Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Yemen's GCC Initiative: Cosmetic or Comprehensive Change?

First Published on Al-akhbar

After nine months of mass protests calling for an end to the regime, and six months after the initial Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) initiative was submitted, Ali Abdullah Saleh signed the GCC’s implementing mechanism on 23 November 2011, at a ceremony in Saudi Arabia. The deal involved the transfer of his powers to Vice President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi, in return for immunity from prosecution. A national unity government will be created, evenly divided between the opposition and Saleh's ruling party.

While the GCC implementing mechanism marks the first step in a political process on the long road to change, it fell short of the comprehensive change protesters have been demanding for some 10 months. It fails to appropriately restructure the military, ignores a large section of the population, grants Saleh immunity instead of serving justice and provides for elections that allow only one pre-determined winner.

On the day of the signature, confusion loomed in Yemen and mixed feelings surfaced in the streets of the capital.

Some expressed hope that this signature would save Yemen from economic and humanitarian collapse, others expressed happiness because “this dictator was forced to sign and relinquish his power to the vice president, and the JMP and the youth” said Ahmed, a member of the opposition coalition, the Joint Meeting Party (JMP).

Not everyone shares Ahmed’s enthusiasm. “I am not happy because we went to the street to demand an end to the regime and the current system, not just the removal of one man,” said Fatima al-Aghbary, protester and member of an independent youth coalition. Many protesters echoed Fatima’s worries, expressing feelings of betrayal and deep disappointment with the JMP.

At the outset of the demonstrations, groups representing most of the pro-democracy coalitions at the square came up with a list of demands. At the top of the listarticulated by the Coordinating Council of the Youth Revolution of Change (CCYRC) in March is the “removal of the current regime peacefully and removal of all its figures and all members of the President’s family and his relatives from all leadership posts in the military and civil institutions.”

The GCC implementing mechanism is imperfect, but from a diplomatic standpoint is an acceptable solution. While it is a compromise between the different formal political parties in Yemen, it is also a good compromise for foreign countries that have interests in the country – mainly Saudi Arabia and the United States. Supporting the GCC mechanism means that both countries can show some support for the democracy movement, but at the same time maintain an old system that is beneficial to both Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Saudi Arabia is not keen on seeing independent civic youth take leadership, as this pro-democracy movement could spill over into neighboring Saudi Arabia. The United States on the other hand, has a deep relationship with the current government due to its counter-terrorism unit and the “war on terror,” and therefore would not want to see that relationship disappear.

Given the complexity of interests involved in Yemen it is no wonder the plan contains many vague stipulations that could be interpreted in various ways.

Military restructuring

One of the main problems in Yemen is family/tribal control over the military and security apparatus, which therefore provides that family/tribe total control over state resources. For example, the son of the president heads the Republican Guards and the Special Counter-terrorism Forces; the nephew of the president controls the Central Security Forces; and the president’s brother controls the Air Force.

It should come as no surprise then, that the democracy movement called for a restructuring of the military as a means to end the military/family dictatorship. The movement demands: “Dissolving the political security forces and national security forces, and forming a new national security agency under the umbrella of the Ministry of Interior,” in addition to, “merging the Republican Guards with the military forces, and dissolving the national defense council to ensure full impartiality of the army and security forces.”

According to the GCC implementing mechanism, the new government will appoint a committee to "restructure" the security forces, including the army, the police and the intelligence services, headed by VP Hadi. While this sounds great in theory, it remains unclear what powers this committee will have to make real reforms, especially since it is very unlikely that Hadi will be able to push for these reforms, as he is considered to be weak and uninfluential.

More worrisome, is that there is no clear stipulation that bans the son or nephews of the president from remaining in their posts. In addition, any recommendation to remove government forces will also mean the need to remove Ali Mohsin, the “defected” military General, from his post. This could either lead to renewed military clashes between the two sides, or the restoration of an old friendship between Ali Mohsin and the Saleh clan as the only way for both camps to stay in power.

The day after the signing, large billboards appeared in the streets of Sana’a, showing Saleh and his son Ahmed, in military uniform, by his side. The text on the billboard reads: “You raised your son very well, that is why he will always remain by your side.” These billboards are an indication of the future plan to keep the son in his sensitive and powerful position.

The extent to which the committee is able to restructure the security forces and the military, will lead to the same extent of real change in Yemen. If these security forces are not dissolved, or merged into one national security agency, then the shadow of Saleh and the system he created will continue to rule the country.

Lack of inclusion

The GCC initiative and mechanism only addressed the formal political parties, and disregarded those who were the fuel for the mass people’s revolution: the youth. It also overlooked the powerful political groups with wide grassroots support, such as the Houthis and the southern secessionists. Since these important groups were not part of the discussion, they naturally do not feel ownership of it, and therefore feel that it is not binding for them.

These groups will most likely also be excluded from the unity government that divides seats between the JMP and the ruling party. In addition, since the JMP is made up of different political parties, it is unclear to which extent parties other than the dominant Islamist Islah party, will be represented.

In addition, although the mechanism indicates that “national dialogue” will take place with the presence of youth, women, Houthis and southern secessionists, it is unclear whether a new government that is seen as illegitimate will be able to mediate such talks. There might be a need for an honest broker in the middle to carry such a heavy burden. This might be a place where independents can fill the gap.

Women on the other hand were mentioned very briefly in the implementing mechanism, despite the fact that they were part of the revolution from the beginning. The mechanism states that women should have “appropriate representation” in the new government. The vagueness of the term “appropriate” will create widespread debate, and of course the interpretation will differ from group to group.

Women’s groups need to push for real representation at the decision making level and to be part of all the important committees, including the constitutional committee.

Immunity clause v. justice

After the deaths and injuries of hundreds of peaceful protesters and civilians, the immunity clause given to Saleh and his close allies feels like “a slap in the face” says Ali, a 19-year-old protester. The immunity clause violates the youth’s demand that seeks to “legally pursue and prosecute corrupt officials that caused, assisted and incited the killing and injuries of peaceful protesters.” From a diplomatic standpoint, the immunity clause was a necessary compromise in order for Saleh to agree to sign.

The immunity clause not only goes against the demands of the people, and against human rights, but it’s also a dangerous precedent to set in a society that will take matters into its own hands if justice is not served.

Realizing such inherent dangers, the implementing mechanism tried to address this concern by emphasizing the creation of a national commission for human rights, charged with investigating individual complaints regarding human rights violations and compensating victims.

But despite multiple redrafts the rights commission was excluded from the final agreement. With no court to intervene, the families of victims of violence such as the March 18 sniper attacks on peaceful Sana’a protesters, resulting in 50 deaths, will feel alienated. Finding no legal means to seek justice, the victims and their families may take matters into their own hands. In a society with a tradition of revenge, this could stir a cycle of retribution leading to years of war.

One-person election

The upcoming election scheduled for February 21 will be a grand show to mark the beginning of a new phase. But the new phase will begin with a flawed process – an uncontested election. Both the JMP and the ruling General People’s Council (GPC) agreed in the implementing mechanism to accept one candidate: Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi, in order to move past the political deadlock.

Of course many different electoral systems exist, but this one-person election will naturally not sit well with the Yemeni people. As elections imply a way for an electorate to select someone among multiple candidates for office, the upcoming “election” is more of an “appointed” post rather than an election.

Having an election might emphasize the importance of a process. However when the process is a failed one, wouldn’t that legitimize an illegitimate process? It is precisely for this reason that some independent youth are deciding whether to select another candidate for the elections, even if it is just a symbolic move.

A legally binding signature may not be enough to ensure that elections will be conducted in a timely fashion. It is not beyond question that Saleh, or the people around him, may continue to create conflict either to postpone elections, to prolong his stay, or to make sure his son remains in a powerful post. Also problematic is that the GCC implementing mechanism places a lot of importance on one person: Abd Rabu Hadi Mansour. What if he suddenly dies, or is killed? Will both sides be able to agree on another candidate? Will elections be postponed indefinitely?


While the GCC implementing mechanism has some important stipulations, it should be placed in a context where the rule of law is absent, and implementation is often lacking. In the absence of an independent judiciary, who will monitor the implementation? Time will unravel the answers to the many questions that still remain.

Despite all these imperfections, Saleh has legally signed away his political career. It is up to the people in the street to make sure that happens, and to continue to push for broad changes. Independent groups should form pressure groups to monitor the implementation of the mechanism and to put pressure on the new transitional unity government.

The hope for Yemen is that the independent civic groups will organize to become the third voice in order to bring true democracy to Yemen.

Revolutionary addiction

“Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol or morphine or idealism.”
- Carl Gustav Jung quotes

It’s hard to understand an addiction unless you’ve experienced it, and most of us have experience one form or another at some point in our life. I recently came to the realization that I have an addiction called the Revolution.

I’m a person who loves life and wants to enjoy every second of it. But for the past ten months, all I could talk about is politics, and most of the activities I have been engaged in are related to the revolution. While I’ve always loved politics, it never completely and utterly consumed me like this before. Since January, my life has turned upside down.

I didn’t realize the negative side of it, until I noticed that I no longer talk about anything other than the Revolution. I miss talking about "nothing" and enjoying it. I miss laughing with friends so hard until tears roll down. I miss talking about what dress I wish was on sale, and what the latest movie is. I miss reflecting internally on how I feel. I miss talking to friends about their relationship problems. I miss talking to my brother and sister about their first year in university.

This obsession is making me miss out on important daily life, and its draining me emotionally.
I miss my old me.

Despite the irony that my friend pointed out of simultaneously wanting my OLD self back, and dreaming of a NEW Yemen, I need to step on the breaks and take a moment to reflect in order to remember that life is bigger than just one moment in history.

This is why I decided that I must undergo these 10 Steps of Revolution Rehab. I’m sure I’m not the only one suffering from this illness. If you are as well, here are some steps that could help you triumph over the addiction.
  1. Admit that you are powerless over the Revolution – and that you life has become solely dedicated to it. 

  2. Actively take weekends for R&R (rest and recuperation) to restore your sanity. 

  3. Admit that in the process of your addiction, you may have neglected those closest to you, including family and friends. Seek apology from them.
  4. Take a couple of hours each day to do non-Revolution related activities. Facebook and Twitter do not count.
  5. Actively seek artistic nonpolitical activities. Try to express yourself through the arts.
  6. Stay away from the computer for one entire day.
  7. Dedicate at least one day a week to doing absolutely nothing related to the revolution. You can not talk about it, think about it, or do anything related to it.
  8. Engage in conversation that is not related to the revolution at least once a day.
  9. Do not go to change square for one entire week.
  10. Do not attend a demonstration for one entire week.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

كن يمنيا وحسب! شعر الدكتور نزار الحبشي

أسمي يمني بن يمني اليمني
أنا يمني وبطاقتي يمنية وحسب
لا ينتقص من وطنيتي وولائي عصبية إنتماء لحزب أو قبيلة أو منطقة أو مذهب
ولائي لليمن وحدها، لا يشكاركها ولائي أحد
عشقي لليمن وحدها، لا ينافسها في عشقي لها أحد
ثُرت من أجلها هي وحدها.... وحدها هي فقط
ثُرت من أجلها لم أنتظر إذن ولا توجيه من أحد
ثُرت من أجلها لا أنتظر نفقة من أحد
ثُرت من أجلها لا أطمع في مال أو منصب أو سلطة أو نيل رضا من أحد

ترفعت دوما أن أكون جزء من النظام حاكمٌ أو معارض
لم يصرف لي الحاكم يوما مبلغا من المال أو سيارة أو قطعة أرض بلا حق
لم أستغل علاقتي به قط لأحصل على تسهيل أو منحة لأبني أو منصب أملأ به كرشي بغير حق
لم يكن لي من الوظائف مثنى وثلاث ورباع أستلم رواتبها بغير حق
لا أستلم مال من جارة ولا صديقة ولا أستمع الأوامر من أحد
لم أطلق طلقة في الهواء، لم أقتل أحد ولم أنهب شئ من أحد
أحترمت ديني وسموت به فلم أجعله سلعة أزايد بها على أحد
لم أستخدمه لأجعل من الحق باطل والباطل حق متى ما أردت

حررت نفسي أولا ففاقد الشئ لا يعطيه لأحد ناهيك عن البلد
ثُرت ضد كل الباطل ومن أجل كل الحق
سأقول للباطل باطل وللحق حق لن أنافق أو أخاف من أحد
فالثورة من أجل اليمن وليست من أجل أحد

يمني أصيل نقي كالذهب
فلا تتباهي عليّ يا من أمتلكت بطاقة عضوية في حزب أو تبعية لأحد
لا تزايد عليّ بمجرم أو فاسد من الماضي لم يرحم لعقودٍ البلد
إياك أن تدعوني مندس أو مثير للفتن
فالذي بيته من زجاج لا يرمي بيتاً أحجاره من أرض البلد
أترك هويتك "الفوق يمنية" فالحديد لا يتكبر على الذهب
كن يمنيا خالصا، كن جزء من الذهب!
إنها ثورة من أجل اليمن..... وحسب.

د. نزار الحبشي

Monday, November 7, 2011

Hopes & Fears -London Conference on Cyberspace

I recently spoke at the London Conference on Cyberspace in a session entitled Hopes and Fears.  Here is a copy of the speech  I gave.

A while back, I stood in front of an armored vehicle and snapped a photo while my hand was shaking, and since then, I thought to myself, nothing will ever make me feel intimidated again.  But today, being part of this distinguished panel, I realize that is not true. 
As a blogger, researcher and activist I heavily rely on internet on a daily basis, especially since the start of the peaceful resistance movement.

I will try to summarize how social media has helped us in Yemen and in the region.
Breaking the fear & silence: living under constant fear of speaking out, there is something comforting about being behind a computer screen.  It gives a false sense of security, but enables more people to be vocal.  A professor of mine took the class once to a computer lab, and we had the same discussions we usually have inside the classroom, but in the computer lab, behind the computer screens, more people joined the discussion.  This is just one example of the psychology of being behind the computer screen.

Organizing: While the bulk of mobilization efforts in Yemen happens through word of mouth, radio, brochures and SMS services; sites such as facebook helped in organizing events on the ground.  The social and political listserves & the facebook groups on various topics, helped people meet each other from different parts of the country.  It connected people with similar interests that otherwise would have never met.  Groups were created based on different interests to discuss ways to solve many prevailing issues in the country.  During the revolution, these groups, some of which are closed groups were the hub of organizing for next day’s marches.
Spreading news: Due to lack of independent media in Yemen, where both political opposition and government media lack credibility, new media has become a valuable source of information for news.  Twitter has also become a very important source of information for spreading information to the world minute by minute.  This became even more importance since Yemen has few foreign journalists.  Twitter became a link to the outside world.  In addition, due to the lack of independent media, social media sites became valuable source of information for news.  Many bloggers felt that their role should be to provide an objective source of information for citizens and the world.

Documenting human rights violations: technology has enabled activists to better document violations and helped spread them instantaneously through live streaming, use of mobiles to photograph and videotape events, and then sending them to human rights organizations throughout the world.
Global solidarity: the online world has become an arena of global solidarity.  When I received an e-threat once on my youtube account, I took a screen shot of the threat, and posted it on twitter.  Two hours later, the person who threatened me had received numerous complaints on his/her youtube page, by people I didn’t even know.  Two days later, that person shut his/her youtube channel. 

The internet has also helped bridge the gap between the “east” and the “west”, making us all realize how close we are as human beings, and how much we have in common.
Learning and knowledge sharing: In the past, everything was controlled by government, with the introduction of internet, no one has control over what we can read, and watch.  Internet is a sea of information, that allows us to fish anything we want and at anytime.  No longer can governments block our right to access that information. 

In addition, the internet has transformed the way we do research.  How many of us open google or Wikipedia immediately when starting a research?   In countries with few libraries, the internet provides an opportunity for us to navigate mass information from our own home.  It also gives us the opportunity to visit worldwide art galleries from the comfort of our home.  Those who would like to study abroad but can not afford it, can no enroll in e-learning classrooms.
Now, I am not one to say that facebook or twitter created the revolutions that swept the Arab world.  We have been calling for change for a long time.  People are the agents of change, and the internet is one tool out of many tools such as radio and SMS that can help.  

To give you an example, if you need to go to work, you can walk, but it might take you a long time.  Now if you were given a fast car, a sports car, and also had some techno or fast music in the car, you would get there much faster, and people all around will hear the blasting music.  That is how social media and internet has helped, by accelerating the process, not by creating the change.

Of course there are many challenges to the internet.

  • The urban/rural digital divide, enhanced by the illiteracy rates means that those in the main cities have full advantage of what the internet has to offer, while those in rural areas do not receive all the benefits. 
  • Language barrier is also present.   Those who speak English have more access to what is online than others.
  • Security issues are of course of concern to those activists because many of these new technologies that help in spreading information, also help in tracking individuals.  For example, live streaming is great for documenting violations, but it also gives the exact location of the person recording the video.
  • There is a lack of infrastructure needed for fast internet in developing countries, which needs to be enhanced for citizens to be able to utilize the internet.
  • There is also a fear that internet would pushing activists from being solely on the ground grassroots activists to activists only behind computer screens.

Despite these fears and chanllegnes, I believe that the internet is a tremendous technology that has not yet been used to its fullest potential. I also believe that the benefits outweigh the challenges. Every new technology has challenges, but I have faith that our human race will continue to develop and improve this technology to the benefit of humanity and freedom everywhere.

Thank you.