Yemen: 10 years after the Arab Spring, new hopes sprout

“The first few days were beautiful; we gathered on Tahrir Square and were excited to meet like-minded people,” Reem Jarhum said as she remembered the beginning of the revolution in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. It is 10 years since Jarhum, who is now 32, her friends and other young Yemenis took to the streets to demand change.

Back then, Yemen’s strongman, Ali Abdullah Saleh, had been in charge since 1978 — until May 1990 as president of the Yemen Arab Republic, and from then on as president of Yemen. In total, he served for 33 years, one year longer than Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted on February 11, 2011, just as Yemen’s revolution was getting underway. Mubarak’s ouster “was the green light for Yemenis,” Jarhum said, “and what had already started on Facebook was taken out to the streets.”

Tawakkol Karman was also at the scene. It was not the first time that the activist had taken part in such protests. Now 42, she is sometimes called the “mother of the revolution.” She had protested corruption since 2007 and always insisted on peaceful dialogue with the government despite the regime’s subsequent tear gas attacks and brutal police raids on young protesters.

Karman was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize alongside the Liberian peace activists Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee. She became the first Yemeni and the first Arab woman to win the award. She received the award for playing “a leading part in the struggle for women’s rights and for democracy and peace in Yemen.”

“After the revolution we lived three of the most beautiful years ever,” Karman told the news agency Reuters in January. “We were days away from the referendum on the constitution and holding multiple elections,” she said.

What began as a peaceful quest for change, with singing and dancing on the square, and led to Saleh’s resignation on February 25, 2012, has turned into the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. About 80% of the nearly 30 million people in Yemen now require some form of humanitarian assistance, 20 million people are facing food insecurity, and more than 100,000 people have been killed, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR.

Toxic downward spiral

The downward spiral of the past 10 years, almost seven years of which have been taken up by a civil war, began with the political failure of Saleh’s successor, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who, like the former president, had no solution for corruption, unemployment and food insecurity.

The situation was aggravated by jihadi attacks in the south and the fact that security personnel stayed loyal to former President Saleh. In addition, the Houthi movement, which emerged from the Shiite minority and was supported by the regional Shiite power, Iran, took control of the country’s north. The Houthis were supported by disillusioned Yemenis (including Sunnis) when they conquered Sana’a in late 2014.

Hadi ended up fleeing the country, which brought eight other Sunni Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, into the conflict. The fighting turned into a raging civil war. The Sunnis’ aim, which was supported by the US, UK and France, was to defeat the Houthis, restore Hadi’s government and put an end to the Iranian influence on Yemen. In particular, Saudi Arabia insisted on securing the border with Yemen against its archenemy Iran.

“From the very start of this war until now, the reason that this war kept raging on was due to outside funding and the motivation of different proxies of engaging in war further,” Sama’a Al-Hamdani, an analyst on Yemeni politics and women’s affairs, told DW. “Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and a lot of countries were involved and interested in seeing the Yemeni war develop,” al-Hamdani said.

Biden’s pledges bring hope

The US under the administrations of both Barack Obama and Donald Trump has been one of the nations involved indirectly in the Yemeni civil war. Obama’s administration notably gave its approval to Saudi Arabia’s cross-border air campaign against the Houthi rebels in 2015.

But after almost seven years of fighting, the new US administration under Joe Biden has now announced a significant turnaround. In his first major address on foreign policy on February 4, President Biden said, “This war has to end,” adding: “To underscore our commitment, we’re ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arm sales.” Biden also described the war as a “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.” However, this halt on arms sales does not include those used for fighting against terrorist group al-Qaida.

Political analysts believe, however, that the appointment of US diplomat and Middle East expert Timothy Lenderking as US special envoy to Yemen, is an even more important step toward peace.

“Halting sales doesn’t necessarily mean that they are stopped,” said analyst Al-Hamdani. “It is quite typical of US administrations to halt the work of previous administrations in order to review it.” Al-Hamdani is convinced that “assigning a US envoy to Yemen whose assignment is to moderate and engage all parties of the conflict and try to reach a cease-fire settlement is even more encouraging.”

Farea Al-Muslimi, chairman and co-founder of the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies and associate fellow at the London-based international affairs think tank Chatham House, also regards the halt on weapon sales as promising but not sufficient. “It is a very good step, but will it bring peace to Yemen? Hell no!” the political analyst — who was listed by the magazine Foreign Policy in 2013 as one of the “Top 100 Global Thinkers” — told DW. While he agrees that “it is definitely much better if you have fewer weapons coming from the West, it won’t be enough to move forward to a larger peace in Yemen.” He also regards the US envoy as being more important and reflecting a greater US investment in diplomacy.

Suffering but no regrets

It may come as a surprise that despite the more than 100,000 wartime deaths, the suffering caused by many diseases including cholera and COVID-19 and the widespread starvation over the past 10 years, the Yemeni uprising of 2011 itself is not seen with bitterness in the country.

“Our biographies have changed. It was the year we changed our understanding of power. It was the year the regime started to freak out because of us,” Farea Al-Muslimi told DW.

Yet with the population suffering misery on many different levels, it is hard to imagine another countrywide pro-democracy uprising anytime soon, he said.

Al-Hamdani agrees.”I think the idea of a democratic process is really important and something they should aim for in the future, but it is really hard to see it as reality in the short term,” she said.

Reem Jarhum, who now works from Berlin for a project on COVID-19 awareness in Yemen, also believes that the revolution was worth it. “Politically things went downhill, but socially it has opened so many dialogues, and people are more open,” she said.

However, she also feels that the country’s need for help is more pressing than anything else: “Try telling people to wash their hands if they don’t have food or potable water. That is crazy.”

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