Helen Lackner, ed., Why Yemen Matters (London: Saqi, 2014).
The essays in Why Yemen Matters, though written prior to the stunning takeover of much of the country by Ansar Allah, otherwise known as the Houthis, provide an excellent primer on the political and economic crises that underlie those still unfolding events. The authors were among others who participated in a British Yemeni Society conference in early 2013.
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.
On February 21, 2015, the man most countries recognize as president of Yemen, ‘Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, escaped house arrest in Sanaa and fled with his family to the southern city of Aden, which he soon declared the new capital. The Houthi movement, or Ansar Allah, that holds sway in Sanaa insists that the Yemen’s seat of government is still there. Perhaps equally confusing to outsiders, however, is the decision of the Southern Movement, or hirak, to suspend its long-standing campaign of protest and civil disobedience aimed at restoration of national independence for the southern provinces that once made up the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.
Sad news came on December 15 from Aden, the port on the southern coast of Yemen. The city had awakened to a day of civil disobedience, called to speed up what Adenis and other southerners hope will be their independence from the central government in Sanaa. As the day’s protests gathered steam, government troops shot and killed Khalid al-Junaydi, popularly known by his Facebook name, Khaled Aden.
Muhammad ‘Abd al-Malik al-Mutawakkil, Yemeni political thinker, activist and university professor, was assassinated by gunmen on a motorbike on November 2, 2014 in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. Iris Glosemeyer and Anna Würth, researchers of contemporary Yemen based in Berlin, were his friends from the early 1990s onward.
In the summer of 2014, director Diego Luna released Cesar Chavez, a feature-length retelling of the story of the 1973 grape pickers’ strike in California that inspired an international grape boycott and made Cesar Chavez a household name. In the film, the first person killed on a farm worker picket line was a Mexican bracero named Juan de la Cruz. In fact, de la Cruz was the third of five “United Farm Worker martyrs” to die violent deaths struggling for social justice in the vast fields of American agribusiness. The first was Nan Freeman, a young Jewish student helping a sugarcane strike in Florida, and the second was a Yemeni migrant called Nagi Daifallah.
On October 9, 2014, a suicide bomber detonated himself in central Sanaa, killing dozens of innocent people. Upon reading the news coverage of this terrible event my thoughts leapt back to a series of plays that I had seen performed in Sanaa in the spring. Most of these performances took place under the aegis of the annual celebration of World Theater Day, known locally as the Festival of Yemeni Theater. Five months prior to the explosion in Sanaa, a surprising number of the festival’s plays had made references to suicide bombing.
“Our revolution is the South Arabian revolution,” shouted five or six men at a march in Crater, a district of Aden, on March 20, 2014. The mass of demonstrators answered in unison: “Get out, get out, o colonial power!” The call-and-response pattern continued: “Our revolution is the South Arabian revolution.” “Against the power of the tyrants.” The stanza concluded with the chant leaders prompting, “No unity, no federalism,” and the crowd again thundering, “Get out, get out, o colonial power!”
“This is no longer a movement,” said the young man whose Facebook name is Khaled Aden. “This is a revolution.”
On September 21, 2014, fighters of Ansar Allah, loyal to the Houthi movement based in the northern highlands of Sa‘ada, conquered Yemen’s capital. Militants occupied the home of 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkul Karman, a leader of the 2011 uprising against the regime of President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih and a member of the Islamist party Islah. When the young men tweeted photos of themselves sprawling on her flowery bedspread with automatic weapons and bags of qat littered around them, the Houthi fighters conveyed a triumphal logic of coercive power, here sexualized for maximum impact. They later apologized, saying that the intent was to “guard” the Nobel laureate’s home.
Midway through Barack Obama’s second term as president, there are two Establishment-approved metanarratives about his foreign policy. One, emanating mainly from the right, but resonating with several liberal internationalists, holds that Obama is unequal to the task of running an empire. The president, pundits repeat, is a “reluctant warrior” who declines to intervene abroad with the alacrity becoming his station. The other, quieter line of argument posits that Obama is the consummate realist, a man who avoids foreign entanglements unless or until they impinge directly upon vital US interests.
The mysteries in the September events in Sanaa loom large. Who decided that security forces should not try to stop the Houthis from entering the Yemeni capital? Why didn’t Hashid tribes, closely tied to the political elites of Sanaa, stop them? These are questions that southerners are asking when trying to make sense of what happened on September 21 when Ansar Allah, the militia of the Houthi political group, stormed the largest city in the north.
Over the past year, dozens of Yemeni-Americans visiting their ancestral homeland have had their US passports summarily revoked or confiscated by the embassy in Sanaa without any clear legal basis, effectively stranding them outside the United States. Last month, a coalition of US civil rights groups submitted a report on this practice to the Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) pursuant to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
On May 11, 2013, armed tribesmen stormed the Cultural Center in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, demanding that the activity in progress immediately cease. A minister of the Yemeni government was whisked away by underlings from his front-row seat and out a side door; the assembled crowd quickly dispersed, some nervous, others titillated by the unexpected disruption. The tribesmen exited in triumph, leaving the central participants in the evening’s presentation stunned, angry and bereft of an audience.
Was it an act of terrorism? A reprisal for a drone strike? An attempt to derail a high-level cabinet meeting?
The US government wanted to kill Anwar al-Awlaqi long before a CIA-JSOC drone strike actually succeeded in doing so on September 30, 2011. Before and after that deadly strike, al-Awlaqi’s kill-ability has been a bone of contention because he was a US citizen. The cleric, who had become radicalized as the “war on terror” wore on, moved to Yemen, his ancestral homeland, in late 2004.
Huda al-‘Attas is an activist for women’s rights, an author of short stories and a teacher of sociology at the University of Aden. Aden was the capital of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), which existed from 1970 to 1990 under the governance of the Yemeni Socialist Party. Al-‘Attas is deeply engaged in today’s peaceful fight for the independence of southern Yemen and the broader movement (or hirak) around what is called the “southern cause.”
For the first time, a Million-Person Rally or milyuniyya will be held in Yemen’s oil-rich eastern province of Hadramawt. It is being called milyuniyyat al-huwiya al-junubiyya or the Million-Strong Rally for Southern Identity.
Ammar Basha is a Yemeni filmmaker. His documentary films include Breaking the Silence, about the discrimination faced by working women of African descent in Yemen, and a series called Days in the Heart of the Revolution, about the 2011 Yemeni uprising. Breaking the Silence took second prize at the Women Voices Now film festival in Los Angeles in 2010. The latter series was screened at the International Yemeni Film and Arts Festival in Berkeley, Washington, London and Sanaa. Basha also makes feature films.
President Barack Obama plans an overnight stay in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on March 28-29 for a rendezvous with King ‘Abdallah. The enduring but always strange bedfellows have been quarreling of late over Saudi Arabia’s belligerent relations with neighbors Iran and Syria. Both sides hope during this visit to kiss and make up.