Burrowes, University of Washington
Steve Caton, Harvard University
Sheila Carapico, University of Richmond
Paul Dresch, University of Oxford
Najam Haidar, Barnard College
Anne Meneley, Trent University
Brinkley Messick, Columbia University
Flagg Miller, University of California-Davis
Martha Mundy, London School of Economics
Thanos Petouris, SOAS-University of London
Lucine Taminian, The American Academic Research Institute in Iraq
Gabriele vom Bruck, SOAS-University of London
Janet Watson, University of Leeds
Lisa Wedeen, University of Chicago
John Willis, University of Colorado
Stacey Philbrick Yadav, Hobart and William Smith Colleges
Sami Zubaida, Birkbeck College, London
Not Running on Empty: Democratic Activism Against Israeli Gas in Jordan
A grassroots movement has been growing in Jordan, aimed at putting a stop to a major gas deal between Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom. In the wake of the Israeli elections, which returned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to power, this movement can be expected to get larger still.
On March 6, at least a thousand protesters marched in Jordan against a proposed transaction by which the kingdom would purchase most of its natural gas from Israel. Jordan remains an energy-dependent country, so Jordan’s government hoped that the deal would shore up the kingdom’s energy supply, and reduce the previous reliance on Egypt and its frequently sabotaged pipeline running across the Sinai Peninsula. The bargain now faces multiple obstacles, including Israel’s own anti-trust authorities, which are concerned to prevent energy monopolies. But within Jordan, there seem to be two key stories: one, the depth of resistance to the deal itself, and two, the reemergence of a broad, democratic opposition coalition for the first time since the early days of the Arab uprisings in 2011. Jordan has seen other issue-specific grassroots activism recently, especially with regard to other energy-related controversies such as plans to build nuclear power plants. But the coalition against the gas deal appears to be both broader and deeper, ranging from ordinary citizens to members of Parliament.
Supporters of the gas deal include many officials in the Jordanian, Israeli and US governments, who see it as part of a strategy linking Israel, Egypt, Palestine and Jordan together via energy interdependence. This economic vision is meant to bring political stability to the region as well, but what wealthy and powerful states view as interdependence others often see simply as dependence. Still, Jordanian proponents of the compact argue that Jordan has few real alternatives. They are correct that Jordan is in desperate need of stable and reliable sources of energy to meet the needs of the population. But it is the identity of the proposed supplier that is most troublesome to opponents of the project.
Jordan’s grassroots opposition activism against the deal is rooted in part in the national, regional and global boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, but it is also more than that. BDS only emerged in Jordan in 2014, and its backers compose just one of about 30 groups in the coalition. Some of these groups have been part of the “anti-normalization” campaign for decades. “Israel is determined to use the need for natural resources as a gateway to a region that does not desire normalized relations,” noted Mary Nazzal-Batayneh, a spokesperson for the Jordan BDS movement. Especially in the aftermath of the 2014 Gaza war, and the terrible death toll among Palestinians in Gaza, many in Jordan argue that gas purchases from Israel are tantamount to support for bombardment and occupation. Certainly, these latter points have been the main themes of slogans and signs at the various protests against the gas deal over the last several months.
The pressure was great enough that Parliament held sessions on the gas issue, with activists in attendance. On December 10, 2014, Jordan’s lower house of Parliament voted 107 to 13 (in a non-binding resolution) to urge the government to scrap the gas deal entirely. For the activists, it was an enormous victory. “I really think this kind of call for accountability from a grassroots secular campaign is unprecedented in recent years,” said Nazzal-Batayneh. “If it weren’t for us, Parliament wouldn’t have deliberated the issue to the same extent.”
Yet Parliament remains weak relative to executive authority in Jordan, so the bigger decisions will ultimately be made within the cabinet and inside the royal palace. With that in mind, activists have kept the campaign going, urging policymakers not only to abandon the prospective bargain with Israel, but also to pursue alternative gas supplies (such as from Cyprus) and alternative energy sources, including shale within Jordan itself.
Jordanian activism on this issue may represent an even bigger story than the gas deal itself, however, because the coalition is so broad. As uprisings toppled regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Jordanian protesters, too, took their political dissent to the streets. Popular movements collectively known as the hirak appeared in virtually every city, town and village in the country, urging change. Jordanian protests focused mainly on reform, not revolution, but they began to dissipate in 2012. The regime, in the meantime, pursued a set of top-down reform initiatives in an effort to respond to the popular political energies.
Regime supporters point to a long list of reforms to explain why street protest disappeared, but the disillusionment of opposition forces was also a factor. The tumult of regional politics dampened enthusiasm considerably. The civil war in Syria served as a wedge dividing the Jordanian opposition, with some secular and leftist elements supporting the regime of Bashar al-Asad, and the Muslim Brothers supporting Islamist rebels, but most liberals and progressives supporting neither. The rise and fall of the Muslim Brothers’ regime in Egypt only deepened the distrust within and among Jordan’s diverse opposition forces.
That is why the current coalition against the gas deal is so compelling. To some extent, this coalition has revived a focused kind of street activism. Since the signing of the 1994 Wadi ‘Araba peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, an “anti-normalization” movement has ensured that the peace remains a cold one between regimes, but not really between societies. That movement now seems to be rejuvenated. “Normalization has been between political elites and has not taken on a wider economic dimension, but this deal aims to change all that,” said activist Thoraya al-Rayyes. “Perhaps the Jordanian and Israeli regimes thought that the current weakness of the opposition presented a window of opportunity to pursue the kind of far-reaching normalization initiative they have not been able to pursue before. But the backlash has been strong and the campaign has united groups from across the political spectrum.”
The anti-gas deal coalition has also revived cooperation across ideological lines. The demonstrations include Islamists, but also leftist and pan-Arab nationalist political parties, trade unions, professional associations, women’s rights organizations, hirak groups and youth organizations, and even the influential association for retired military officers. Most of the organizers and leaders are not remotely sympathetic to the Islamist movement. The coalition is diverse, drawing on people of different ages, classes, religions (Muslims and Christians), and ethnic backgrounds (East Jordanian, tribal, Palestinian or Circassian origins). “This is the first unified campaign since the Arab spring broke up the ranks of unified work on major issues like normalization,” said Hisham Bustani, the coordinator of the national coalition. Similarly, Abdullah Shami, another activist, saw in the movement a broader significance for democratic participation and reform activism: “Things are picking up.… I think there is a small opening within the public sphere, for the traditional opposition among leftist parties and professional unions, and their traditional causes to create some sort of dynamic, in partnership with various hiraks around the country.”
The nascent movement may succeed in its immediate goal of shifting Jordan’s energy policies away from Israel and toward alternative sources of supply and development, but it may also create more space for citizen activism and effective democratic participation in Jordanian political life.
A Grim New Phase in Yemen’s Migration History
“Yemen’s conflict is getting so bad that some Yemenis are fleeing to Somalia,” read a recent headline at the Vice News website. The article mentions that 32 Yemenis, mainly women and children, made the trip to Berbera, a port town in Somaliland (and not Somalia). Hundreds of thousands of Somalis have crossed the Gulf of Aden since the outbreak of the Somali civil war in 1991. But now the tide seems to have turned. Yemen has become a war zone, as a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia bombs the country in an attempt to stop the Houthis, an insurgent movement opposed to the government, from gaining control over the entirety of Yemeni territory. But, instead of protecting the Yemeni population, these attacks have created more chaos, despair and destruction.
The situation is especially bad in Aden, Yemen’s main port, strategically located near Bab al-Mandab, the strait connecting the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea. Street fighting in Aden has intensified, mainly between the city’s inhabitants, on one side, and the Houthis and army units loyal to ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih, Yemen’s former president, on the other. There is no water available any longer, electricity is intermittent and food shortages are very serious. Life in Aden is unbearable without water and electricity, as the climate is very hot and humid. People are slowly starving. Those who can are trying to escape, but many do not have the opportunity.
In other parts of the country, the situation is deteriorating, too, with civilians being the main victims of this useless war. A camp of internally displaced people near the Saudi Arabian border was mistakenly bombed, killing many people. A dairy near the port town of Hudayda was targeted, killing dozens of workers inside, and recently another factory was hit. A family of seven people in Yemen’s capital of Sanaa was killed in an air raid. And these are just a few of the stories. Many residents have fled to their ancestral villages or sought refuge elsewhere. Shops in the capital of Sanaa are closed, and water is running out. There are long queues at fuel stations, and diesel is no longer available. Those who have stayed behind describe the city as a ghost town.
On April 12, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) organized its first charter flight during the crisis, evacuating 141 “third-country nationals” from Sanaa. People with certain nationalities, such as Indian and Chinese, were flown to safety with the assistance of their governments. According to the IOM, 160,000 third-country nationals remain stranded in Yemen. The organization is also helping Yemenis who were on their way to Yemen when the airstrikes started and who are stuck at airports all over the world. Thousands of Yemenis are separated from their families, anxious to go home or desperate to leave the country. And yet, it seems to be easier to evacuate foreigners than to help Yemenis in their own country. It took days before the first airplane bearing humanitarian aid was able to land.
I am thinking of all the migrants who came to Yemen fleeing oppression, violence and destitution in the Horn of Africa. Most of them hoped to find work on the Arabian Peninsula, and used Yemen as a transit country. Since 2011 an increasing number of Ethiopians have crossed the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, outnumbering Somalis as new arrivals. One of the reasons was that brokers and smugglers were exploiting the weakened border controls and rule of law in Yemen. They convinced Ethiopians to migrate via Yemen, promoting it as an easy way to reach Saudi Arabia. Many were kidnapped upon arrival in Yemen, detained in “torture camps” and only released after having paid a ransom. I can only hope that IOM will also repatriate the thousands of undocumented Ethiopians and Somalis in Yemen, but I fear for their fate. According to a new UN report, there were still Ethiopian migrants arriving in Yemen after the start of the airstrikes.
The current situation marks a grim new phase in Yemen’s migration history. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many Yemeni men migrated to the Horn of Africa, escaping the bad economic and political situation at home. They often returned to Yemen in the 1960s and 1970s, after the establishment of the Yemen Arab Republic in the north and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south. It is more than ironic that nowadays Yemenis have to flee to the Horn of Africa again.
Operation Decisive Storm and the Expanding Counter-Revolution
On the night of March 25 one hundred Saudi warplanes bombed strategic targets inside Yemen under the control of the Houthi rebels. A number of countries—the other Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) members minus Oman, as well as Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, Morocco and Pakistan—joined the effort either directly or in support capacities. Although the Houthis have been in control of the Yemeni capital Sanaa and the central government since September 2014, it was the flight of president ‘Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi to Aden and the subsequent Houthi attack on the southern city that constituted the breaking point for Saudi Arabia and the GCC. Thus began what Riyadh has dubbed Operation Decisive Storm (‘Asifat al-Hazm), a military assault that has already caused considerable destruction in Sanaa and elsewhere, and incurred dozens of casualties both military and civilian.
Saudi ambassador to the United States Adel al-Jubair described the air campaign as defending the legitimate Yemeni government led by Hadi, who replaced president ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih as part of GCC-brokered political arrangement in 2011. Hadi’s government, Jubair contended, “has agreed to a process that is supported by the international community, that is enshrined in several United Nations Security Council resolutions that calls for all Yemeni parties to take a certain path that would lead them from where they were to a new state with a new constitution and elections and checks and balances and so forth.” He referred to the Houthis as “spoilers” of this process, who refused to “become legitimate players in Yemeni politics,” and who will not be allowed to take over the country. Jubair’s remarks on the legitimacy of the government were remarkable for several reasons, not least of which was the absence of any mention of the Yemeni people.
The Houthis’ refusal to negotiate a political settlement in Riyadh has indeed disrupted the kingdom’s attempt to revive the original and problematic GCC initiative and National Dialogue Conference that was to resolve Yemen’s deep political divisions. As Stacey Philbrick Yadav and Sheila Carapico have argued, “given the GCC monarchies’ interest in stability in the most restive quarter of the Arabian Peninsula, the agreement contained a number of provisions to undermine populist demands for a democratic transition.” It is no wonder then that the Houthis saw little possibility of addressing their concerns in a Saudi-sponsored conference that seemed to have as its goal the restoration of the political status quo.
Yet Operation Decisive Storm is not merely about Yemen’s internal politics. It is emblematic of a broader political transformation—one that both has historical parallels and is strikingly new. For many, the assault raises the specter of a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, executed by a coalition of Sunni states and Iran’s Shi‘i proxies. Indeed, the forces aligned against the Houthis are Sunni-majority countries. As many analysts have noted, however, sectarianism obfuscates the political context of the Yemeni crisis rather than clarifying it. For those with longer historical memories, this military campaign suggests a previous proxy war between Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt and Saudi Arabia, when both countries intervened in the Yemeni civil war (1962-1967) to support the Yemeni republicans, on the one hand, and the Yemeni monarchy, on the other. In that conflict, the Saudis backed the deposed Zaydi imam while Egyptian troops fought on the side of the “free officers.” Although the republican officers prevailed, Egypt suffered a kind of defeat, and Saudi Arabia ultimately extended its hegemony over what was then North Yemen.
A closer historical analogy might be the Iranian, Jordanian and British intervention in Oman against the rebellion of the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman (PFLO) in the 1960s and 1970s. In that case an alliance of conservative monarchies joined forces to support the Omani sultanate against popular forces that had threatened to spread into the greater Persian Gulf. While the Houthis in no way resemble the leftist PFLO in ideology or revolutionary practice, the forces gathered against them have a great deal in common. Namely, they are all part of a counter-revolutionary front that has expanded beyond the GCC to include other authoritarian regimes. While not all these countries share the Saudi and GCC paranoia regarding Iran, they do, to varying degrees, fear the spread of ISIS or popular democratic forces. To these regimes, the Houthis represent one of many forces that threaten to undermine the regional order.
The coalition also shares a reliance on Saudi and GCC political and economic support. In Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE have supported the regime of ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi politically and financially since he formalized power in 2014. Collectively, they provided Egypt with an estimated $23 billion in grants, loans, petroleum products and investment in 2014 and a pledge for $12 billion more in 2015. Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, met with King Salman in October 2014 as part of a general rapprochement between the two countries that led to an unspecified aid package from Saudi Arabia. Both Jordan and Morocco were briefly in discussions to enter the GCC as a part a post-Arab uprising defense strategy intended to ensure dynastic stability in the face of increasing domestic opposition. Although they were ultimately not invited to join, the two monarchies still enjoy the financial support of GCC countries and share a similar commitment to combating the influence of ISIS.
The role of Pakistan is slightly more complex. Beyond the long history of military ties between the two countries, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif owes his political life to Saudi intervention. The kingdom gave him a comfortable exile in 2000 and again in 2007 (including financing his establishment of a steel mill in Jidda). Since Sharif’s election in 2013, the Saudis have continued their support, most recently in April 2014 with an injection of $1.5 billion in loans into the Pakistani economy to shore up its foreign reserves. In return, the Pakistani military has actively supported the Gulf monarchies: The recruitment of Pakistani mercenaries for Bahrain’s security forces during the height of opposition demonstrations in 2011 was organized by private security firms with close ties to the Pakistani military.
Despite Saudi or even US assertions to the contrary, Operation Decisive Storm has nothing to do with supporting the legitimacy of a political process in Yemen. Its goal is instead to maintain the continuity of authoritarian governance in the region by actively repressing the forces that threaten to undo the status quo. That this coalition has indiscriminately lumped together ISIS, Iran and the popular democratic movements of the Arab uprisings of 2011 should indicate both its broader strategic goals and, equally, the dangers to positive political and social change it represents.
Beinin, Beers and Israel-Palestine in Cleveland
MERIP contributing editor Joel Beinin came to Cleveland in early March to discuss the popular struggle against Israeli occupation in the West Bank as well as what was at stake in yesterday’s Israeli elections. His host was the Northeast Ohio Consortium on Middle East Studies (NOCMES). Beinin’s visit included an hour-long interview on “The Sound of Ideas” on WCPN, the local NPR affiliate in Cleveland, and lectures at Case Western Reserve and Kent State Universities. Then, as is becoming NOCMES custom, Beinin appeared at The Happy Dog, a bar featuring live music and public education events about international affairs. Attendees learned about the Middle East while sipping an IPA, a porter or a stout underneath a poster of Joe Strummer.
At The Happy Dog, Beinin covered everything from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s March 3 speech to Congress to the summer 2011 protests in Israel over economic inequality. He argued, among other things, that Netanyahu’s rhetoric conflating Zionism with Judaism could lead Israel toward self-destruction. Video of his talk is here.
Two MERIP editors, Pete Moore and Joshua Stacher, founded NOCMES in 2010 to bring the best of Middle East studies to Cleveland and environs. The consortium now includes six universities, with about a dozen civic partners including the City Club of Cleveland and the Cleveland Council of World Affairs. NOCMES has invited over 35 speakers on such topics as the Arab uprisings, oil and Saudi Arabia, women and religion, ISIS, the global war on terror and policing in the US, the Iranian revolution, public opinion and comic books. Lectures are held at Cleveland-area universities, Islamic centers, churches, high schools and public libraries, as well as prestigious venues such as the City Club. Previous speakers at The Happy Dog include Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Jillian Schwedler, Laleh Khalili and Hugh Roberts. For more information and video of many previous events, see the NOCMES website.
Fuel Subsidy Policy and Popular Mobilization in Syria
On February 17, Syrian Minister of Oil Muhammad al-Lahham warned Parliament that the price of fuel would have to increase. This announcement came just one month after the government raised the official price of diesel by more than 50 percent to 125 Syrian pounds (70 cents) per liter, the largest single hike since the uprising of 2011 and an eightfold increase since May of that year. As economic conditions continue to deteriorate for Syrians in government-held territory, the regime risks popular backlash by abandoning its long-standing guarantee of cheap energy -- one of the last traces of the old Baathist populist commitment to Syrians’ economic welfare.
The Syrian regime faces simultaneous fiscal and energy crises. Its foreign exchange reserves totaled $17.4 billion in mid-2011. These funds were rapidly depleted by military operations, rising imports that replaced vanishing domestic products and falling revenues. The reserves nevertheless allowed the regime to stay afloat as it halted investment activities, received contributions from loyalist businessmen and displaced much of the population it had once supported. In July 2013 government also received an emergency $3.6 billion in credit from Iran, but that amount has likely been spent. Both Iran and Russia may be reluctant to provide additional aid given their decreased oil revenues.
Government-held areas also face severe fuel shortages, as Iranian oil deliveries have become less reliable and supplies from wells held by ISIS have dried up following coalition air strikes. The little oil that does arrive is refined in facilities operating at around 10 percent capacity, while demand for fuel has increased due to power outages that have forced Syrians to use diesel generators.
The Syrian government is the primary distributor of this fuel. It purchases crude oil, refines it and sells the resulting fuel domestically below market prices in what amounts to a de facto government subsidy of energy. But given the present fuel shortage, below-market official prices feed a black market that thrives at government expense. The regime hopes to bring this illicit trade under control by raising prices, eventually, to market levels.
Though this idea makes fiscal sense, it carries significant political risks. Sudden fuel price increases have previously helped to catalyze unrest by undermining what Raymond Hinnebusch calls the Asad regime’s “tacit social contract” with Syria’s population, in which “political acquiescence [is] bought through state delivery of a minimum level of economic opportunity and welfare.” To be sure, this “contract” frayed under President Bashar al-Asad’s liberalization campaign in the 2000s, and became increasingly irrelevant from 2011 onward, as the regime devolved into a patchwork of half-functioning state institutions and parasitic militias. Nonetheless, vestiges of the “contract” endure in the form of subsidized food and energy.
Syria began producing oil in quantity in the mid-1970s. Crude exports provided government revenue, and the state shared the wealth by selling petroleum products domestically below market prices. Besides benefiting consumers, this policy lowered the cost of agricultural and industrial inputs. Syrians’ standard of living improved substantially in the 1970s as the government invested oil wealth in industry and provided cheap energy.
The regime violated this portion of its “contract” in the early 1980s, and the consequences were severe. When crude exports dropped as Syria’s first oil wells struggled to keep up with rapidly growing consumption, the government raised fuel prices drastically. By 1982, the price of fuel oil -- used mainly in industry -- rose to more than 15 times the 1977 level. The government also quadrupled the price of kerosene and almost doubled the price of diesel between 1980 and 1982. These price increases exacerbated the strain on small manufacturers caused by a decade of state support for large-scale industry. They also increased hardship for farmers and consumers who depended upon cheap diesel, with consumers relying on kerosene as well. Nationwide, economic hardship gave additional momentum to a Muslim Brother-led insurgency. In Hama, home to small-scale industry and a hardline faction of the Brothers, price hikes intensified economic strain and helped catalyze a revolt that ended in that city’s destruction.
For the next three decades, the regime benefited from rebounding crude exports and attempted to correct for poor economic planning in the 1970s by liberalizing the economy. Liberalization ate away at the gains made by ordinary Syrians in the 1970s, but the regime remained committed to providing cheap energy. Fixed fuel prices lagged behind inflation as Hafiz avoided the rapid price hikes that contributed to the events of 1982.
When Bashar assumed control in 2000, rising domestic fuel consumption and diminishing crude reserves had begun to drain Syria’s oil revenues once again. Implicit fuel subsidies accounted for almost 11 percent of GDP in 2004, and rising global oil prices, declining Syrian crude exports, rampant fuel smuggling and growing fuel imports created strong incentives to raise prices. Upon the International Monetary Fund’s recommendation, Bashar did exactly that after declaring a liberalized “social market economy” in 2005. The price of fuel oil increased by a factor of seven between 2005 and 2008, and the price of diesel nearly tripled between 2007 and 2008.
It was a severe and sudden breach of the regime’s distributive commitments to consumers, agriculture and industry, all of which were suffering in the late 2000s. Domestic demand for manufactured goods had collapsed, and the Syrian textile industry went into a steep decline exacerbated by the rapid increase in fuel oil prices. According to Hinnebusch, higher fuel costs, together with government corruption and neglect, “combined with the terrible drought of 2007-2010 [and] led to agricultural decline.” High diesel prices compounded the effects of the drought, which had made farmers more dependent upon diesel-fueled irrigation pumps. For consumers, price increases worsened an already bad economic situation: Poverty grew by 10 percent in the late 2000s, and public-sector wages failed to keep pace with inflation.
In early 2011, the government announced its intention to bring fuel prices to market level by mid-decade. It raised the price of fuel oil by 50 percent that January, straining the country’s already ravaged industrial sector, and promised to bring all fuel prices to market level by 2015. Though this measure certainly did not cause the 2011 uprising, it coincided with deteriorating economic conditions in Syria and mass demonstrations across the Arab world. Recognizing its misstep, the government lowered diesel prices in May, but Syria’s uprising had already begun.
Syria’s government still aims to bring fuel prices to market levels, and may yet do so. But wartime shortages and high black market prices have made it more difficult. The government remains responsible for distributing fuel to most of the Syrian market, and sets national prices that do not reflect wide variations in supply and demand across its territory. Raising official prices will increase strain on those who buy on the formal market, fail to address local variations and encourage profiteers to raise their own prices. To prevent profiteering, Syria’s cabinet and provincial governments have issued warnings to merchants who sell above official rates, and the Ministry of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection has fined and closed fuel stations.
As Oil Minister Lahham warned, the government will likely continue raising prices. Meanwhile, Syrians living in government-held territory will continue to struggle with rapid inflation, high unemployment and shortages of basic goods. How the regime paces further price increases -- and how the increasingly desperate population reacts -- bears watching.
Yemeni Political Dialogue in Riyadh?
On March 10, the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) invited rival Yemeni factions to hold peace talks in Riyadh, the Saudi Royal Court announced.
The Saudis know only too well that the leadership of Ansar Allah, or the Houthi movement, will be reticent about taking part in negotiations with President-in-waiting ‘Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and other Yemeni politicians in their capital -- not least because Saudi Arabian forces killed dozens of Houthi-affiliated civilians and their neighbors in air raids across the border in 2009-2010. The kingdom has declared Ansar Allah a terrorist organization. When the Houthis left the interim government in Sanaa no choice but to resign, Riyadh suspended payments on its huge aid package to Yemen. Until recently talks between the Saudis and the Houthis happened through indirect channels. Such contacts have existed since the ceasefire agreement of 2010 but Ansar Allah’s leader ‘Abd al-Malik al-Houthi officially acknowledged them only on March 15. It is not clear whether the Saudis’ redirection of “aid” to certain political stakeholders in Aden -- designated by the Gulf states as Yemen’s interim capital -- means that they have also stopped paying the Houthis to police the border.
Saudi Arabia has sponsored salafi institutions that have labeled the Zaydi Shi‘a of Yemen as heretics since the 1970s. Its state-run media have attacked the Houthis, a Zaydi movement, on a daily basis. The House of Sa‘ud hardly qualifies as a bona fide negotiator. It sees its mission in Yemen as kingmaker rather than facilitator of talks between opposing factions. Saudi Arabia is not interested in guaranteeing the Houthis a fair share of power in a future government. Let’s not forget that the so-called GCC initiative was designed to keep the “revolutionary youth” and the Houthis out of the political process following the departure of ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih from the presidency.
The Omani capital of Muscat would be a more appropriate venue for talks between the Houthis and opposition groups that formed a new national alliance on March 14. This alliance is to replace the Joint Meeting Parties that aimed to overthrow Salih. Oman has no record of direct interference in Yemeni affairs, and has good relations with all the political factions there, as well as with Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The Saudis’ proposal to hold talks in Riyadh might be a strategic ploy enabling them to blame the Houthis for rejecting a political settlement in the event of wide-ranging hostilities. April Longley Alley of the International Crisis Group appears to believe that the Saudis themselves may not even be interested in peace. She recently argued at the Council on Foreign Relations that “it [Saudi Arabia] is aggressive in attempts to diplomatically isolate the Houthis and supports groups that will confront them militarily. It looks like Saudi Arabia is on the warpath.” By arming the Houthis’ rivals, whose weapons might fall into the hands of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Saudi Arabia seems to envision a scenario akin to Syria and Iraq, where its enemies are fighting each other. Greater instability and civil war in Yemen may not work in the Saudis’ favor, however. The visit of a delegation carrying a letter from King Salman to Ansar Allah’s leader, shortly after the Houthis held military exercises near the Saudi Arabian border on March 11, suggests that the Saudis have reached this conclusion themselves.