A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
Six years of war can be enough to put an end to hope. Yemenis today are going through a collective state of despair with no light at the end of the tunnel. In part 1 of this article, we looked at one model for youth: militants who joined the frontlines with differing motives over the past six years. This second part of the article will discuss four other models of youth and their realities, ten years after the revolution.
This category consists of middle class youth who seek their own individual survival during these hard times. Many of them used to be outspoken activists with great interest and visibility in the public sphere. Yet, six years of open war, without a glimpse of political change to end Yemen’s plight, have led many middle class youth to give up on the collective struggle.
Wealth disparity in Yemen has resulted in a disappearing middle class, an issue that puts this category of youth under growing pressure to preserve a minimum level of decent livelihood.
Before the war, middle class youth would seek jobs in the public or private sectors. Now that the private sector has collapsed while public servants have been denied their salaries for four years in areas controlled by Houthis, the only available option is the humanitarian sector. The minimum requirements in humanitarian job vacancies include a university degree and English proficiency. As the competition over these jobs grows, chances of employment are limited to those who have the financial means to seek a privileged education. Being a Yemeni aid worker provides financial stability as well as the opportunity to help underprivileged Yemenis. Regardless of the motives, Yemeni humanitarians operate strategically in order to sustain their jobs. For instance, in order to be able to carry out their work safely in areas of conflict, this category of youth does not declare or vocalize any of their political views or loyalties. Not only are those with a political past in constant danger, but even those who have never participated in any political activities or shared views face the same difficulties. The possibility of being indiscriminately targeted while working on the ground is quite high, regardless of who the aid worker is. In addition, humanitarian organizations are constantly subject to blackmailing practices by the warring parties.
Another form of individualistic survival is migration, either legally and illegally. These young Yemenis have lost hope in finding the life they aspire to in their country. Some dream of establishing new lives abroad that can compensate for all that they have experienced so far. Others are political activists who are escaping prosecution. All in all, migration of youth, especially the skilled and the gifted, is a real loss for Yemen. At the same time, if they stayed, they would collapse the same way the country did. Even when they make it abroad and accomplish all their aspirations, they remain painfully estranged because the cost of a dignified life was to leave all the warmth, memories and loved ones behind.
Unreconciled coexistence with reality
Considerable numbers of Yemeni youth were forced to reconcile with the reality of war and accept the worst quality of life one can have. They cannot afford the risks of migration when they are the breadwinners for their extremely poor families. This is a category of youth who refuse to be militants and do not have the qualifications that humanitarian organizations require. They have let go of all their ambitions and dreams, and even though they have not reconciled with this reality, they keep going anyway, working in unstable small jobs with unsustainably low income. The war has put the dreams of those in the prime of their lives on hold until further notice.
Nihilism and despair
At first, nihilist thought was an initial organic reaction to war. This category of young Yemenis was hit really hard by the collapse of the revolution and the absence of political organizations with the needed revolutionary integrity to face militias, as well as internal and external exploitation and aggression. They became indifferent towards everything, not out of ignorance, but in fact the opposite. They are very well read intellectuals who are aware of the complex historical background of this war and beyond. This awareness and knowledge makes it impossible to live without a heavy sense of alienation and estrangement, as well as a struggle with everything, including the self. It is a grave form of suffering that eventually empties life of any meaning.
With time, this was no longer a temporary reaction to war. This category of youth has turned to nihilist philosophy and become immersed in the works of nihilist philosophers and literary writers such as Albert Camus, Emile Sayuran, Friedrich Nietzsche and Arthur Schopenhauer. On their social media accounts, one can find countless threads of serious intellectual engagement with these philosophical and literary texts. If anything, this reflects that nihilism is not a momentary psychological reaction, but rather the philosophical school of thought this category of youth choose to belong to. Using nihilist philosophy as a theoretical framework, they view the current war in Yemen as one of many subjects of the chaotic historical dialectics of life. There is no logical explanation that could give humans any sort of control over beginning or ending war, or any other phenomena for that matter. To nihilists, humans are not always agents. At times, they are barely objects in the hands of a chaotic meaningless life, an idea that Camus often expressed.
These young Yemenis have found a refuge in nihilism and existentialism. The works of the two philosophical schools speak to these suffering anxious beings and comfort them by providing clues to understand this cruel phase of history. The distance between them and hope or the urge to fight for values keeps growing longer and longer. Only these texts can converse with this severe existential crisis and make sense out of the strong urge to stand against life. The longer they are immersed in these philosophies, the more many of them turn to atheism and skepticism towards all belief systems, because mind, matter and spirituality have altogether failed to justify the evils of chaos, collapse and violence. This reality incites the most painful and draining existential questions about the utility of values and even life itself. As Schopenhauer’s works suggest, the act of taking one’s own life or putting an end to the reproduction of the human race is the only way out for all the suffering souls that are trapped in this meaningless and miserable life. In principle, existential questions do not present any danger. If invested in disciplinary knowledge production, existentialist ideas can significantly contribute to the humanities and social sciences. At the same time, if confined to a state of despair and limited life options, existential questions can lead to severe psychological conditions and a life governed by a ferocious antagonism with the self. Eventually, many would reach a point of pain that they can only resolve with suicide.
Perhaps disbelief in everything can sometimes be a form of subconscious resistance to a historical moment that violates the individual and the collective. For this reason, nihilist Yemeni youth see that the struggle for peace is an idealist utopian dream. They treat the idea of dissent with a paradoxical nihilist approach. They glorify it in public, but deep inside they do not see the point. To them, the dilemma of war is far more complex than any attempt for resolution. Thus, the only useful answer is to put an end to human agency and stop the struggle for peace. This does not mean that they would never rise again. They can definitely engage in future revolutionary action when the time comes, but only if they see tangible chances to achieve change.
Hopeful elitist resistance
This last category consists of some journalists, writers, artists and intellectuals who continue to resist tyranny and violence out of their belief in the revolution and possibilities of change. The path they choose for resistance is non-confrontational and often disguised in cultural, artistic and literary activities in addition to advocacy for human rights. The language and mediums used in these activities is what makes them elitist and detached from the realities of the vast population. When dissent is detached from the grassroots, it fails to achieve immediate results. On a different front, Yemeni youth face concrete obstacles that prevent their culture and human rights activities achieving significant change on the ground. These activists are working in a torn country with multiple authorities and tyrannies that rule through violence, chaos and consistent prosecution of their opponents. Cultural and human rights activism that lacks revolutionary conceptualization, organization and mobilization of the grassroots ends up lost in selectivity and randomness.
With all its limitations, we must recognize that this form of activism has the potential to accumulate political and cultural consciousness. Additionally, these activities can still revive some hope in a nation that may be desperate, but still has not forgotten 11 February.
Is it possible for the revolution to rise again?
Whether they turned to militarization or not, the majority of Yemeni youth are individually and collectively in a state of alienation and estrangement. All options in this reality are alienating and deadly. In the regions under their control, Houthis govern and micromanage the movements and lives of the youth. Almost identical with the regime George Orwell describes in his novel 1984, we are looking at an oligarchy that prosecutes intentions and thoughts even before action. In regions controlled by the legitimate government, the youth are fragmented by the government and the Southern Transitional Council’s servitude to Saudi and Emirati interests. This very dark picture does not mean that revolting against tyrannies is impossible.
People can rise and revolt even—and perhaps especially—in the darkest times in history. A future revolution is not far from happening if at least half of the Yemeni population is mobilized to take to the streets and protest simultaneously in the main Yemeni cities. The demands need to include the downfall of all these tyrannical powers, without exception. It is crucial for a future revolution to be well planned and organized. The powers in control of North and South Yemen alike rule through repression and violence with complete disregard to any legal or moral responsibilities towards the people. These powers have collectively become more tyrannical than Saleh’s regime that 11 February 2011 toppled. Any future popular revolution has to be prepared for all possibilities of confrontations with these powers. Only then will Yemenis be able to change the current equation and enforce alternative variables that can eliminate internal and external aggressions and replace them with a different political space. Learning from previous lessons and the failures of the past 10 years is one of the most essential factors in any success for a future revolution. It has become a necessity to create an integrated, organized popular revolutionary leadership that can responsibly mobilize the masses under a unified identity. After six years of war, one of the biggest challenges that can face any future revolution is fragmented identities and loyalties. For this reason, identifying as equal citizens is the only way for Yemenis to achieve the unity they need to topple these tyrannies that thrive on racist, regionalist, tribal and sectarian divisions and conflicts. A revolutionary project of this size is not easy at all. However, it remains possible. It may take a very long time to happen, but a future revolution is inevitable.