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Ten years ago, collective revolutionary action made liberation seem inevitable. In 2011, optimism was in the air, and people felt that tyranny would be gone forever. They believed that the revolution would succeed, and any issues or difficulties would easily be resolved. The rebels were confident that the country was heading to a promising future. They did not imagine that Yemen would be where it is today. The overwhelming revolutionary momentum cultivated invincible faith inspired by the youths’ ability to reclaim their space and exercise their revolutionary action. Their struggle introduced a radically different reality from the one former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s former regime had imposed on the country for decades. It was such a powerful and genuinely revolutionary historical moment.
To claim that the 11 February 2011 revolution is in itself the reason behind the ongoing war is a distortion of historical facts. There were complex and extremely violent forces that suppressed the revolution and limited the youths’ success in toppling Saleh’s tyrannical regime that had ruled the country for over three decades. This two part article will look into the realities of Yemeni youths’ motivations and options ten years after the revolution. We will especially focus on the past six years, during which Yemenis have experienced the most brutal war in the country’s recent history.
Aborting the revolution: Contributing factors
The revolution was not flawless. However, any revisionist analysis must be cautious of treating the revolution, fundamentally, as a conspiracy that directly led to the current war. Counterrevolutionary propaganda has constantly led defamation campaigns against the revolution and its youth. But none of this can erase the fact that 11 February was a historical moment when huge numbers of Yemenis felt they could take their country’s fate into their own hands. Keeping this in mind, we need a nuanced reading of the series of events that dismantled the revolution and led to today’s reality.
11 February was the first peaceful mass movement in Yemen’s contemporary history. Yemeni youth made an exceptional political decision when they made a conscious choice to remain peaceful. On the one hand, it was almost unimaginable that a population that owns a large amount of arms would commit to a nonviolent struggle while Saleh used live ammunition against protesters. On the other hand, Saleh secured his rule for over 30 years by depriving people of quality education and exposure to knowledge and the history of dissent. None of this managed to stand in the way of an autonomous nonviolent revolutionary. 11 February was a cultural and political eye-opener in comparison with other Arab revolutions in 2011 that were dragged into armed conflicts a few weeks after they started. Still, this exceptional peaceful path was not enough for 11 February to succeed. Here, we locate three main factors that contributed to this failure.
First: Opportunist partisan opposition that thrived in the absence of independent revolutionary leadership
Long-established, organized political powers took advantage of the revolution to meet their own interests. This was a consequence of the fact that an independent organized revolutionary leadership did not exist and the revolution relied mainly on the spontaneity of protests. This allowed partisan opposition to appoint itself as a formal representative of the revolution; in particular, a partisan opposition that did not share the radical goals of 11 February. Instead, they sought a compromise with Saleh’s regime in return for insignificant political gains that did not meet the minimum ceiling of the protesters’ demands. The political compromise was the first straw that broke the revolution’s back and allowed Saleh to take over the initial revolutionary gains. What became known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative was a deal brokered by the council’s member countries, who did not support the Arab Spring. Gulf monarchies were threatened by the revolutionary demands for democratic civil states and social justice. They feared that the Arab revolutionary current would reach their states and dismantle their regimes. So one way to minimize this threat was to introduce the GCC Initiative in Yemen.
The political deal was signed in November 2011 by Saleh and the partisan opposition. The Initiative gave Saleh full immunity from legal prosecution for any of his past crimes. Additionally, Saleh’s party was granted half of the transitional cabinet positions while the partisan opposition was given the other half. Not only did this deal give Saleh a way out without any accountability, but it also empowered him to plot his retaliation. Not long after, Saleh established an alliance with the extremist Houthi group that used the revolution as a bridge to seize control of the country. Through an armed coup, with Saleh’s logistical support, Houthis managed to oust the transitional president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and the government on 21 September 2014. After securing their control over Sana’a, the Houthis and Saleh’s armed groups continued to advance towards the rest of the country. An external military intervention followed when Hadi requested assistance from Saudi Arabia. A coalition of nine Arab countries was formed and led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to launch Operation Decisive Storm against the Houthis on 26 March 2015. Ever since, Yemen has been depleted by a war that has not spared any part of the country during the six years since 2015 into the present.
The partisan opposition betrayed people’s demands and left the revolution and the country easy prey for internal and external aggressors. To some extent, the lack of an independent revolutionary leadership enabled the collusion of partisan opposition with national and geopolitical counterrevolutionary powers. At the same time, we cannot underestimate the magnitude of national and geopolitical alliances and their enormous assets that were mobilized against the Yemeni revolution.
Second: Counterrevolutions backed by wealthy states
Wealthy Arab monarchies were not the only actors who feared revolutions and therefore generously financed counterrevolutions to defeat the Arab Spring. It was also Western ‘democracies’ who could not tolerate the idea of a thriving global South in general. The potential of democratic and just Arab states presents a threat to Western colonial interests in the region. In fact, there is a longstanding link between Arab tyrannies and colonial exploitation. The West has historically provided support to Arab dictators as long as they allow them access to resources and territorial control over the region.
Third: Institutional vacuum
Saleh’s regime operated through corrupting state institutions that eventually lost their functional purpose and integrity. For decades, nepotism and loyalty to the regime were the determining factors in the selection of state institutions’ high level public servants. While the revolution attempted to transform Yemen into a modern civil state, it was not realistically possible to easily untangle decades of structural, institutional corruption.
Yemeni youth in the aftermath of a failed revolution
At this point of what feels like an infinite cycle of war and destruction, it is essential to look at the realities of Yemeni youths’ lives after the demise of 11 February’s promises. This catastrophic war has become a petrifying manifestation of loss and retreat of an entire generation’s dreams and aspirations. Yemeni youth have found themselves alienated and robbed from means to meaningful existence. An entire generation lives today with limited or nonexistent options but to watch life pass them by as they wither away. Even when they attempt to survive, many end up in severely destructive cycles. After six years of war, we can locate five main models of Yemeni youth who either chose their current way of life or were forced to live with it. The first model, which we will discuss in the remaining part of this article, is the militant model. In the next article, we will look at the other four models, which involve those who did not join the battlefields.
Model I: Militarization
Yemen youth have been recruited to fight with one warring party or the other. Generally, it was either poverty and unemployment or ideological polarization that pushed them to take this path. For many young men, the current economic crisis has made militarization the only source of income. For others, they chose to fight with the warring party that will meet their familial, tribal and regional interests. Regardless of motives, there are four warring parties that militant youth fight with.
Fighting with the government
Many of those who fought with the legitimate government previously took part in the 11 February revolution. To them, the revolution in essence is a continuous quest for justice and equality, but what determines the nature of revolutionary action is the scale and form of injustice. Furthermore, nonviolent resistance was no longer viable when the opponents, Houthis and Saleh, waged this catastrophic war. By fighting Houthi–Saleh militants, they are fighting the enemies of two entities. First, they are fighting against the legacy of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom (1918–1962), a monarchy that was built on the idea that Hashemites are the only legitimate rulers of Yemen. To many of these fighters, the Houthi doctrine is a byproduct of what they consider a monarchial racist entitlement. Thus, Houthis present a threat to the values of the republic and equal citizenship that the 26 September 1962 revolution established. Second, they are fighting Saleh’s regime’s maneuvers to retain the power it had before the 11 February 2011 revolution.
Many of these fighters are fully aware of the government’s fragility and corruption, and that it has become an agent for Emirati and Saudi interests. At the same time, Hadi’s government is the only existing recognized legitimate representative for Yemenis at the moment. This means, in their view, that fighting with this camp is the closest option to their 11 February aspirations. In spite of the scarce logistical support to the formal army and denial of salaries, fighting with the government is the only strategic move to allow any form of subsequent revolutionary action.
Fighting with Houthis
Houthis have radicalized and recruited fighters from some Northern regions and the Highlands through a number of strategies. For one, Houthis took advantage of the extreme poverty in the rural tribal regions that some of these fighters come from. Additionally, Houthis built on tribal inherited beliefs that associate militancy with courage and patriotism. Therefore, the Saudi intervention in Yemen has given Houthis a golden opportunity to mobilize young people in the name of defending sovereignty. Another strategy for militarization focuses more on Yemeni regions with a majority of Zaidi sect followers, the Islamic sect that Houthis claim to revive and defend. By promoting the idea that Houthis are protecting Zaidis from fundamentalists and proclaimed Yemeni agents for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), many Zaidi youth feel that fighting is an act of self-defense.
There are two other types of Houthi fighters with different motives. A significant group of Houthi fighters were Saleh supporters during the 11 February revolution. When they joined Houthi militias, it was because of their loyalty to Saleh during his former alliance with Houthis (2013–2017). When Houthis turned on Saleh and killed him in December 2017, these young men continued to fight with Houthis to preserve the privileges they were granted. These fighters enjoy high military ranks and social status that they would risk losing if they were to oppose Houthis. And finally, there are types of Houthi fighters who are very young men, or even boys, who grew up in the past decade and are barely literate and do not have political exposure aside from Houthi propaganda that attributes masculinity and courage to war. By owning a weapon, receiving daily rations of qat and occasional small financial rewards, these fighters find a meaningful place in society.
Fighting with Saudi Arabia
This category of militants fight on the southern borders to defend Saudi Arabia. The most desperate and destitute among all militant youth in Yemen, these young men are taken advantage of and mobilized by Saudi Arabia for the little financial compensation that can keep their families alive. Poverty is not the only factor here. Many of these fighters come from the most marginalized communities in Yemen that are quite disconnected from the rest of the country. They have never had access to any level of education and are usually unaware of the history of this war or the parties involved, which makes it easy to recruit them as mercenary fighters.
Fighting with the Southern Transitional Council and Emirates
South Yemen has suffered from various grievances after Saleh’s 1994 war victory. In 2007 the Southern Movement was formed and brought together masses of peaceful protesters from the South who demanded equality and social justice. Saleh’s forces responded with great violence to the movement, which continued to struggle peacefully until 2011. Many Southern Movement activists participated in the 11 February revolution with the hope that it would bring them and the rest of the country the justice to which they aspired. Yet the very complex aftermath of the revolution resulted in divisions and fragmentations within the Southern Movement, and in no time the dominant leadership changed the agenda and orientation of the movement. Among other changes, the movement has adopted militarism, separatism, and at times a racist discourse against ordinary northerners. The 2015 Houthi invasion of Aden and other southern governorates did not improve matters. The atrocities Houthis committed in Aden brought back the dark memories of 1994. One faction of the militant resistance leadership that succeeded in liberating Aden from Houthis formed what became known a couple of years ago as the Southern Transitional Council (STC). After appointing itself the legitimate representative of the Southern Movement, and with logistical and political Emirati support, STC has been fighting the legitimate government since 2019 to gain full control over the South and become an independent state.
In light of this, the STC and Emirates have been recruiting southern youth to fight on their side against the government’s formal army. Whether they are fighting for financial compensation to survive the economic crisis, or as a reaction to more than three decades of systemic destruction and exploitation of the South, there is one fact at the end of the day. Fighters with the STC/Emirates as well as all the other categories of Yemeni militant youth have been fuel for an endless war from which only warlords profit.