Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Gulf will control Yemen forever if the south secedes now

*Recent dramatic events in southern Yemen mirror the vicious circle in which the country finds itself, two years into a war that has killed at least 10,000 – and reflect a struggle between President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi and his Emirati and Saudi backers.

In late April, after major tensions with the Emirati who have been backing him, Hadi dismissed two southern secessionists - Aidarus al-Zubaidi, the governor of Aden, and cabinet minister Hani bin Braik. In response, tens of thousands of people protested in Aden in early May and the southern seccessionist movement suddenly saw an opening for the prospect for independence in the middle of war.

On 11 May, Zubaidi announced that he and other officials were forming an autonomous body – the Southern Political Council – to manage Yemen’s southern provinces and represent the south domestically and internationally. Southerners have been campaigning for independence for years. Their grievances stem from the 1990s when North and South Yemen unified and then fought one another in a civil war in 1994.

After the war, the southerners accused the unified Yemeni government, based in the northern city of Sanaa, of corruption, election fraud and seizing their oil and gas-rich land. In 2007, they formally organised into the Southern Movement – known as Hirak - to secede. But the establishment of the new council and even the protests that have followed are unlikely to bring the secession which many southerners have long envisioned. Trying to secede right now is like trying to build a house in a hurricane.

Losing face

The southerners’ move is especially ill-timed given how weak their movement has grown and how its political context has changed since its founding. Following Yemen’s 2011 uprising, there has been a violent crackdown against Hirak leaders, including several assassinations which have further undermined the movement’s political wing.

The remaining Hirak leaders now either live outside the country, with many residing in Gulf countries, the UK and the US, and/or are affiliated with the Emirates. Given Hadi’s spat with Bin Zayed and Zubaidi’s announcement, it’s also clear that the movement is heavily influenced today by what the Saudis and the Emirates want. As ousted Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh said earlier this month, “Events in Aden are only a play and the decision is in the hands of Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud."

But do Gulf countries want this influence? Earlier this month, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) issued a statement opposing the formation of the Southern Political Council in Aden because secession is exactly what they do not want.

For the south to achieve statehood within a failing state would only make Gulf countries lose face. The GCC would never allow that to happen. The GCC went to war in Yemen to restore what it began after Yemen’s 2011 uprising with its political plan, known as "the GCC initiative" - which firmly rejected the division of Yemen - and it won’t cease its engagement in Yemen until its plan is achieved. With the changing dynamics of the war, a southern secession for the Hirak movement would mean only a split from the GCC initiative, not from a state, because, technically, the north no longer has a functioning government and the south has a remote government, operating out of Riyadh. 

The decisive factor
As a Yemeni seeing my country descend into a failed state, I believe that, if there is any concept of Yemen as a state, then it’s a state controlled by the GCC. So if the south plans to split, it should rethink who is actually in control of Yemen’s sovereignty today. The Yemen war has drastically changed the rules of the game. Hirak’s rivalry has changed its face. Southerners used to face enforced control by the north, but now it’s control by their neighbours.

Some believe that because the international community doesn’t support the Hirak, it is doomed to fail, but I disagree. In fact, the fate of Hirak depends on the approval or disapproval by the GCC. History has taught us Yemenis that Yemen is the backyard of Gulf countries and it will always be under their control. Southern activists whom I recently spoke with on the condition of their anonymity affirmed their belief that secession would be realised, especially with the support of neighbouring countries.

One secessionist activist told me, “Despite all the flaws, the formation of the council is one step towards the right direction. We are working on convincing the Saudis and the Emirates, especially that UAE has always been more understanding to our case.” Before the war and even before the 2011 uprising, southern grievances were clearly identifiable and unique. Today, the grievances are much broader and sit in an entirely different context: a country torn by war, with thousands killed and injured, with crippled institutions and ravaged by a catastrophic humanitarian crisis.

As much as secessionists desire statehood, how the war proceeds and whether their breakaway would ever actually happen is entirely up to the regional states now involved.

*This article was first published in MiddleEastEye.com on the 22nd of May, 2017.
*Photography courtesy: Ahmed Shihab Al-Qadi, in Aden, taken 21st of May, 2017. 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Words with High Price

His name is Hani Aljunid. He’s for many one of Yemen’s best journalists, who has so much integrity. But for me, he’s the second most important person I have in Yemen after my family. I call him, comrade and he does so too. Did I mention that he’s also an active member at the socialist political party in Yemen? Well, he is, and still many don’t find any problem with his journalism and his political affiliation, except powerful corrupt politicians, corrupt businessmen, Al Qaeda and ISIS members.

Hani has only his words against all this evil. And that evil, embodied by some extremists arrested Hani along two other journalists, Majed al-Shoa’aibi and Hossam Radman on Tuesday, 16 May. The arrest was at the funeral of Amjed Mohammed, a social activist who was gunned down at an internet cafe in Aden, 2 days before Hani’s arrest. Basically, Amjed was a victim of unlawful killing, which seems to be the new norm in Aden under Saudi Arabia’s president Hadi rule. Hani and the other two journalists went to the funeral and were arrested, tortured and released. It’s still not clear who’s behind the arrest but several FB posts by siblings of Hani, Majed and Hossam say that they all were arrested on blasphemy charges.

Hani, known to be super active in posting on FB, he has not written a word yet. His brother wrote that Hani refuses to say anything for now and he was transferred to the hands of the Saudi-led coalition's forces. No updates so far on Hani’s situation.

It makes me sick thinking what could be happening to Hani now. My comrade. I know Hani since Yemen’s 2011 uprising. Hani has always written & advocated for social justice, equal citizenship for all, anti-militarism and he was a great believer in Yemen’s 2011 uprising. In 2012, Hani was deliberately targeted and physically assaulted during Gen. Ali Muhsen’s rule of Sana’a University. When the Houthis stormed into Sana’a on September 2014, Hani was one of the main dissident voices against Houthis’ atrocities. He has received numberless death threats from pro-Houthi groups. Along the beginning of the Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen, he had to flee to Taiz. Then, some armed groups in Taiz targeted him as he was also critical in his writings to these groups’ behaviour in the city. Again, following several death threats, Hani had to flee to Aden.

In 2012, Hani was deliberately 
targeted and physically assaulted
during Gen. Ali Muhsen’s rule of 
Sana’a University. 

Throughout all these events, I kept a very close touch with Hani. I used to tell him, ‘don’t get killed, comrade!’ ‘I won’t let them kill me. I need to see you first, comrade!” Hani’s answer. The harshest calls were when I used to call Hani and he would tell me how he was surviving his day by having only one meal. Hani was financially struggling, like everything in the country. Though Hani had to pay a huge price for his writings but he thinks it’s nothing comparing to what his comrades had to sacrifice with. Several of his friends were killed in protests or/and deliberately targeted.

I can’t pretend to be strong at this moment. I can only pray for Hani and Yemen.

Friday, May 5, 2017

The Yemen War, Media, and Propaganda


*Yemeni media is one of the most affected aspects in the raging war in Yemen. In an unprecedented case, a Houthi-controlled court issued a death sentence earlier in April, against journalist Yahya al-Joubayhy, for being a “Saudi spy,” reflecting a glimpse of the risks Yemeni media workers endure.

The war in Yemen has negatively impacted media in multiple-levels. In 2016, in a televised speech, the leader of Houthi rebels, Abdelmalek al-Houthi, warned “The media workers are more dangerous to our country than the nationalist and warring mercenaries,” shows the hostility of militant groups toward the media. This hostility hinders the media’s ability to deliver news and stories about Yemen’s war, leaving Yemeni news audiences ignorant, dependent on military groups’ own media, and easy prey to war propaganda.

War on the Media

Yemen’s media has suffered a decline and retreated as it comes under increased pressure during the ongoing conflict. According to Yemen’s National Information Center, before the Houthis’ takeover of Yemen’s capital city Sanaa in September 2014, Yemen used to enjoy about 295 publications, four official state-owned TV channels, and fourteen privately-owned TV channels. Despite this media landscape, Freedom House ranked Yemen’s freedom of the press status amongst the worst in the world, and it has since declined.

Controlling the local and international narrative is crucial for the Houthis. When Houthi forces took over Sanaa in 2014, they shelled the Yemen state TV station, and soon after they replaced media professionals with Houthi-affiliated media groups. While this was happening in Houthi-controlled areas, newspapers and broadcasts in the north and south were suspended, such as the formerly state-owned Althawra and 14October newspapers. Instead, the Houthi's captured Althawra and turned it into a pro-Houthi outlet circulated only in the north, and 14October had a similar experience under the southern coalition. In Houthi-controlled areas, there has been a crackdown on media groups, the Yemeni internet service provider, Yemennet, which has blocked certain anti-Houthi websites, and the Houthi-controlled Ministry of Information accused media outlets of “inciting treason.” Controlling the media became even more prevalent in 2015 after the Saudis started their air campaign.

Today, in Houthi-controlled areas, there are ten Houthi-owned print publications, two Houthi-owned TV channels and one TV channel owned by former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. In the south, a handful of TV channels and newspapers are currently working, the most notable are owned separately by Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar. There are also three independent media groups.

The deadliest violation against press in Yemen was the death of two Yemeni journalists who reportedly were used as human shields by Houthi forces to protect a military installation. In another instance, blogger and investigative journalist Mohammed al-Absi, known for reporting on a number of Houthi-related-corruption stories, was poisoned. While many believe Houthis are responsible, the investigation is still undergoing. The large-scale abuses against press in Yemen has not only made Yemen one of the most dangerous places to work as a journalist, but also has ranked the Houthis as the second worst abuser of press freedom in the world—only the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) surpasses them.

Meanwhile, Hadi and his government have begun focusing on using social media as the sole tool for dissemination of information starting from the day he escaped Sanaa to Aden in February 2015. Hadi was able to escape with the help of former Information Minister Nadia al-Saqqaf, who was tweeting about his alleged ‘critical health’ under Houthi imposed siege. Other Yemeni officials are also ordered to join and be active on Twitter, according to a Yemeni official who prefers to remain anonymous for security reasons. Hadi’s leadership has given more focus on using the internet as means to disseminate information in a country where only a quarter of its population has access to the internet, which is mainly the elite. The exiled government seems more concerned about addressing the international community than Yemenis.

Flawed Media Representation

As a result of the hindered and biased media landscape, both the international community and more particularly the Yemeni public receive a distorted picture of the Yemen war. This turmoil in the media landscape has undermined any relatively comprehensive media representation of the Yemen war. Each side of the media coverage focuses on its opponent’s atrocities, deliberately overlooking its own wrongdoings, to cast the other as the only perpetrator. More importantly, each side of the media may not necessarily instigate sectarianism, but it does instigate regionalism, antagonism, and violence by humanising one side and dehumanising the other. For instance, each side depicts the other as mercenaries for the Saudis or the Iranians, respectively, and depicts their dead as the only ones worthy of being called victims.

The polarized media outlets also characterize the beginning of the war differently. For pro-Houthi and Saleh media, it began when the Saudi-led coalition began its campaign, while for pro-exiled government media outlets, there is an emphasis on the Houthis’ coup d’etat. For Yemenis, it is impossible to get a full picture of the conflict. In the north, people not politically affiliated tend to gradually become Houthi supporters as most media outlets are affiliated with the Houthis, and vice versa in the south. As each understanding of the conflict becomes more biased, it becomes harder to reach national and local level reconciliation deals.

The international media, and specifically Arab media, coverage suffers from a different set of problems. A quick look at major news organizations shows a lack of coverage of Yemen in comparison to other global events, and rarely features Yemen articles in the headlines. There are three main reasons for this: first, Houthi forces either forcibly disappear or put behind bars non-propagandist Yemeni journalists; second, Saudi Arabia is buying media silence along with hiring PR companies to polish its image in media; and lastly, independent foreign journalists do not have access to the country.

Yemenis who are critical of both local coverage and international media find themselves disappointed and frustrated. Incomplete information coupled with frustration is something that armed groups, including the belligerent parties and extremist groups such as ISIS, prey on to attract recruits.

Most Yemeni journalists interviewed for this article expressed that they had no work because they had been forced to move back to their villages to escape the Houthi crackdown. One journalist pointed out that, “polarization in Yemeni media has never been this high. The problem is that there is no room for a middle ground. On one hand, Houthis allow press only if it is biased in favor of them, as does the Yemeni exiled-government. All that you have in Yemen now is propaganda and each side can support you, only if you abide by their propaganda.”

*This article was originally written for and published at The Atlantic Council organization on the 3rd of May 2017. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Yemeni Journalist Sentenced to Death for Being a "Saudi Spy"

A Houthi-affiliated Yemeni court in Sana'a, Yemen sentenced today Yemeni journalist and academic, Yahya al-Joubaihy to death for treason, Houthi-owned news agency Saba'a News Agency reported. "The criminal court issued a death sentence against Yahya al-Joubaihy, 61, for treason and spying with the enemy state {Saudi Arabia}, as correspondence documents between him and the enemy proved his treason," Saba'a News Agency claimed, "Yahya contacted Saudia Arabia illegally, communicated with its ambassador and secretary and delivered reports that harm the republic of Yemen. Yahya also received 4500 Saudi riyals monthly starting from 2010."

Yahya's house was stormed by Houthi forces on the 6th of September in 2016 and he was detained along confiscating his personal belongings, mobile, computer and documents, according to a statement of condemning issued by Yemeni Journalists' Syndicate today. Just before Yahya's arrest, his son was also arrested by Houthi forces, until today.

source: Yahya's daughter on facebook. 

Journalists and writers have always been subjected to a great risk in Yemen along Saleh's rule, but the deteriorating condition for journalists under Houthis' rule is unprecedented. This is probably the very first time a journalist is sentenced to death. Yahya is one face of many journalists and young men abducted and forcibly detained by the Houthis since they overtook Sana'a city in Septemeber 2014. Reporters without borders have ranked the Houthis for two years in a row as the second top abuser of press freedom in the world after the Islamic State.

"Statistics show until the end of 2016 that more than 3,000 men have been abducted by the Houthis", on a phone call a spokesperson of "Mothers of the Abductees," told me. The coalition is compromised of mothers, daughters and sisters and female relatives of abducted and forcibly disappeared men in Houthis' prisons in Sana'a and few other Yemeni cities. The spokesperson who asked to hide its name for security reasons also added, "a great deal of the abducted group has been hidden for two years now without granting them any contact with their families. Let alone that they have been in jail with no trial, whatsoever."

A couple days ago, Islahi-owned TV channel, al-Suhail aired a video report of the Houthi-affiliated court's trail of 36 people in accusation of supporting Saudi Arabia. One of the jailed men pleaded loudly that this is the first time he and the imprisoned people see light and that he has been tortured and he demanded to have a fair trail.

Yemen's president, Hadi and six other top officials in his government were sentenced to death for "high treason", last month. No comment of any of these death sentences has been made by Hadi's office. Meanwhile, social media pages in Yemen have been flooded with words of solidarity with Yahya, petitions and numberless calls for his release, asserting that Yahya is absolutely innocent.

Yahya wrote regular columns in Saudi dailies Okaz and Al-Madina, as well as in Yemeni newspapers. He served at the government's press department in the 1990s and 2000s when Saleh was president and Hadi was his deputy.

In solidarity with Yahya and all our victim brothers of injustice sitting behind Houthis' jail! 

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Saudi-led coalition's strategy in Yemen is entirely counter-productive

A poster reads "two years of aggression that achieved nothing but destruction, devastation and killing of innocents" at a protest in Sana'a, March 26th, 2017. 

*It has now been two years since the Saudi-led coalition began waging its war in Yemen against the rebel group, the Houthis.

The coalition's military operation was intended to "save the people of Yemen from a radical group (the Houthis) trying to take over the country," as expressed by Saudi Ambassador to the United States, Adel Al-Jubeir in a news conference on the day the military operation began - 26 March, 2015. So far, the coalition's military strategy has not reduced Houthi "radicalism", rather it has become completely counter-productive, and instead of weakening the Houthis, it is strengthening them.

For many Yemenis, 26 March signifies not just the beginning of all out war, but one of the chapters in the violent unrest the country has been witnessing since the 2011 uprising. Indeed, many regard September 2014 - when the Houthis stormed into the capital city, Sanaa - as a turning point in the country's chain of armed conflicts. Following the Houthis taking de-facto control of Sanaa, the general sentiment in Sanaa was one of a refusal of what the Houthis represented. One anti-Houthi protest after another crystallised into a peaceful anti-Houthi movement named "Refusal". The capital witnessed many anti-Houthi protests raising slogans, such as "no for coup" and "no to armed militias".