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How Yemen’s Old Order Snuffed Out the Country’s Hopes for a New Dawn

Ten years ago, inspired by revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, Yemenis challenged an authoritarian ruler and dared to dream of a new future for their country. But a backlash by Yemen’s old guard and interference by foreign powers crushed those hopes and plunged the country into war.

Yemeni protesters chant slogans calling for the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh during a demonstration in the capital, Sanaa, on February 21, 2011. (Ahmad Gharabli / AFP via Getty Images)

In early 2011, hundreds of thousands of Yemenis created “change squares” throughout the country, demanding political, economic, and social transformations of their country. They wanted the removal of Yemen’s long-serving leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the system he had managed for decades.

The slogans that Yemen shared with many other Arab countries at the time were first and foremost Irhal (“Get out”) and Yaskut al Nidham (“Down with the system”). Saleh had been in power for almost thirty-three years, first running the northern Yemen Arab Republic and then the Republic of Yemen, after its unification with the southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in 1990. His government was now basically collapsing under the strain of multiple issues.

People held Saleh personally responsible for high levels of corruption and the increasing poverty of the majority of Yemenis, which contrasted sharply with the ostentatious wealth of his close associates. They railed against the lack of economic opportunities and high youth unemployment, not to mention the military conflict in the far north against the Huthi movement, and the rise of southern separatism at the other end of the country.

Ten years later, Yemen is reaching the end of its sixth year of civil war. That conflict has been significantly worsened by an international intervention from the Saudi-led coalition, as it is officially known — a coalition composed of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, fielding troops from Sudan and other countries, with diplomatic and technical support as well as military supplies from Western countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and France.

While the foot soldiers of this war simply want their paychecks, their leaders need to keep on the right side of the coalition powers who finance them. Even so, a number of states like Pakistan and Egypt, whose participation the Saudi leadership had taken for granted, failed to deliver. The international intervention has made the political and humanitarian crisis far worse than it already was, but at root, this is a civil war involving numerous rival Yemeni factions.

What went wrong? Could the enthusiastic revolutionaries of early 2011 have succeeded? Why did Saleh remain a powerful figure until his Houthi allies assassinated him in December 2017? Why did the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) intervene in 2011? Could civil war have been avoided? Can any of the ambitions of the 2011 movement now re-emerge beyond the period of war?

Yemen and the Arab Uprisings

Much is being published about the Arab Spring to coincide with its tenth anniversary. Although the movements in all the countries shared certain characteristics, each one also possessed its own national specificities — social, political, and economic. They were all determined to rid themselves of corrupt, superannuated, autocratic leaders, who had enriched themselves at the expense of the population. They also wanted an end to the systems those leaders administered through cronyism, kleptocracy, the stifling of free speech, and recipes of economic neoliberalism that impoverished the majority.

On the constructive side of things, the revolutionaries all sought new political institutions that would be more equitable and more responsive to the needs of ordinary people, with greater respect for human rights. For the most part, they also called for a “national economy” and better social services.

Sit-ins and demonstrations had started in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a many months before the trigger events in Tunisia and Egypt. However, the successful ousting of the rulers in those countries proved to be a great boost to the Yemeni movement, expanding its scope and levels of participation. After decades of stasis, the fact that people had removed their leaders elsewhere gave hope to millions that change was possible.

Protests in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a in April 2011. (Wikimedia Commons)

From that point, “change squares” where people spent their entire time spread from the main cities of Sana’a and Taiz to the capitals of all the governorates, including some that were barely more than villages, such as Mahweet, Zinjibar, and al Jabeen. By late January and early February, thousands of people had joined the movement from all over the country.

During these early weeks, the dominant discourse was that put forward by independent revolutionaries. The established opposition parties — particularly their younger members — were present, but they were there as individuals. Their organizational affiliations did not prevent them from taking positions and supporting aims that were not part of their party programs.

The change square routines took the form of daily meetings in different tents, along with speeches and other performances on the main stage just outside the gates of the new university — the main site of the Sana’a revolutionary movement. Friday prayers were performed on the sixty-meter ring road, followed by marches with different slogans and destinations.

Every Friday of action received its own name to mark a specific demand or event. Men and women both took part. While the latter participated in much smaller numbers, this was still highly significant in a country where gender segregation is the norm.

Turning Point

The events of March 18 fundamentally altered the dominance of independent political thinkers expressing a range of demands. Although there had been clashes in previous weeks between the revolutionaries and Saleh’s forces, including groups of thugs employed as provocateurs, the movement had ensured that its “peaceful” slogan was respected — by its own side, at any rate. But there were hospitals and medical posts in the square ready to deal with injuries.

That Friday, Saleh’s snipers settled on the roof of a nearby building and shot at the crowd after prayers. They killed fifty-two demonstrators and wounded hundreds more. The day became known as the “Friday of dignity.”

March 18 was a crucial turning point that transformed the movement and the whole political situation. In its immediate aftermath, the party-political opposition — known as the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) and led by the Islamist/tribal Islah party — formally joined the revolution. Ali Mohsen al Ahmar, who had been the senior military commander in Saleh’s war against the Huthi movement, deserted the president, and now expressed his determination to “protect” the revolution with his powerful First Armored Brigade.

A number of ministers, parliamentarians, and ambassadors from Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) also quit, some of them later forming the new Justice and Construction party. This split the government’s military and political forces, with the military element being the most significant one.

The events of March 18 resulted in three main changes. Firstly, in Sana’a Change Square, from that point on, the parties controlled the main platform, and Islah dominated, as it was the largest of these groups. This marginalized independent voices, who now found their audience gradually reduced to those attending meetings in their tents. Islah also decided on most of the slogans.

Secondly, the split in the government led to the intensification of military clashes between forces loyal to Saleh and those opposed to his continued rule. Leading Yemeni politicians got involved in seeking a way out of the crisis through some form of compromise, given the effective stalemate between Saleh supporters and the broad opposition.

Thirdly, the international community became actively engaged, through the mediation of the ambassadors representing the “Friends of Yemen,” a group set up a year earlier. A Gulf Cooperation Council initiative formalized this intervention, which led to the GCC Agreement that Saleh signed in November 2011, agreeing to relinquish the presidency by February 2012. The primary aim of international involvement was to remove Saleh from power without disrupting the neoliberal regional order or encouraging others in an Arabian Peninsula dominated by hereditary rulers to seek democratic change.

Abortive Transition

Along with his control of the military/security apparatus, Saleh enjoyed a surprising residual popularity that was rooted in widespread popular perceptions of him as a nationalist leader who had achieved Yemeni unity. Many people had also appreciated the material support that his patronage system provided in various places, whether this took the form of roads, schools, or other projects. Saleh’s military and political strength prevented his removal from the political scene.

The GCC Agreement demonstrated the extent of Saleh’s remaining influence. Not only did he remain head of the GPC, the pact also formally guaranteed his immunity from prosecution, to the fury of many thousands of demonstrators. The GPC received half the ministries in the government of national unity established for the two-year transitional period imposed by the agreement. The opposition took the rest. This included the formal JMP and the new forces emerging from the street revolutions: women, youth, and civil society.

The transitional government allowed Saleh’s ministers to continue using the institutions they controlled to consolidate their support. The Islah party dominated the other half of the coalition and did just the same, while the minor parties (Socialist, Baath) and the new revolutionary forces had little influence. As a result, the government was both ineffective and corrupt.

During this two-year period, there was a National Dialogue Conference (NDC) that was supposed to represent the whole population, giving voice to the new forces in particular. In practice, however, the traditional ruling elite dominated this space as well. The people at large and the majority of revolutionaries had vacated the squares. They continued to debate, and some took part in the NDC, but most felt that the course of events constituted a betrayal of the revolution, as they saw no improvements in their lives.

Living conditions for ordinary Yemenis continued to deteriorate, and the provision of services became even scantier than before. In 2012, the international community had committed itself to support the transition with $7.9 billion to finance development investments. However, these pledges did not materialize, due to the lengthy negotiations between the funders and the Yemeni government on the practicalities of implementation.

While the transition was unfolding, as Saleh’s influence waned, he began to cooperate with his previous arch-enemies, the Huthi movement (also known as Ansar Allah), in opposition to the transitional regime. Away from the cities, the Huthi movement widened its area of influence and power. In the far south, separatist tendencies grew stronger, while frustration was increasing everywhere in Yemen.

Outbreak of War

By mid-2014, when the Huthi-Saleh partnership encouraged uprisings against the removal of fuel subsidies, they had the support of thousands who should have demonstrated against that alliance. The government had lost any credibility as an administration representing a shift away from cronyism and corruption. This allowed the Huthi movement to bloodlessly take over the capital in September, and soon thereafter to control about a third of the country’s land. The civil war started in early 2015.

Throughout the war, the different Yemeni factions have been responsible for almost all ground fighting, but the intervention of the Saudi-led coalition has received the greatest international attention. In the first three years, Saudi airstrikes frequently killed and wounded civilians, whether in markets or at social events. Since 2019, improved targeting has reduced the number of civilian casualties.

The naval blockade of the major Red Sea ports of Hodeida, Salif, and Ras Isa — all under Huthi control — has had the most devastating consequences for Yemenis. This blockade prevents the majority of the country’s population from receiving the supplies of food and fuel that are essential to their survival, as Yemen relies on imports for about 90 percent of its basic staples and most of its fuel. This is one of the major causes of the disastrous humanitarian situation and the outbreak of famine in some areas in 2021.

Politically, the Huthi-Saleh alliance came under increasing strain on account of the deep-rooted mutual hostility between its component parts. By December 2017, the Huthis had gained the upper hand and assassinated Saleh. Since then, they have been in control of the fate of about 70 percent of Yemenis.

The anti-Huthi front, by contrast, is profoundly divided. It consists of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s internationally recognized government (IRG), including the different political parties, and the forces of Saleh’s nephew, Tareq Saleh, who operate along the southern parts of the Red Sea coast, as do Salafi units. Officially, the anti-Huthi forces also comprise southern separatists, including the Southern Transitional Council (STC), whose main interventions have been in opposition to the Hadi government.

As of early 2021, Yemen is divided into cantons subject to varying levels of authority by a diverse range of groups and individuals. War, in the form of air strikes, ground battles, and the punishing blockade, dominates life in the country. Kleptocrats old and new benefit from a war economy that exacerbates the poverty of a population whose living standards have collapsed. Yemen now suffers the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, and the new country that has taken shape after Saleh could not be further removed from the dreams of the revolutionaries in 2011.

Aspects of the Revolution

The “change squares” remained active centers of debate well into 2013, in Sana’a in particular, although the composition of the participants changed over time. In Sana’a and some of the other main cities that had a mixed population, the squares provided the first-ever opportunity for Yemenis from different regions and social status groups to meet and discover that they shared many ambitions and concerns.

This helped overcome deep-rooted beliefs that there were permanent, insurmountable barriers between tribespeople from different areas, or between members of different social strata. In the process, the elements of a new social consciousness, more aligned with shared class interests, began to emerge, based on similar experiences of authority and economic deprivation. This embryonic transformation is one of the features of the Yemeni revolution that has changed popular perceptions. It may, in future, help heal the fragmentation precipitated by the war.

A factor that was probably more significant in Yemen than elsewhere was the close link between rural and urban areas. Yemen is still predominantly rural, with more than 70 percent of the country’s population based in thousands of villages and dispersed settlements. However, by the first decade of the century, the people of these areas were no longer isolated, thanks to the rapid spread of mobile telephones and satellite television channels, as well as the increased mobility of their male population.

Protesters with pink signs and headwear in February 2011. (Wikimedia Commons)

Agriculture was no longer the main source of income for the majority of rural households. Men — mostly younger ones, but with all ages playing their part — worked in Yemeni towns and cities, since the opportunities for international labor migration had shrunk dramatically. Many young people also studied in the cities, and while most of them were male, there were female students as well. Information on national developments and news from local participants in the squares spread to the most remote communities, helping the movement to gain broad support.

The role of tribal elements was another specific feature of the Yemeni movement. Observers had formerly predicted that any popular movement in Yemen would give rise to heavy fighting within days, citing the widely held prejudice that tribesmen resort to arms at the first opportunity. The Yemeni uprising disproved this stereotype by remaining true to its “peaceful” slogan while gaining massive support from tribesmen everywhere in the country.

Tribal customs mean that peaceful resolution of disputes through mediation is the standard procedure, with recourse to arms a very last resort. The last few decades in Yemen have eroded this tradition, but it still remains important.

Religion did play a role in the uprising, but in a unifying rather than divisive, sectarian sense. Although Yemen has a large Zaydi minority and a Shafi’i majority, both groups often pray together, and there are few doctrinal differences between them. Friday prayers were the focus of weekly events, and the discourse of the period was focused on political and social change.

Organizational Vacuum

There is no doubt that many of the thousands who took part in the movement were genuine revolutionaries, struggling to establish a new regime that would uphold basic elements of what we would consider socialism in its broadest sense: equality of rights and duties among citizens, universal access to social services, equitable economic development, better living conditions for all, and other universal human rights. However, few claimed fidelity to specific ideologies, and there was a wide range of views and allegiances in evidence at different times.

The absence of concrete policies to address the economic crisis was a major weakness. While there may have been talk of a “national economy,” no proposals set out detailed mechanisms for how it should be established or what its characteristics might be. Indeed, there was no direct challenge to the neoliberal agenda of the Bretton Woods institutions.

Many revolutionaries thought that ending corruption would in itself ensure equal economic opportunities. They believed that the private sector was better than the public, while at the same time, everyone wanted secure public-sector jobs for themselves. They did not recognize that the Saleh regime and institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank had a shared vision that strengthened the rich at the expense of the poor, favoring policies of privatization over the needs of the majority.

Politically, the independent elements of the movement rejected the existing political parties. This was understandable, given the track record of those parties and their patent failure to address the social and economic issues facing the nation — not to mention the fact that Saleh’s patronage system had largely integrated them into its workings. But the activists proposed no alternative ideology.

Their rejection of political parties meant that the movement lacked organizational structure and leadership. While a structure of that kind would certainly have been in direct competition with the existing parties of the JMP, its absence prevented the movement from developing a coherent strategy and program. Such an organization would have been able to mobilize supporters and propose alternatives to the established parties and institutions.

Another element that is rarely discussed in relation to the 2011 uprisings is the role of the military. Later developments have clearly shown that this was absolutely crucial in the outcome of these movements. In Egypt, demonstrators defeated the Mubarak forces largely because the military allowed them to do so, most likely because Mubarak was planning to hand over power to his son, who had no military affiliations.

The Tunisian movement succeeded, among other reasons, because the Ben Ali government had kept the military weak and was unable in the end to control the other security forces. Libya, Yemen and Syria collapsed into civil war because their military forces split, with some elements remaining with the government while others joined the revolutions — whatever the motives of the latter might have been.

Future Prospects

In 2021, as their country enters its seventh year of war, most Yemenis are preoccupied with their own physical survival, and with evading the demands and pressures of the rival political factions, none of which has shown any concern for their needs or the future of Yemen. Their priorities are finding the means to support their families and accessing services — including medical ones in the face of a pandemic.

Despite a flurry of political discussions following the appointment of a US special envoy by the new Biden administration, there is still little prospect of a sustainable peace with a government that fulfills any of the hopes for equality and justice that were widespread ten years ago. The UN Special Envoy, Martin Griffiths, lacks imagination. This is one constraint on the so-called UN “peace process,” but UNSC Resolution 2216, which effectively demands Huthi surrender, poses a bigger challenge for such efforts.

Any such surrender is extremely unlikely since the Huthi movement is on the offensive and currently threatening Mareb, the Hadi government’s last stronghold in the north of the country. Although their offensive has been on and off for more than a year, the Huthis are in no mood to negotiate with their opponents in such disarray. While Hadi remains in exile in Riyadh, his new government — formed after the 2019 Riyadh agreement to reconcile his forces with those of the STC — has moved to Aden. The people of that city are protesting against the government’s incompetence, and the rapprochement between Hadi and the STC is, at best, very fragile.

On the international front, the Saudi regime has belatedly concluded that it would be a good idea to end the war, but it wants to do so without losing face. It is faced with increasing Huthi missile strikes on its territory, including oil production and processing facilities, and reduced support from the US. The Saudi government’s austerity policies in the wake of the pandemic are unpopular with its subjects. By contrast, Iranian support for the Huthis — however minimal — offers Tehran a cheap and easy weapon with which to assert itself in the complex landscape of Gulf rivalry. An agreement that will be acceptable to all is not around the corner.

Confronted with a seemingly endless war, led by religious fundamentalists on one side and members of the former kleptocratic elite on the other, Yemenis simply hope that a solution can be found to end the fighting. Meanwhile, those who can, work in their communities, running projects and creating new forms of organization that will hopefully, in the long run, form the basis for a new Yemen that will bear some resemblance to the dreams of a decade ago.