It’s been two weeks since I arrived in Sana’a and I’m overdue for a post. This first entry is a broad take on being back. Comments, questions, and suggestions are all appreciated.
In many ways Yemen – and by Yemen I really mean Sana’a, as I haven’t traveled elsewhere– remains unchanged since I was last here in the summer of 2010. The people are still among the nicest I’ve ever met, the scenery and architecture is beautiful, and the diverse types of bread should be the envy of the Arab world. That said, the country has obviously undergone dramatic change over the last two years. Below are the five differences that I’ve found most notable; some are positive, some negative, and some very much ambiguous.
1. Political Openness:
Even under Saleh politics in Yemen tended to be more openly discussed than in other parts of the Arab world, but post-Arab Spring there seems to be even less self-censorship of political thought and identity (with the exception of public al-Qaeda affiliation or support). The Yemenis that I’ve met (friends, cab drivers, shopkeepers, etc.) have identified variously as Islahis, Saleh supporters, southerners and Houthis and have no fear of engaging in political debate.
2. Houthi Popularity:
As a corollary to the first point, the popularity of Houthis seems to have grown significantly. I can’t tell whether there has been an actual increase in the number of supporters, or if people just feel more comfortable “coming out” as Houthi. Regardless, the results are evident. Houthi slogans (“Death to America, Death to Israel…”) are plastered all around Sana’a and the group has proven able to stage large protestsl. I can’t speak directly to what is happening further north in Sa’dah, but from what I hear Houthis and their supporters have made territorial gains. The Houthi appeal does not appear to be linked to their religious beliefs as much as their political ones. They are staunchly opposed to foreign intervention, and represent an oppositional force to the central government. Unsurprisingly, this stance has engendered sympathy among Yemenis.
3. Political Shuffle:
The notion that the Yemeni revolution “overthrew” the regime is far fetched. The GCC agreement that ended Saleh’s rule merely reshuffled the political elite as opposed to removing or neutralizing them. Yes, Saleh lost a significant amount of influence, but he still remains very much involved in military and political affairs personally, through his relatives, and via his continued leadership of the GPC. Islah (and to a lesser extent smaller JMP parties) has been the major beneficiary of the reshuffling. They have taken control of many government posts (officially and unofficially) and consistently wield the influence of Hamid al-Ahmar (businessman and tribal Sheikh) and Ali Moshen (commander of the First Armored Division) to extend their reach. The al-Ahmar clan has also, on the whole, strengthened their position. Independents (youth and otherwise) certainly have more of a voice than they did before the revolution, but it is nowhere near what they were hoping for. By not siding with one of the major players, independents are left open to attack from everyone. For example, depending on who is doing the labeling, one could be accused of being a Saleh loyalist or an Islahi simultaneously.
All this, and I haven’t even begun to address on the roles of Hirrak (southern movement), Houthis and AQAP, each of which factor into the current political and military instability.
4. Tighter Security:
This is a fairly predictable observation that I won’t belabor, but essentially security concerns around the country are noticeably heightened: more checkpoints, more guns, more military personnel, etc. In the capital there is a particular worry over drive by motorcycle shootings and bombs. That said, a lot of the military deployment is an extension of politics rather than a reaction to the security situation. No brigade wants to go back to its barracks for fear that the others won’t follow suit.
5. Economic Hardship:
The economy took a nosedive during the revolution, and has rebounded only slightly since. The price of food, gas and commodities have soared compared to when I was here last, unemployment has skyrocketed, and I get the sense that patience is running thin. Two years ago, although the economy was depressed, it was not on the verge of crisis. Now, the people I meet talk about the lack of opportunity with a tinge of desperation (I should note, however, that many of them still find a way to spend 1,000+ rial per day on Qat). As far as I can tell, neither the central government nor the donor community is prepared to address these economic issues in the short-term. If economic frustrations boil over during the national dialogue, the outcome could be ugly.
Overall, there is palpable sense that Yemen is on the brink of another major change, but what comes next, and when, is anybody’s guess. Does the economy stabilize? Does the national dialogue defy all expectations and succeed? Do tensions ease via other non-violent mechanisms? If not, is there civil war? Does the south succeed? How will the internal politics of various groups play out? What becomes of AQAP?
The answers to these questions are important to understanding Yemen’s trajectory. I don’t yet know enough to make predictions, but I hope to investigate these issues (and about a million others) while I’m here. As I learn more, I’ll be sure to share what I find.