An Interview with Abdulbari Tahir, Yemeni Journalist and Political Activist

This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)

Abdulbari Tahir is one of the most celebrated and influential Yemeni journalists. Tahir was born in Marawi’ah town in Tehama, Hodeida governorate, in 1941. He initially received his education in al-Marawi’ah, which had one of the oldest Shafi schools in that region (a Shafi school is one of four Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence). As well as a traditional education, he also received a modern education, and was exposed to various branches of knowledge, including linguistics, Sufism and theology. As an avid reader, Tahir was interested in contemporary writing, with areas of interest including literature, philosophy, politics and economics. In 1960s, he opted for Marxist thought at a time when many countries in the Arab world had started to regain independence. His interest in journalism began in the 1970s. Having moved to the capital city of Sana’a, he worked as an editor for The New Yemen magazine, as well as Al-Thawrah newspaper, where he served as the editor in chief. In 1976 Tahir co-founded Yemeni Journalists Association. In 1980, he was prosecuted by authorities for belonging to National Democratic Front Rebellion, which was loyal to the Marxist regime in the South. For this reason, he opted for exile in Damascus and Beirut, where he wrote for newspapers such as Al-Safeer and Al-Nida, under pseudonyms. He returned home following reconciliation between the two regimes of North and South Yemen. After the 1990 unification of Yemen, Tahir was elected as the first chairman of the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate.

In 2001, Tahir published his book Spaces of Speech in which he conducted interviews with several leading intellectuals, journalists and critics in the Arab world. He has also published numerous articles in several newspapers and magazines. In his writing, he advocates peace, modernity and  democracy. In 2011, he was a prominent figure welcoming and supporting the Arab Spring revolutions against authoritarian regimes. During the Yemen youth revolution, he took part in cultural events and marched alongside young people, who often see him as a leading role model. Al-Madaniya magazine recently spoke with Abdulbari Tahir.

Al-Madaniya: Mr. Abdulbari Tahir, you are most welcome to Al-Madaniya magazine. We would like to start the conversation looking at the concept of ‘civil state’, chanted by revolutionaries in 2011, during their protests a decade ago. How do you see the future of youth aspirations and demands in Yemen, which currently sees divisions among authorities?

I feel extremely optimistic that the future will be different. We have learned from past experiences and universal principles that no matter how horrific it is, war must come to an end. Throughout history, war has been the exception rather than the rule. According to Gramsci, the Italian thinker, he considered “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”, and thus, while there is life, there is hope. While the intellect perceives physical realities, the will looks to future horizons. Any dictator’s major problem is that they see the reality as the power (i.e. money and weapons) that they hold, and they regard their people inferior.

Certainly, wonderful developments have recently occurred. Bouazizi set himself on fire to start a revolution in Tunisia, which was later extended to overthrow authoritarian regimes in the Arab region. Another example is the children of stone in Palestine, who accomplished a victory against the Israeli army, which has defeated ‘the ring countries surrounding Palestine’ a couple of times. One more example is that of the unarmed Romanian people who were able to overthrow their president, Ceausescu, by staging strikes and peaceful protests. Their peaceful revolution caused the downfall of the communist bloc, which was the second most powerful world force. Prior to this, Gandhi managed to defeat the strongest world force, colonialism, by adopting peaceful struggle. Gandhi’s student, Mandela, achieved a triumph against Western-power-backed apartheid. There are many other instances which confirm that people can achieve victory over dictators. It is not only dictators who do not take lessons from history; as Hegel stated, “the great lesson from history is that no one learns lessons from it. Even unbelievers in the hill will not take the lesson”. Allah says: “But if they were returned, they would certainly relapse to the things they were forbidden, for they are indeed liars” (6:28).

In fact, the civil state is the public will of the people, whereas dictators only survive by waging wars. In so doing, they destroy lives and human dignity. However, this will end soon because there often exists a blazing spark under the ashes which can be ignited, such as with the great poems of Abdullah al-Baradduni, which serve as revolutionary sparks. And there are Mao Zedong’s words of wisdom: “A spark can start a fire that burns the entire prairie.” Also, Allah says, “Rather, we dash the truth upon falsehood, and it destroys it, and thereupon it departs. And for you is destruction from that which you describe” (21:18).

Artwork by Maha Al-Omari

Thus, the survival of militias throughout Yemen depends largely on the continuation of war, and so they risk everything to keep it going. We need to learn from the first and second Palestinian uprisings and the current peaceful revolutions in Iraq, Libya and Sudan. The division in Yemen that you have referred to in your question can be ended by constant peaceful protests. It is the responsibility of educated people and civil society organizations to conduct peaceful demonstrations against the war and its perpetrators. As Muhammad Mahmoud al-Zubairi (the Yemeni revolutionist) stated, despite being highly oppressive, dictators, like children, are weak at heart.

Al-Madaniya: What role can educated people play under the current conditions at a time when force dominates everything? It is force which has tangible effects today, whereas intellect apparently seems helpless?

Educated people should overcome fear like they did in February 2011. Some parties claimed that they can settle the conflict in Yemen by means of force within a few weeks. Others, however, seem to believe that we need to answer the call of peace. Dictators, as the almighty Allah says, “They have eyes with which they do not see, and they have ears with which they do not hear. Those are like livestock; rather, they are more astray” (The Holy Quran:7:79).

Those who called for peace and have condemned war since it broke out must translate their calls into actions so that peace can spread all over Yemen. Although there are variations in the political situations across the Arab region, there are several commonalities. Like Iraq, Lebanon, Libya and Sudan, peaceful demonstrations against war, corruption and dictatorship are the safest way in our Yemeni context. This is because warring parties and militia leaders are all alike, and people cannot oust them except by ending war. The good thing about civil society organizations in Yemen is that they are fully integrated with the Yemeni people.

There is no doubt that war has devasted everything in the country, but it has even more disastrous impacts on tribal areas. Thus, it is essential that educated people unite together and overcome fear by taking to the streets, squares, markets and villages to mobilize public opinion against civil war and condemn regional and international interventions. What makes it extremely necessary to continue peaceful protests is because war is pointless at the local, regional and international levels. What is more serious is that militias have become criminal gangs who loot, kidnap and impose blockades in areas of influence.

Al-Madaniya: What  do the regional states want in Yemen, and why do they persist in making Yemen a battleground, as we can see in their media?

The Iranian intervention in Yemen aims to exercise pressure to lift the blockade imposed on it and to relieve pressure by the international community on its presence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. As regards Saudi Arabia and Emirates, they seek to divide Yemen and keep war going to make it easy for them to have control over Yemeni ports and islands, and to secure the oil pipeline on which there have been some negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. What is more important for Saudi Arabia is to secure its southern areas and eliminate Iranian influence. Thus, regional states seek to weaken warring parties in Yemen to keep the war going on. Anyway, it is the major powers (America, England, France and Israel) who gain the most from the ongoing war in Yemen, as they can sell weapons and weaken our nation to redraw the political map to implement the deal of the century – imposing normalizing relations with Israel. Perhaps America is likely to withdraw its military forces by delegating the security task to Israel.

Al-Madaniya: Some historians and political analysts indicate that Saudi Arabia and some Gulf countries have ambitions for Yemen. What are the features and dimensions of these ambitions?

I first need to refer to the two major states in the Arab peninsula: Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen and Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The formation of these kingdoms had some tribal, sectarian and even ancestral roots. While Saudi Arabia allied with the British colonization, especially during World War I, the Imamate regime in Yemen sided with the Ottoman Islamic Caliphate, due to the presence of the British in southern Yemen.

Taking advantage of British support, Abdulaziz, the founder of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, had ambitions to dominate the whole Arab peninsula. The British would go on to support King Abdulaziz, especially in the 1934 war with the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen; however, they did not allow him to gain control over other territories.

The conflict between the two kingdoms, which took on an ideological character, continued up to the September 1962 and October 1963 revolutions. After the revolutions, the Yemeni–Saudi conflict spilled out and spread, due to the House of Saud’s hostility towards national left movements, and thus Saudi Arabia supported counter-revolutions as well as Islamic movements.

The Saudi rulers had been concerned about revolutions in Yemen, and thus they had supported Imam Ahmed, the crown prince at the time, against revolutionaries in 1948. Following the success of the 1962 revolution to overthrow the Imamate regime, the Saudis supported the monarchists against the republicans for seven years, following the revolution from 1962–1969.

The conflict between Yemen and Saudi Arabia escalated following the independence of South Yemen, and because the National Liberation Front had adopted a leftist orientation. What is important to emphasize is that Saudi Arabia was against revolutions and liberation movements not only in Yemen but also in Egypt, Syria and Iraq due the traditional conservative and regressive approach it had adopted. It should be noted that King Abdulaziz used to have ambitions to dominate several areas in Yemen, especially Hadramout, but he had to back down due to the presence of the British and Soviet empires in the region.

Artwork by Maha Al-Omari

In fact, Saudi Arabia does not really want the presence of another powerful state in the region, and that was evident by the Saudi’s pleasure following the defeat of Egypt by Israel in the 1967 war, as well as their contribution to the destruction of Iraqi, Syrian and Libyan powers. Moreover, Saudi Arabia has always sought to keep Yemen destabilized, even though it had some leadership allies, such as Saleh, the previous Yemeni president. For this reason, the Saudi government did not allow Yemen to join the Gulf Cooperation Council. Further, the Saudi leadership has always supported lawbreaker tribes to prevent the construction of a powerful Yemeni state.

The Yemeni Spring revolution caused great concern to the Saudis, Emiratis and Qataris. Therefore, they attempted to bring back the regime which was divided following the revolution: one part represents Saleh and the other represents Ali Muhsin, Al Al-Ahmar and Islah party. The Gulf states came up with an ‘initiative’ which aimed to circumvent popular demands by reconciling enemy brothers, that is, the General People’s Congress and the Islah party. The Gulf states (Saudi Arabia, Emirates and Qatar) have always undermined the Yemeni youth revolution, supporting opposing parties to dismember the country. For example, they supported the national dialogue but often also sustained the conflict in some areas in Yemen. They also supported Saleh and the Houthis as they launched a coup against the legitimate government on 21 September 2014, in which Islah was targeted by the Saudis and Emiratis, though it is Qatar’s ally. The Houthis were not powerful enough to seize power by coup, but they gained Saleh’s support, who wanted to crush his enemies – that is, the Islah party and Ali Muhsin.

Saudi and Emirates want to keep the conflict in Yemen going so that they can divide the country, and so it would be easier for them deal with each part individually. Saudi Arabi has always adopted a ‘balancing the weak’ policy to secure international support and keep Yemen in a morass of conflict. Iran, on the other side, wishes to put pressure on the international community to lift the blockade imposed on it by the US and to prevent the targeting of its nuclear facilities – as well as keeping its influence in Iraq, Syrian and Lebanon. Yemen also serves as an important card for the Iranian influence in the region. Thus, Yemen has become a hostage to regional tensions, which has prevented direct confrontation between Iran and the Gulf countries. Unfortunately, Iran and the Gulf countries have found the warring parties in Yemen (i.e. the legitimate government, the Houthis and the Southern Transitional Council) appropriate agents for this regional conflict. In other words, the struggle for power in Yemen has accomplished the goals of regional conflict. Little by little, if it continues, the conflict will not only be regional but will also become international.

Al-Madaniya: Mr. Tahir, you have suggested that the conflict has had a catastrophic effect, especially on tribal areas. In your opinion, why did the tribes, who are part of Yemen’s social fabric, not have a role in establishing peace in Yemen today? The tribes contributed to establishing peace in the 1960s and the formation of a new state in the north of Yemen. They have also contributed to an independence war against colonization in the south of Yemen. Also, what decisive role can educated people play to end this tragic conflict and save lives?

The Yemeni tribe served both as tools and fuels throughout previous wars in Yemen. Nevertheless, the tribal structure has become less strong than it was prior to the September and October revolutions; however, its conventions, values and tradition are still influential. Despite the fact that war has spread all over Yemen, the tribal areas have remained a battleground. These include major tribal areas, such as Nihm, Serwah, al-Jawf, Hajoor, al-Sham, al-Baidha, al-Dhale’ and Marib, as well as some other rural areas surrounding major cities in Sana’a, Aden, Taiz and Hodeidah.

The fact that some tribes sided with the Houthis was not due to their being loyal to the Hashemites, but rather it is associated with the fact that, based on past experiences, tribal leaders seem to be aware of Saudi’s goals in Yemen. They know that the purpose of Saudi’s intervention in Yemen is neither to restore the legitimate government nor to re-establish the state, because it has been an enemy to Yemen since the turn of the last century. Thus, Saudi Arabia  does not want the legitimate government to triumph over the Houthis. Equally, it does not want either Islah or General People’s Congress to accomplish victory. But they do want all the parties to keep confronting each other.

The lack of an effective role to play for Yemeni tribes to establish peace may be associated with the brutality of the dictatorship, as well as the Saudi’s threat to Yemen as an entity. Also, since the world wars, Yemenis have found that a war is an alternative to work and farming, and they have become obsessed with such perception ever since.

The Yemeni poet Mohammad Anam Ghalib (d.2008) says:

War erupted

Youth jobless

Street vending

Doesn’t avail hunger

I am a brave warrior

Better at shooting

War my labor

Thus, the Yemeni people are resisting aggression. They deal with war as a means of livelihood due to a loss of other means, including salaries, mostly hoping that conflict parties tire out and eventually end the war. Unfortunately, the regional conflict and its temptations have exceeded calls to peace and hidden the voices of reason and conscience. We need to translate calls for peace into action, so that peace can spread all over the country. Educational development is subject to ending war, which has devastated everything. Establishing peace will end the draining of funds and blood, and therefore will be in the interests of the whole nation.

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