Yemen’s future; photograph by Rayman al-Hamdani

By Samira Ali BinDaair

The Yemeni version of the Arab spring has not received the attention it deserves in international media where most of the attention has been focused on reporting events and the conflicting politics of the different actors on the Yemeni scene; nothing much has been said about the dynamics of the youth revolution in the squares. The countries in the region have not taken the youth-propelled Spring seriously either, conveniently referring to it as fueled by political differences. While hundreds of youth were being brutally massacred, these nearby countries simply procrastinated in efforts to put real pressure on the regime. They played the cards they obviously held seeing that they were the financiers of the regime and the powerful tribal lords in Yemen.

In the later stage of the Spring, there were feeble attempts to persuade the regime to relent, while in another breath making it conditional upon the dismantling of the change square, so that the upheaval did not spill over the borders to ignite dormant fires, in which flames were being extinguished successfully so far. Then there was the long saga of “will he sign or will he not sign?” with the Gulf Initiative which had gone through so many changes with the claim that the red carpet had to be removed slowly lest the regime turn into a ferocious bull that might go charging and throw the country into civil war. There was some truth in that argument seeing that the regime was armed to the teeth, with the military being a family business rather than a national army for the protection of the country from outside aggression. The US in its battle with al-Qaeda had chosen Yemen as the main battleground for this, with all the paraphernalia of unmanned drones, rigorous security screening. All the while, it was training the military and supplying the most sophisticated weapons as part of its anti-terrorist agenda. Therefore to draw a parallel, the US had powerful cards to play with the regime, for as the saying goes,”he who pays the piper calls the tune”. However, despite the murmurs about the regime using the weapons intended for the fight with the al-Qaeda on Yemeni civilians, the regime suffered no penalties for such abuse. Perhaps the US too saw some advantage in keeping the power balance intact, uncertain as it was of the new emerging powers and their loyalties.

Then came the advent of President Hadi, seen to be a compromise between the old regime and a neutral figure despite his affiliation with the party of the ruling regime. However Hadi had been put on the shelf by the regime since 2006. To start with, he had never really been constitutionally made Vice-President, a fact which put him in an awkward position during the dialogue with the opposition in 2006. Many southern figures were placed in political positions after unification, some of whom were simply paper tigers to appease the disgruntled southerners. Real political power remained in the hands of the north or rather the ruling family and their affiliates. At a time when Yemenis were frustrated about the country being put on hold and the momentum of the revolution was being slowly diluted, the unanimous election of President Hadi to head the transition government was inevitable. President Hadi was well respected by Yemenis and widely accepted amongst the international parties, and thus he was seen by all as the main protagonist for getting the country out of its stalemate status.

Only a few months after Hadi’s election, one would hear statements like “we don’t see any changes … we haven’t benefitted,” etc., etc. To give the man credit, he certainly had a tough job ahead of him: addressing the security situation and reorienting the military into a national apparatus and restoring law and order. With the economy in shambles, the transition government was hard put to answer to the emergency call of the national budget in the various sectors. There was also the issue of restoring a viable environment for investment that would yield the required income for creating employment, financing poverty reduction programmes, curbing inflation, ensuring food security which involves upgrading agriculture and also the necessary liquidity and foreign currency for importing the goods that Yemen does not produce. Charity and handouts are never sustainable in the long run and do not create real development. The private sector, which is considered as the engine that oils the economy, has been badly affected due to the dismal security situation and thus, in turn, badly affecting investment in the country. All this was happening within the backdrop of the old regime continuously disrupting efforts that the transition government was making in improving basic facilities for civilians and putting a viable administrative structure back into the country. Even the money that was pledged to Yemen by different players to get the country out of its present state of emergency is being filtered out very slowly due to the past history of corruption. However this makes it difficult for the government to meet its immediate budgetary needs. Having said all this, President Hadi is to be credited with quite a few achievements even if, as his surname suggests, he has been getting there quietly and slowly within human possibility.

The role of the UN through Ben Omar as a watchdog for the implementation of the Gulf Initiative and the fruition of the National Dialogue is seen by many Yemenis to be rather weak, and ambiguous pertaining to the real role of the United Nations. So for many Yemenis Ben Omar and the UN are seen to have power over matters like percentage and quota of representatives in the national dialogue while leaving the general public clueless as to the possible role of the UN in litigation and penalties.
The National Dialogue is strewn with many sharp thistles along the path of final reconciliation of all conflicting interests with their opposing demands even regarding the simple matter of prioritizing the issues on the agenda, despite the generic framework of the usual issues (namely the thirteen or so points for discussion). However, the burning question is will the loyalty to the party and self interest take a back seat to pressing national issues and national interest? Are the independents selected really independent and will they really have the power to move things without the umbrella of powerful political parties? Are issues of equal citizenry and changes of the laws in the process of rewriting the Constitution going to be as high on the agenda as we hope? Still more important, will the issue of mechanisms for implementing the laws be clearly defined? Will the issue of accountability lines be brought to the table and more important be followed by all actors and players on the scene? There are far too many powers in the country with vested interests, some of whom may not wish for real reconciliation except if it is to their favor and allows them to maintain their status quo. The concept of power sharing within some of these groups has not really got off the ground despite their public pledge of national dialogue while engaging in a tug of war with different power centers behind the scenes. There are many complicated issues to be contended with, but there is hope if there is real will to transcend these differences and look toward the future of a nation lying precariously on the edge of a precipice.

To come back to the Yemeni spring, one wonders if the spring is slowly turning to winter before its time. Has it been nipped in the bud before full blossom? Yet many do not realize that revolution is not an event but a process and it is too soon to judge the effects of a revolution. Are there any lessons learned for us in this complex drama? It was the youth who had initiated the changes in Yemen for better or worse. Whatever criticism has been leveled at the revolution, the change squares were a great learning ground for understanding national issues and for practicing nation building in the future. The most important outcome was the coming together of people from different regions and different affiliations, literate and illiterate, meeting on common ground and delineating a common discourse, something unprecedented in the recent history of Yemen. Have these youth, who initiated all this and sacrificed so much in the process, been truly involved in national dialogue apart from random discussions with them in change squares? It makes me sad to see that the younger generation not only in Yemen but in the entire Arab world is not always taken seriously or given a real voice. The trouble is that Arab governments always view their citizens, especially youth, as passive recipients of orders and rules and anyone who attempts to question is dubbed as “meddling with politics” and is consequently penalized in different ways. Strangely enough, every such action is seen as challenging the status quo of the regime even in so-called democracies. Thus the regime stays in power by creating mass mediocrity “par excellence” where people come to accept that discussing politics is taboo without realizing that even discussing the rising price of tomatoes is politics. Politicization is a process where citizens become aware and bring out into public discussion how the country is run. In short, it is the awakening of the consciousness to become a proactive rather than reactive member of society. This is the kind of generation we need to aim to create, to get out of the straitjacket outdated regimes have placed on us when they promise us the moon before elections and then its business as usual. Idealistic as it may sound, we need new blood on the scene because for so many years many figures have outdated themselves especially some who have been there only for self-aggrandizement. The present generation is the inheritors of the nation and we need to create new patterns of leadership to create real change for the better, and not use them as pawns on the chess board of politicians.

What about people at the grass root level? Where do they fit into all this since they are the ones who have been heavily affected by the state of affairs in the country? What are the measures for ensuring their voices are heard in the national dialogue? It has often been said that the illiterate are not aware of the laws and concept of rights and obligations, but it does not take a university degree to understand how people have been dispossessed of their most basic rights as citizens. It is shameful that to date some villages in Yemen have no access to basic services like fresh drinking water and women have to travel miles to fetch water from unsanitary wells in their already overburdened rural lives. Their children have very little opportunity for socio-economic mobility within the backdrop of deprivation and the struggle for survival. The usual excuse for exclusion is that they have no place in sophisticated dialogue such as these meetings, and that the chosen speakers will represent them. However, in all the years I have worked in development, I have not seen this happen successfully by proxy. A way could be found where this segment of the Yemeni population could be interviewed and their demands transmitted through a trusted representative even if the bigger battle of raising their consciousness will take a longer time frame. There are people like Paulo Freire the Brazilian educator who had through adult literacy of a different kind managed to empower people at the grass root level so that adult literacy came to be seen not as skills of reading and writing but as a powerful tool for creating social change.

Everyone who is capable has the right to be involved in nation building. Therefore selection should also extend to people outside political parties who are known to have experience and can contribute. We need a government of technocrats and experts in different fields and not one based on tribal loyalties. What the spring has initiated is only the first step on the long road of real revolution and change. The culmination of the process will be when it becomes a revolution of minds and attitudes in a shared discourse that does not exclude anyone as opposed to the language of guns. Freedom is the birthright of every citizen in all its ramifications; freedom from want, freedom from injustice and the fear of persecution because one dares to speak out, and the freedom to preserve one’s dignity as a human being.

There are no quick fixes in nation building. Social change requires hard work and time. Those who sit passively complaining about Yemen as if they are not part of mainstream society seem to expect miracles overnight. They unfairly criticizing everyone but themselves, as if they expect an invisible force with a magic wand to make Yemen “nice” for them, but they will be left on the wayside when the new Yemen is born.

Samira Ali BinDaair is a development expert who lives in San‘a, Yemen