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Khalid Al-Karimi

How Yemen's 2011 peaceful uprising dissolved into all-out war

Houthi supporters at a rally commemorating the anniversary of the 2011 Arab Spring [AFP]

Date of publication: 20 February, 2017

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Comment: The power handover resulting from Yemen's Arab Spring was once touted as a model for transition. On the sixth anniversary of the protests, Khalid Al-Karimi asks what went wrong?

February is an unforgettable month for the people of Yemen.

Ever since the uprising in 2011, which swept the country and was carried forward by its youth, Yemenis have been struggling to come to terms with its fallout.

On 11 February 2011, many young people in Yemen felt the time had come to claim a role in the direction of their country. The momentum of the uprising soared nationwide, and the deafening chants "people want to overthrow the regime" echoed far and wide.

These young people were the firebrand of change and the dynamo of relentless protests against the regime of former president Ali Abdulla Saleh. When the people started pitching their tents in Sanaa's Change Square, it was unthought-of that they would multiply in several cities around the country.

February of 2011 was a turning point in the modern history of Yemen. It was a huge stride into the unknown, and marked the first time over the course of former president's 33-year long ruling, that the people began to chant, "The people want to overthrow the regime".

Emboldened by the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, the youths and anti-regime political parties rushed to the streets in the hope that they would be capable of effecting consequential political change through the tents and protests.

They parted from their homes, to leave from their jobs and remained committed to their enthusiastic chants day and night. It was an uncontrollable thirst for change among millions of people in the country.

In February of 2012, the struggle resulted in a tremendous political breakthrough, when the former president consented to relinquish power to his vice president.

These young people were the firebrand of change and the dynamo of relentless protests against the regime of former president Ali Abdulla Saleh

The protesting crowds felt a sense of relief and were jubilant. The prevalent thought was that Yemen had survived a potential civil war.

The power transfer bode well. It was followed by three years of inclusive national talks among Yemenis sponsored by the United Nations and regional powers. The political leadership during the transitional period gave due attention to the February uprising youth. Yemen was touted as an encouraging Arab Spring success story. 

Local and foreign political observers and international diplomats praised Yemen as a model for peaceful succession of power in Arab countries.

  Read more: Obama's abysmal track record in Yemen

In November of 2011, then President Saleh signed the Gulf Initiative in Riyadh with the political opposition, in an agreement brokered by the Gulf Co-operation Council. Many were in awe of the peaceful power transfer from the longstanding president to the vice president.

But diplomacy endeavored to do little more than to keep the whirlwind of violence at bay. The National Dialogue Conference began in March of 2013, and lasted for almost a year. The participants came up with a volume of outcomes for shaping the future of Yemen. Some were contentious, such as the transformation of Yemen into a federal nation.

Such disputes continued to deepen, and talks became an insufficient mechanism for bridging the gap. In March of 2015, the Houthi group backed by allied forces escalated their military activity, referring to it as a "revolution against corruption". In doing this, Yemenis were moved a step closer towards the bitter reality that war is inevitable. The violence they witnessed killed the spirit of the 2011 peaceful uprising in Yemen.

How can a peaceful power transfer happen in a country awash with unlicensed weapons?

Let us face this reality. How can a peaceful power transfer happen in a country awash with unlicensed weapons? How can this take place in a nation struggling with mounting levels of illiteracy and unemployment - both issues that Yemen's rivals turn to their own agendas?  

In addition, allegiance to the Yemeni nation as a whole is has disintegrated in Yemen. The people pledge allegiance to their parties, groups and tribes more than they do to Yemen as a nation. This makes for an environment conducive to festering conflict and fighting over power.

Seeing several tribes at the outset of the uprising joining the squares and leaving behind their weapons filled many with inspiration.

Their symbolic act served as a positive sign, as they stood shoulder to shoulder, unarmed with the young people in the squares. But this shift turned out to be but a fleeting resolution.

Seeing several tribes at the outset of the uprising joining the squares and leaving behind their weapons, filled many with inspiration

Today, Yemen is torn apart by fierce war, and its rivals believe that relying on weapons - not dialogue - is the route to peace and settlement. 

The February 2011 uprising in Yemen was therefore a national peaceful awakening; a serious call for a better Yemen. But it led down the path of all-out civil war, and Yemenis have reaped only pain, hunger, displacement and bloodshed as a result.

Consider these horrifying numbers: 10,000 have been killed since March 2015. Almost three million have been displaced and the country's estimated loss sits at over $14 billion and over 14 million people are food insecure. This calamity is an outcome of going to war, and forsaking the peaceful struggle.

Most worryingly, the scourge of war is ever greater, and prospects for peace remain faint. Yemen is no longer Yemen; it has been reduced to an arena for battles between Saudi and Iranian-backed forces, and a field for these two powers to test their military prowess and vent their mutual contempt.

Despite these tragedies, there is still room for peace. The time has come for a renewed uprising; one of tolerance, respect, patriotism and acceptance, that could defuse the ongoing war. Without such an uprising, lasting peace will remain illusive.
 

Khalid Al-Karimi is a freelance reporter and translator. He is a staff member of the Sanaa-based Yemeni Media Center and previously worked as a full-time editor and reporter for the Yemen Times newspaper.

Follow him on Twitter: @Khalidkarimi205

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

 

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