Despite the War, Yemenis Still Crave Dignity, Justice, and the Rule of Law

The generation empowered by the 2011 uprising has been polarized and divided, but still longs for all it aimed to accomplish in the Arab Spring and more

Despite the War, Yemenis Still Crave Dignity, Justice, and the Rule of Law
A Yemeni child looking out at buildings that were damaged in an air strike in the southern Yemeni city of Taez/2018/Ahmad Al-Basha/AFP via Getty Images

It emerged — if you choose to believe one start date — out of a moment of unbridled, unplanned joy. On Feb. 11, 2011, in the wake of erstwhile Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman’s announcement of Hosni Mubarak’s resignation from the presidency of Egypt, a small crowd of Yemenis ranging from veteran activists to Cairo-based Yemeni college students massed to celebrate the seeming success of the Egyptian revolution. They called for similar events to take place in Yemen, which had been ruled by veteran leader Ali Abdullah Saleh for more than three decades. At the time, it seemed like a simple, spontaneous outburst — a blip of sorts.

“We weren’t even thinking, that’s how pure it was,” a friend who took part in these initial demonstrations reminisced a few years later. “We had no idea what we were setting off.”

As in the rest of the region, the back-to-back falls of Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak rapidly and profoundly shook the deeply ossified political system in Yemen. It was as wide-ranging as it was inescapable: I was teaching English in Sanaa, and it was impossible to talk about anything else during those 28 days and their aftermath. The world was changing. Mastering the use of the present perfect seemed irrelevant. Far from a spontaneous one-off, the protests only seemed to grow in size and frequency.

That being said, it would be deeply flawed to treat this as sui generis: The Arab Spring arrived in a Yemen that was on “the brink,” to quote an overused phrase that proliferated in Western analysis at the time. The first decade of the 21st century saw a series of developments across the country come to a head. In the north, the Believing Youth, a Zaidi-Shiite revivalist group, gradually militarized, only appearing to grow in strength despite being targeted in six wars by the central government and the killing of their eponymous leader, firebrand cleric Hussein al-Houthi.

To the south, continued fallout and feelings of marginalization from Yemen’s 1990 unification and civil war in 1994 birthed the Southern Movement, an amorphous collection of factions and figures calling for a return to autonomy.

Even in Sanaa itself, tensions between the ruling party and the establishment opposition, Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), had plunged normal politics into a crisis that saw the country’s parliamentary elections postponed. Largely hushed rumors of inter-elite competition within Saleh’s inner circle foreshadowed splits to come. All the while, the country’s burgeoning al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) presence saw it become increasingly important to policymakers in Washington who largely — at least publicly — saw Saleh as a crucial counterterrorism partner and force for stability.

There probably would have been significant protests even if the Arab Spring never happened. Indeed, establishment opposition actors initially appeared to ground the nascent protest movement in preexisting tensions, seeming to focus on using the demonstrations as leverage in negotiations with Saleh rather than as a potential catalyst for his ouster. But as February got under way, a combination of the exhilaration on the streets and the fallout of deadly crackdowns on demonstrators increasingly pushed calls in that direction. By March, protest encampments in Sanaa — in addition to many cities outside of the capital — had transformed into sprawling tent cities as increasing numbers of ruling party politicians declared support for the revolution.

It is difficult to fully capture the mood of that period. Sanaa’s Change Square buzzed with excitement and anticipation, faded posters of long-dead Yemeni political figures underlining the feeling among many that it was a moment of historical reckoning, a moment of such profundity that even the past and present were scrambled.

I remember a conversation I had with a military officer that defected from the army to join in protecting protesters in Sanaa. He waxed poetic about freedom, democracy, and the right to peaceful protest. Sensing I was about to ask about the oddness of a pro-democracy Baathist, he interrupted me. We were seeing the old ideologies fade, he said, in favor of something new and better.

Politically disengaged college kids transformed into self-styled revolutionaries; invigorated activists and intellectuals set up de facto salons across the protest encampment.

So many of these acts of bravery and defiance — or simply engagement and mobilization — have faded, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen — or that they were not significant. Politically disengaged college kids transformed into self-styled revolutionaries; invigorated activists and intellectuals set up de facto salons across the protest encampment. Women donated their dowries to fund organizational costs. Tribesmen abandoned long-standing blood feuds, leaving their weapons at home. It all seemed irrelevant, at least at the moment: A new era serving as the harbinger for a more just, accountable government seemed to be at hand.

Even the blowback was swept under the rug.

“You’re witnessing a rebirth,” a professor at Sanaa University told me as we chatted after a protest march that spring, gesturing to a bullet wound from a recent crackdown by regime forces that gave him a noticeable limp only as if to dismiss it. “There’s no birth without pain.”

That’s not to say that this tension was neatly resolved. It wasn’t. Tensions between more conservative elements of the Islamist Islah party and women demonstrators frequently erupted, in one case leading to a group of prominent women’s activists being beaten for joining a protest march with men. In a telling foreshadowing of Yemen’s disintegration into regional proxy battles, debates over declarations of solidarity for protests in Syria and Bahrain were often acrimonious, taking on sectarian tones.

All the while, declarations of support for the uprising from controversial veterans of the Saleh era underlined continued divisions in Yemen’s body politic, spurring cries that hopes for full-scale change were being thwarted. This came to a dramatic head on March 18 when a bloody crackdown on Friday demonstrations saw a swath of Yemen’s political elite drop their support of Saleh and declare their backing for the revolution. On the one hand, it provided an immense political boon to the uprising. International attention surged: The mediation processes of international actors went into hyperdrive as it became increasingly apparent that Saleh’s position was untenable.

On the other hand, it dramatically and irrevocably shifted the dynamics from a revolutionary movement to an inter-regime conflict. Key factions that had backed the protests — including the al-Houthi fighters, the Southern Movement, and independent youths — were sidelined, a marginalization that arguably played a major role in hardening their distrust of the mainstream political process. In the eyes of many protesters, their movement had been hijacked from something aimed at creating a new Yemen to a process that would only lead to the reconfiguration of the old one.

While many diplomats retrospectively cast Saleh’s departure as a fait accompli by the early spring, the mercurial tribal micro-manager continued to resist international efforts to get him to cede power. That’s not to say that stasis set in on the ground. Clashes between pro-Saleh troops and tribesmen loyal to the powerful al-Ahmar family turned swaths of Sanaa’s Hasaba neighborhood into a warzone. A still-unsolved explosion at a mosque where Saleh and other senior members of his party were praying forced the president to fly to Saudi Arabia for an extended convalescence from severe burns. The al-Houthi fighters seized control over the bulk of their traditional base in Saada province, AQAP-aligned fighters took hold of much of the southern province of Abyan, the revolutionary hotbed of Taiz descended into factional fighting, and across the country the already fragile economy moved closer to cratering.

Saleh finally inked the deal that saw him step down in November 2011, flying to Riyadh to sign the GCC initiative alongside members of his party and the JMP. An ambitious, internationally backed transitional process was initiated on Feb. 21, 2012, as Saleh’s longtime deputy Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi took power for what was initially to be a two-year term. The uprising had succeeded in unseating Saleh. But had it succeeded in providing an opening for a new and better Yemen?

A glimpse of the country today would firmly suggest that it has not. For more than half a decade Yemen has been immersed in a painful, devastating civil war spurred by the al-Houthi fighters’ takeover of Sanaa in 2014, which itself sparked the ongoing Saudi-led military intervention. Decades of development and economic progress have been erased, while the opening of civil liberties that followed 2011 has been definitively closed. The generation empowered by the 2011 uprising has been polarized and divided. Erstwhile comrades ostensibly united in aims of establishing a civil, more democratic Yemen have found themselves on opposing sides of the conflict for reasons related to old divides. Even more have opted to disengage, in many cases fleeing abroad. A nostalgia for the pre-2011 period has emerged even among many once-avowed revolutionaries. More than one friend who spent the bulk of 2011 sleeping in a protest tent privately admitted to me that they shed a few tears when Saleh met his end at the hands of the al-Houthi fighters in December 2017.

But does that mean the revolution failed, that it has all been a mistake? Far be it for me to say. What is unquestionable, however, is that for a moment, an alternative seemed possible.

“This isn’t just a reckoning for all of us,” a member of parliament who defected from Saleh to back the protests told me in 2012. “It’s an opportunity for us to get our shit together.”

Despite the genuine efforts of more than a few individuals, that unfortunately did not happen. The divides that many in the 2011 uprising aimed to transcend instead ended up dragging the country into a devastating, seemingly unending civil war. Ten years later, Yemen has found itself again in the headlines amid a diplomatic push by the Biden administration and U.N. Special Envoy Martin Griffiths to end the conflict. The country has found itself a battleground in a regional power struggle, with much of the discourse on the conflict almost seeming to elide the aspersions of Yemenis themselves. It’s a far cry from when swaths of Yemenis taking to the streets made headlines just a decade ago — or even from the transitional process that followed, which was centered on an extended, inclusive Conference of National Dialogue that brought a diverse array of Yemenis together to forge a new national compact.

If Yemen emerges from this conflict, it will find that the broader goals — dignity, justice, and the rule of law — that motivated the masses in the first place have remained unchanged. These goals provide the only real basis for building a sustainable peace. Until Yemen has governing structures that work for Yemenis, rather than ones that work around them, endless cycles of conflict seem all but inevitable.

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