Tuesday, April 8, 2014

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 Sana'a. Photo by Yahya Arhab/EPA

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 yemeniaty.com

Yemeni Artists Commemorate Victims of Suicide Attacks

Murad Subay paints graffiti depicting a grenade on a street in Sanaa, Jan. 9, 2014. The piece is part of a graffiti campaign against armed conflicts in Yemen. (photo by REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah)
Posted March 19, 2014
The majority of the world remains unaware of the terrorist attack that rocked Sana'a last Dec. 5, beginning at 9 a.m. It targeted the al-Ourthi military hospital, on the grounds of the Ministry of Defense. This heinous act left 56 people dead, the majority of them doctors, nurses and civilians. Thirty minutes after the attack, early footage of it was televised. Several hours and explosions later, news broke of Nelson Mandela's death, and the rest was forgotten to history. 
The next 24 hours were taxing. The public was left uninformed until the Supreme Security Committee (SSC) announced the findings of its investigation. It revealed that 12 suicide bombers, most of them Saudi nationals, had committed a “terrorist act,” wounding 215 on top of those killed. The government hastily attempted to assuage the unnerved masses. First, it televised a five-minute, edited video of the attack. The images, as one might expect, generated collective terror and panic. They also created enough backlash to halt future replays. Second, it declared a nationwide minute of silence. Sadly, silence has been the symbolic and literal response of the government ever since.
Several months later, and in light of the government’s seeming lack of concern, a group of young Yemeni artists decided to commemorate the victims by drawing their faces and names on the walls of the al-Ourthi hospital. They collected 31 photos and 55 names at their own initiative. Two victims were never conclusively identified. To this day, there is no official record list of the names of all the victims. According to the artists who spoke to Al-Monitor, the Ministry of Defense declined their request to paint at the site of the attack just a day before the scheduled event. “Victims are everywhere,” they were told.
Undeterred, on March 6, the volunteers found a new location for their concept, which they named the 8th Hour. “Due to the absence of memorials, the 8th Hour is a kind of protest,” Murad Subay, a graffiti artist, informed Al-Monitor. In 2013, he launched the 12 Hour Campaign, a project to show through illustrations 12 major obstacles, or “hours,” in the path of Yemenis. At the time, he did not anticipate that terrorism would be one of them.
After the Yemeni uprisings of 2011, the grip of the government on the state had continued to weaken. Exploiting the new state’s frailty, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) expanded its operations. Not only did the government fail to curb the group's influence, it repeatedly neglected to address the worries of the people.
On May 21, 2012, the first suicide bombing in Sanaa took place and was dubbed the Sabeen massacre. The assassin targeted a rehearsal for a military parade, wounding 167 and killing more than 86 soldiers, 50 of whom died instantly. President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi immediately fired two generals, but the government then failed to develop a follow-up mechanism. No officials publicly commented on the event. The president spoke to the people through a TV anchor.
The president’s response after the 2013 hospital attack was almost indistinguishable from the one in 2012. This time, however, his silence was perceived from the start as a lack of concern, especially because he was rumored to have been at the hospital during the time of the attack. The government's inaction gave a wide berth to conspiracy theories. To this day, some people believe the al-Ourthi attack was a mere extension of the Houthi-Salafi war in the north.
Independent journalist Mohammed al-Absi took matters into his own hands and dedicated laborious hours to collecting evidence, photographs and accounts of survival from al-Ourthi. His reporting revealed that the Counterterrorism Unit, which responded to the attack, had been unaware that suicide bombers had dispersed themselves throughout the building. Even though the unit used excessive force, including six hours of tank fire, in the hope of killing the last terrorist standing, Absi found that the last bomber killed himself at 4 a.m. the next day.
Some of the details in Absi's expose on the government's inadequacy conflicted with the SSC’s investigation. He reported that nine suicide bombers had committed the crime rather than the 12 cited by the SSC. An official AQAP statement eventually confirmed the number provided by Absi. Moreover, Absi indicated that the SSC report had misidentified three victims as terrorists, further highlighting problems with the government's fieldwork.
In the age of technology, the Sabeen and the al-Ourthi attacks were of course videotaped, leaving authorities little room to conceal their incompetence. In 2012, Mutee Dammaj, a member of Yemen’s Socialist Party, and several others demanded the creation of a telecast showcasing the humanitarian side of the deceased soldiers, Dammaj told Al-Monitor. Tawfeeq al-Sharabi, a national television filmmaker, ultimately produced a series on the lives of the deceased soldiers as recalled by their families. The show was canceled after one broadcast. A few months later, al-Sharabi quit his job.
In 2014, similar scenarios played out. While the government broadcast no more than a few minutes of al-Ourthi attack footage, Absi gathered 30 clips from 250 cameras available at the scene. He had hoped to produce a revealing documentary about the details of the attack, but, Absi told Al-Monitor, he was turned down by several channels due to a lack of funding or interest. He therefore uploaded the footage to YouTube as a preview of what he aspires to document.
The Yemeni government has still failed to generate a public response to terrorism aside from an aggressive drone policy. It has also shown little interest in exposing the operations of its declared enemy. Worst of all, the current government wasted significant leadership opportunities by simply relinquishing responsibility during such a critical period.
While the public remains ignorant or passive in the face of the uncertainty engendered by terrorism, the apathy and incompetence displayed by the government has created a space for an earnest and dynamic group of civil activists to publicly dissect this paramount issue. Today, the task of remembering and honoring hundreds of wasted lives lies solely on the shoulders of the citizens. The 8th Hour is a glimpse of hope in a bleak reality. It is a positive sign that Yemenis are not ready to yield to terror and social chaos.