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Reports 26 February, 2012

The Yemeni Revolution: Background, Specifity and Prospects


To watch a video of the proceedings of this symposium, please click here.Abstract

Activists, scholars and civil society representatives with an interest in Yemeni affairs congregated in Doha for the two-day symposium (18 and 19 February) to discuss matters related to the Yemeni revolution, a pivotal part of the Arab Spring. Within the discussions held at the Doha Sheraton under the auspices of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, discussions revolved around the unification of Yemen, completed in the early 1990s under former President Ali Abdullah Saleh; about the role of tribal leaderships in directing the course of Yemen; the role of regional and wider global players in the Yemeni revolution; and further aspects of the youth movement which eventually toppled the former Yemeni President. Perhaps surprisingly, participants in the discussions also found time to debate the precise nature of the public revolt in Yemen, and whether or not it was a true "revolution".

The conference hosted by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies on February 18 and 19 at the Doha Sheraton presented a unique and thus far unprecedented for scholars and experts from a variety of Arab countries, and particularly Yemen, to come together to discuss issues pertaining to post-revolutionary Yemen. ACRPS Researcher Abdulwahhab Qassab opened the conference with discussions about the historical role of Yemen in the formation of Arab national identity, particularly as it came to the Yemeni descent of many living in Arab countries today. Dr Qassab also made the matter quickly relevant to contemporary, describing how the 25 million or so Yemenis represented about 40% of the population of the Arabian Peninsula, and were concentrated in an area of prime importance to global marine shipping lanes. Paving the way for further discussions which were to take place later at the conference, Dr Qassab made clear his conviction that it was now a "fundamental reality" that what Yemen was witnessing was a revolution which had as its aim "[establishing] the ballot box as the arbitrator of the public sphere".

The first panel was chaired by Qatari commentator Dr Mohammed Al Misfer, and provided the audience and participants with a wide array of perspectives from speakers coming from Yemen and from Egypt. The first speaker, Dr Hassan Abu Taleb from Cairo, who works as a researcher at Egypt's Al Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies, laid the groundwork for much of the debate which was to follow over the coming two days by suggesting that Yemen "provided [ample opportunity] for foreign intervention, for better or for worse", and by also suggesting that the conflict today, in revolutionary Yemen, was but an extension of earlier conflicts and reflected some of the unaddressed difficulties in the process of Yemeni unification, which was completed in the 1990s. Abu Taleb also drew a comparison between the lack of a clear leadership amongst Yemeni youth driving the revolution in their country, and the similar situation amongst Egyptian youth in Cairo's Tahrir Square; this situation, he predicted, would lead to future problems.

History and the Role of Foreign Powers

As is clear from the introductory remarks of ACRPS Researcher Abdulwahhab Qassab, Yemen plays a larger-than-life role in the cultural memory of the Arab Nation. While not all Arabs are of Yemeni descent, most histories of the Arabs place the country firmly at the center of the story of the development of Arab civilization.

According Abdulsalam Al Muhatwari, a member of Yemen's parliament who spoke during the first session of the ACRPS meeting on Yemen, Saudi Arabian and Iranian interference in the country fit into a pattern which could be traced back to the very earliest interventions in the country, dating back to the Roman invasion of Yemen in 24 BC-the country was as important to international trade then as it is now. This pattern continued throughout history with [futile] Ottoman efforts to control the country, which lies at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula. A peculiar facet of present-day foreign intervention in Yemeni affairs, claimed Al Muhatwari, was the way in which the foreign powers projected their ideological agendas onto the country. With its complex web of social relations, it was possible for Iran to influence affairs within Yemen by playing on the fears of Shia Yemenis, while Saudi Arabia exported its own Wahhabi brand of Sunni Islam south of its borders, stirring sectarian tensions within the country and thus making them more difficult. The capacity for Yemenis to be held captive to their own historical and social structures was a topic addressed by another speaker during the first session, Qaderi Ahmad Haidar.

In Haidar's view, Yemenis were falling to prey to their own history, despite having created it themselves; a result, in his opinion, of a lack of a clear understanding by Yemenis of their own history. Instead, Yemenis saw themselves reproducing misconceptions created by orientalist thinkers, who had insisted that Yemen was a "tribal" society, cursed to reproduce its own problems. Haidar pointed out that the most liberal estimates of tribal elements within Yemeni society, would not put the number of Yemenis who could be described as "tribal" is likely not higher than about 25% of the population[1]. The speaker also pointed out the irrationality of the much-inflated claims about the spread of firearms within his country[2].

Haidar instead gave a new reading of Yemeni economic history, pointing out how the North and South were intricately linked by a series of population exoduses from the North to the more agriculturally productive and fertile areas of the South. These population exoduses were a result of the feudalization and land enclosures in the North, which were driven forward by what were to become the first Zaidi Imamates (established in the Ninth Century), as well as the difficult topographical layout of the terrain and the complex human geography in the North.

While voicing some concern and a  small degree of self-criticism about the use of loaded labels to describe wide sections of Yemeni society ("tribalist" and "Zaidi"), Haidar contrasted this part of the country with the coastal South, which formed around the nucleus of what would become the British-ruled Aden Protectorate (c.1839-1967). This was the region later ruled by progressive, Marxist-influenced rebels who formed the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen before this was merged into today's Republic of Yemen after unity with the North. This was an area, said Haidar, which represents a more "modern" face to Yemen, and which was the point from which Islam reached out to large swathes of Africa and to East Asia [following the Crusades and the establishment of the Ayyubid State in Yemen].

These points were picked up on and brought together by the final invited speaker of the first session, the Political Sociology lecturer at the University of Sana'a Fouad Salahi. According to Salahi, the Yemeni people have seen not one but four separate popular revolutions in the past 100 years; but the reason that the fruits of these revolutions was not reflected in the political structure of the country was that "regional powers and the United States" which bolstered "powers within the State of Yemen ...in a bid to derail all efforts at political development". In contrast, said Salahi, the Yemenis were a "dynamic people".

Yemen,  North and South: Sectarian Tensions, Tribalism and Southern Separatism

The first session closed with a discussion between the attendees and the invited speakers. The question of the relation of the Yemeni revolution to the wider Arab Spring was distilled by ACRPS Researcher Dr Hichem Karaoui, who posited that "there is no tribal component to the societies of either Egypt or Tunisia, they are totally different", something which was likely to pose difficulties, suggested Dr Karoui, for a transition to democracy within Yemen in a way not faced by other Arab countries which had witnessed revolutions. Yet this opinion did not represent a consensus amongst conference attendees. As one guest from Yemen pointed out, "Keep in mind that the tribe might actually serve as an institution which could place limits on the power of otherwise total dictators [such as Saleh] ...We need to stop for a moment and think before we go on as if the entire present social structure of Yemen needs to be destroyed before a new one is built. How would we even do that, anyway?"

These discussions bring into the limelight questions of how Yemen could possibly move forward following the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the difficulty of having a society previously organized along tribal lines, and which was ruled by a dictator, in addition to its regional divisions and sectarian tensions, be transformed into a democratic and "civic" state. Such an arrangement did not pose a contradiction for ACRPS Research Professor Sayyar Al Jamil, who pointed out that many of the Gulf States and others within the region had major tribal components within their makeup, but that this did not necessarily prevent them from forming stable political structures.

Tribalism within Yemeni society is concentrated in the Northern half of the country, which also dominates the Yemeni officer core. The preponderance of military officers from the largely tribal North, and their perceived domination of the country's affairs since unification of the Two Yemens under Saleh was a situation which Fouad Salahi likened to the "dominance of the Maronite sect over all others in Lebanon". Although cultural ties between the two sides of Yemen (North and South) share many cultural commonalities, the two parts of the country have a divergence in terms of their historical experiences and the economic expectations of both sides.

Unification in the 1990s brought with it the "combination of a socialist state [in South Yemen] with a mixed economy [in the North]", as explained by Salahi. The results, said Salahi, have not been great thus far: annual GDP per capita runs at about US$ 900 in a country with abundant natural resources. These overarching economic woes also heightened secessionist unease in the south of the country; as Fadhel Rubaie, another contributor to the discussions, pointed out, there were 18,000 known unemployed university graduates in the South of Yemen. While the 2003 unemployment rate for Yemen as a whole was at 35%, with the private sector contributing only 54% of the state's Gross Domestic Product (oil revenues are owned by the public sector), a history of social grievances compounds the problem by turning it from an economic problem into a cause for regional secession. It was Dr Huda Alawi, a Yemeni researcher who was a speaker at the meeting, who captured the mood of many of those taking part in the discussions when she said that the process of unifying the two countries under Saleh had been completed "in haste". Despite these difficulties, speakers at the conference were, in general, in agreement that the problems facing Yemen today were the shared responsibility of all Yemenis, and that talk of complete secession for the South was premature.  ACRPS General Director Azmi Bishara also weighed in on the debate, although towards the later part of the day, when he stressed that attempts to bring about a more harmonious post-Saleh Yemen would have to include a process which addressed the mistakes of the past.

Dr Ali Al Adidi, another Yemeni scholar who attended the ACRPS meeting further detailed what some of those shared challenges of post-Saleh, united Yemen might be. Not only was there a high level of unemployment for university graduates in Yemen; but the country as a whole was facing a huge illiteracy problem (although efforts to combat illiteracy had brought the level down from 48.3% to 35.4% over the period from 1999 to 2004). Further to this, the majority of the country's economic output is found in labor-intensive yet non-productive sectors such as agriculture, with 12% of the Yemeni workforce being employed in the security and armed services[3].

Yemen's Youth Revolt: A Revolu
tion is Born

The Yemeni popular revolution presents observers and analysts 
with a strange situation, pointed out by ACRPS General Director Dr Azmi Bishara during his opening remarks to the closing session of the meeting, "It is ...somewhat paradoxical that of the Arab countries which have witnessed revolutions the poorest of these countries is the one with the most developed political landscape." Bishara, while sharing the opinion widely held at the conference that groups of young people who were not politically organized were the main driving force behind the revolution, he also emphasized that the time for organized political action would have to come. The exact nature of their organizational structure previously had itself been a matter of speculation at the Doha event, with two of the speakers, Majid Al Mathhaji and Mohammed Al Rawee, presenting discussions on the way in which youth did-or did not-rely on social media to galvanize support.

According to Mathhaji, the relatively low rates of computer ownership and use within Yemen made it unreasonable to assume that such technologies had played a pivotal role in the ouster of Ali Abdullah Saleh. This was a point later picked up by others in the audience, pointing out that lower levels of internet use within a country did not prevent those with access to those technologies from playing crucial roles at times of crisis; in fact, it made it more likely that they would do so. The question remained about just how far these revolutionaries, regardless of whether they were members of the "Twitterati" or not, had gone in creating a full revolution, and one with which progressive, secular intellectuals throughout the Arab countries could feel comfortable with. In the words of conference attendee Dr Nivene Masaad from Cairo University, "what happened was more a type of political reform than a full revolution...the structures of power remain in place". Masaad went on to lament the lack of a more fully progressive agenda on the part of the revolutionaries.

This sentiment brought the attendees to a further round of academic history at the hands of Dr Bishara once more. "You can't expect a people to create a revolution without that people bringing to that revolution all of their own problems and all of their own shortcomings" said Bishara. "Go read Hobbes". 


[1] The word "Bedouin" is sometimes used in Kuwait; but this word can be misleading as the people concerned are often not nomadic

[2] An Arabic version of the author's written contribution is available.

[3] Figures on the Yemeni economy are taken from the written contribution of Dr Ali Al Adidi of Umran University in Yemen.