Praising Yemen’s Transition as a Good Model Misses Facts

Soldiers patrol a street in Sanaa. Yemeni authorities have imposed strict security measures as the country faces threats from insurgent groups such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and factional power struggles. Yahya Arhab / EPA

Soldiers patrol a street in Sanaa. Yemeni authorities have imposed strict security measures as the country faces threats from insurgent groups such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and factional power struggles. Yahya Arhab / EPA

Published on The National February 26, 2014 Updated: February 26, 2014 18:23:00  

Last week, Yemenis simultaneously celebrated and protested to mark the third anniversary of the 2011 revolution. The country was then on the brink, but today it is applauded for having completed a “peaceful” transition. It is popularly portrayed as having undergone an ideal shift from dictatorship to democracy. The realities on the ground, however, tell a much different story.

Whether the focus is on the nation’s extreme failures or exaggerated success, most of the narratives on Yemen are based on false assumptions. Many of the actual atrocities happening in Yemen are untold, and thousands traumatised by violence continue to tolerate severe injustices.

Since August, Yemenis have stomached a whirlwind of new disasters seemingly synchronised with water and electricity outages. New sources of turmoil are materialising far more traumatic than bombs and the occasional exchange of gunfire.

During the revolution, Sanaa was divided into boroughs controlled by three main tribal figures who filled the void left by a fractured system of governance on the verge of dissolution. As a result of the transition’s mismanagement, the balance of power has shifted: other new players are successfully contesting state power.

In one month, a military hospital was targeted by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, killing 52. Most of these individuals were civilian doctors and patients. In that time, a drone strike attacked a wedding convoy killing 17, three political figures were executed, prominent scholars have been threatened for their rhetoric, a liquefied natural gas site was attacked with rocket-propelled explosives, an influential Southern sheikh was gunned down at a military checkpoint, a car bomb exploded in the heart of Sanaa, and artillery shells hit a funeral for a Southern separatist in Ad-Dhale province.

Yemen is witnessing a deterioration of its already fragile social fabric, compounded by a breakdown of tribal norms. Foreigners are no longer the sole targets of kidnapping: children of notable businessmen are abducted, members of the national dialogue are held hostage and, more recently, women from prominent families are snatched to shame men.

Most governmental operations are interrupted, and airports and seaports are subject to random shutdowns due to protests.

In the “democratic model” that has become Yemen, everyday life comes with a penalty.

In light of the clear absence of rule of law and the lack of accountability, Yemen has become the perfect realisation of Immanuel Kant’s “State of Barbarism”, a country managed and run by several guerrilla groups and individual leaders under the cover of government.

The message being sent, and understood, is that human life is cheap and victims are mere numbers. At any moment, anyone can be caught in a gun battle, and be considered collateral damage and no one will be held accountable.

Today, Yemenis are divided by faith, geography, ethnicity, political ideology and tribal affiliation – but they collectively suffer from anxiety, irritability, insecurity and depression. Yemenis are being pushed to the limit. Their silence and tolerance is docile.

Thousands of unemployed youth are sleep deprived, seeking refuge in mindless hours of qat-chewing to numb the reality of everyday hardship. Many wonder who will be killed in the future, and whether the frequency of random mindless will allow them to see another day. These thoughts are kept private while Yemenis attempt to live as normally as possible.

Those able to leave the country often claim they can “finally just breathe” or that they were ignorant of the “burdens” they carry. These fears are destroying Yemen’s psyche, and citizens are using them as justification to seek other forms of security in the absence of the rule of law.

There is a clear contrast between the marketed achievements signed behind closed doors, and the realities on the ground. Between these false narratives and the population’s unique case of surrender, things will get a lot worse before they get better. With several separatist movements, the strongest in the South, and the war in the North over authority and religious ideology, the population is at high risk of radicalisation.

Those who fought for a peaceful civil state in 2011 may use violence to revive the state.

Throughout the transition, the international community endorsed theoretical solutions prematurely in the pursuit of democracy. The sanctions that the UN Security Council produced yesterday could be a gamble during this critical period. Rather than deterring figures who are impeding the political transition, Charter VI can further promote chaos and overshadow non-political grievances.

Yet, there is hope: the world must recognise that Yemenis have legitimate aspirations. Yemenis need to separate themselves from the despair lingering from previous failures, and believe in self-determination. The government must be pressured, nationally and internationally, into providing justice to those who were victimised.

Real solutions will only emerge when the realities on the ground are managed rather than provoked.


Sama’a Al Hamdani is a Yemeni researcher who lives in Washington DC and blogs at