In 2011 Yemenis shared a vision of revolutionary change with protesters in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria demanding the downfall of cruel, corrupt presidential regimes. Today, like many of their cousins, the peaceful youth (shabab silmiyya) of Yemen face a counter-revolutionary maelstrom from within and without. If Gulf sultans were anxious about insurrection in North Africa, they were even more fearful of subaltern uprisings in their own neighborhood.
Compared with Egypt, Iraq or Syria, there is something to be said for the Yemen model of a phased transition predicated on dialogue. In what became known as the GCC Initiative, after protracted protests and negotiations the long-time chief executive ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih relinquished power, in exchange for immunity from prosecution; his General People’s Congress retained its parliamentary majority while entering into a Dialogue with the parliamentary opposition and other domestic forces. This mediation, spearheaded by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the United States, may have averted all-out civil war among factions within the divided military establishment in the winter of 2011-2012. Meanwhile, however, the American drone campaign and Saudi border policies deepened other tensions and conflicts.
The Dialogue Model
The heart of the Yemeni model is the Hiwar al-Watani, or National Dialogue. In Civil Society in Yemen (1998), I described the 1993-1994 Hiwar, a far-reaching network of town hall meetings, university seminars, qat chews and tribal gatherings whose collective resolutions were compiled into a constitution-like Document of Pledge and Accord calling for things like the removal of military installations from population centers and constraints on executive power. The central-level National Dialogue Committee of prominent men tried to reconcile power sharing between Sanaa and Aden. This quest failed. After Aden’s Socialist leaders declared their independence in April 1994, Salih’s army, assisted by salafi militias, effectively conquered the south. Notwithstanding the triumph of militarism over mediation, I argued that the nationwide dialogue process epitomized what scholars mean by activism in the public civic sphere.
Several years before 2011, mass protests in Aden, Hadramawt and other parts of the former People’s Democratic Republic — known simply as al-hirak (or the Movement) — prompted Dialogue proponents with ties to both sides to reopen conversations to address legitimate concerns of southerners disenfranchised by Salih’s carpetbaggers. When the youth in Sanaa, Ta‘izz and other northern cities took up the cries for regime change from Tunisia, Egypt and the hirak — and especially following scores of defections from the regime after snipers killed at least 50 demonstrators in Sanaa in March 2011 — a new Hiwar became all the more urgent.
Salih postured and prevaricated. In a great “comeback kid” performance, after being gravely injured and permanently disfigured in June by a bomb placed inside the presidential compound, he returned alive and kicking after three months of convalescence in Saudi Arabia and the United States.
All the while, the progressive peaceful youth also persevered, combining protest repertoires of the other Arab uprisings with folk performance arts and twenty-first-century social media. Tribesmen threw down their arms; women raised their voices; children painted their faces and danced. Tawakkul Karman, an activist known for her fiery speeches, was co-winner of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. Sara Ishaq’s film Karama Has No Walls about the massacre of March 2011 was to be nominated for best short documentary in the Oscars of 2013.
Above and beyond the popular ferment, finally, at a ceremony in the Saudi capital on November 23, 2011 attended by Gulf royalty and Western diplomats — but none of the Yemenis who had called for his removal — a smiling Salih autographed four copies of the GCC plan. Vice President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, a nondescript southern native and Salih loyalist who had been acting president during Salih’s absence, resumed that role. After an uncontested ballot hastily arranged by foreign donors on February 21, 2012, Hadi was anointed as president. This series of events set the stage, over a year later, for the National Dialogue.
The widely inclusive Hiwar was designed to engage the erstwhile ruling General People’s Congress and the parliamentary opposition comprised of the defeated but still credible Socialist Party that formerly ruled South Yemen; the conservative al-Islah Congregation with its salafi and tribal wings; and several small but recognizable Nasserist and Baathist parties. Representatives came from all 20 provinces; major towns; and regions and communities including the Afro-Yemenis of the Tihama or Red Sea coast. A National Dialogue Committee (NDC) of some 565 individuals including a who’s who of veterans of past battles, a robust contingent of women and a smattering of youth put the old guard in negotiations with development professionals and at least some of the new generation. They set about tackling complex problems including the conflict in Sa‘da near the Saudi Arabian border; the southern issue, festering since 1994, and the increasingly irredentist hirak; transitional justice; state building; good governance; military security, especially counter-terrorism; “independence of special entities” (a catch-all term covering, inter alia, ethnic minorities, the press and religious endowments); rights and freedoms; and development.
Politics of the Peninsula
Most scholars and pundits reflecting on the Arab uprisings have contrasted six repressed and eventually restive republics with the rich, safe, docile (apart from Bahrain) monarchies of the Gulf. The comparative framework frames movements and trajectories within countries; problems are national and domestic. Yet historians and long-time readers of Middle East Report will recall the inter-connectedness of events in the Arabian Peninsula in the revolutionary 1960s and 1970s, when Samir Amin wrote about the unequal development of capital, class and power across “the Arab nation.” Fred Halliday’s dispatches from hotbeds of labor, migrant and populist activism in South Yemen, Oman and the Gulf showed how wealth accumulations, contradictions and solidarities transcended national boundaries. As the Gulf dynasties consolidated rentier state comfort, colonial South Yemen joined Third World revolutionary movements, establishing the Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) ruled by the Yemeni Socialist Party; and Nasserist Free Officers eventually defeated Saudi-backed Zaydi royalists in the North. During the Cold War, both Yemens’ increasing poverty corresponded to the astronomic growth of the Gulf. Only when the old Soviet Union was on its deathbed did the two unstable Yemeni regimes agree to a merger. The republican vision for what became the most populous and populist state on the Peninsula never sat well with neighboring oil dynasties.
The political economies and even social movements of the Peninsula have always been tied together. Historically, European cartographers labeled the Peninsula’s southwestern quadrant Arabia Felix for its monsoon-washed mountains, verdant spate-irrigated valleys, walled cities, old libraries and productive farmers. Later, Great Britain’s only full-fledged Crown Colony in the Arab region, Aden, a natural harbor between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, flourished as one of the world’s busiest ports and the hub of commerce and migration for Arabia, East Africa and South Asia. From the mid-twentieth century, oil-fueled monarchies began to eclipse farm economies, building skyscrapers with resource rents and trafficked labor. By contrast with Dubai, Doha and Mecca, Yemen seemed like a slum teeming with protesting masses, corrupt politicians, crony networks and outlaws — a place in need of serious policing and reform.
Transitology and Counter-Terrorism
Diplomats and Western-based think tanks consistently praise the Gulf and Western efforts to manage Yemen’s post-uprising transition while at the same time combating the entity known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Yet many Yemeni intellectuals worry that the process was coopted to contain rather than realize democratic aspirations, and to protect Gulf interests. The Hiwar al-Watani was subsumed under the GCC Initiative that Salih signed, and no one pretended that Gulf royals were sympathetic to popular demands for social justice, much less the emancipation of Yemeni women. Instead of fostering bottom-up public consultations, the NDC holed up in the Sanaa Mövenpick and other opulent hotels to hear from a steady stream of foreign consultants. The so-called Group of Ten Ambassadors from the Security Council, the GCC and the European Union, who paid the bills, also seemed to drive agendas under the chairmanship of UN envoy Jamal bin Omar. Various donors “adopted” different committees; the United States, rather obviously, took charge of the committee on military and security affairs. Unlike in 1994 when the National Dialogue was animated by mass public meetings, even the best work of the NDC was mostly sequestered from the public.
While backing all-party talks, security sector reform, anti-corruption measures and socio-economic development projects, the US and Saudi Arabia also pursue other policies deeply disruptive to Yemen’s stability, economy and democratic potential.
During 2013 the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command fired dozens of Predator and Hellfire missiles, often from a semi-secret base in the Saudi Arabian desert, at suspected militants affiliated with al-Qaeda’s regional arm, known in English by the acronym AQAP. The last known strike of the year, on December 12, hit several vehicles in a wedding convoy outside the town of Rada‘ in al-Bayda’ province, killing a dozen and wounding many more. Missiles launched earlier in the year — including eight attacks during a three-week span in midsummer — did wipe out more mid-level al-Qaeda suspects than innocent civilians. But as the intrepid journalist Farea al-Muslimi and his colleagues on the ground reported, even “successful” drone warfare sowed anger and dismay in communities subjected to overhead surveillance and periodic out-of-the sky brimstone.
There is substantial evidence that US military action since 2009 attracted more foreign and Yemeni jihadis. Indeed, according to one interpretation, engagement in Yemen is intended to lure militants from Saudi Arabia, AQAP’s main target and Washington’s main concern. The American drone campaign in a country where there are no “boots on the ground” to protect does not seem to be part of a Yemen policy as such. Rather, Washington views Yemen as a “theater” in the boundless “war on terror,” a theater that happens to be in oil-rich Saudi Arabia’s impoverished backyard. Yemen’s human rights minister, Hooria Mashhour, published an op-ed in the January 14 Washington Post observing that the Yemeni public, Parliament and the NDC all object to extrajudicial cruise missile assassinations and the breach of sovereignty they constitute.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s policies exacerbate Yemen’s woes, if only as a side effect of domestic economic and security measures. A Saudization campaign is cracking down on illegal migrants and unlicensed businesses and deporting many thousands of Yemenis. A 1,100-mile fence is under construction to prevent illicit border crossings. Furthermore, decades of public and/or private Saudi financing of salafi institutions, most famously the hardline Scientific Institute in Dammaj, in Sa‘da province, site of recent bloodshed, provoked the local Zaydi revival that fired the Houthi rebellion. More broadly, Salih’s infamous corruption networks were not purely endogenous; for decades he, his friends, rival politicians and tribal leaders relied on patronage from wealthier Arab countries attempting, in turn, to shape domestic affairs. Gulf aid is not regarded in Yemen as a token of generosity.
Nor is international expertise necessarily all it is cracked up to be. Too few of the technocrats and transitologists flown in to “help Yemen” avoid “state failure” knew even basic history and geography. The main outcome of the Gulf Initiative seems to be an ill-defined federal system recommended by many UN and other consultants, and derived, incredibly, from the utterly failed US blueprint for Iraqi federalism. This recipe did not percolate upward from the revolutionary youth, the downtrodden masses, Hirak separatists or other domestic constituencies. Responses to a public opinion poll published on the NDC website at year’s end were summarized under the headline “Less than Half of Yemenis Know About Federalism and the Majority Don’t Favor a Federal System in Yemen.” The federal scenario, which would erase existing provincial and past north-south boundaries in favor of new semi-autonomous regional authorities, goes well beyond the original mandate of the Dialogue Committee. Whereas there was a virtue in the Yemeni model of holding talks before elections or constitutional referenda, the new proposal would extend Hadi’s term during protracted negotiations and extensive redrawing of administrative maps. In putting forth this plan, the UN and the Group of Ten are inviting further contestation over the spoils of what remains of the Yemeni state(s).
Collectively, Yemenis clocked more peaceful demonstrator days in 2011 than the people of any other Arab country. Since then, the once-hopeful youthful majority has confronted formidable counter-revolutionary forces at home and from abroad. Internally, the Salih family and key defectors from within the regime vie for military command while they, power brokers in the former PDRY, Houthi fighters, dissident tribes and salafi jihadis exploit chaos on the periphery. Most people suffer from decades of pathetic misrule from Sanaa. At the same time, Yemen’s problems are not merely homegrown. Powerful external actors — the GCC’s royal families, their domestic rivals, the monarchs’ American security guarantor and international civil servants — are deployed to defend the status quo ante in part by containing the Yemeni uprising and various subaltern movements. This is not at all the same as a democratic vision for Yemen.