Tuesday, October 30, 2012


يجب ألاّ تفقد ثقتك بالبشرية. البشرية محيط ، وإذا كانت بضع قطرات منه وسخة فالمحيط لا يصبح وسخاً - غاندي
You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty - Gandhi

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Time for Hadi to move beyond managing power struggles

First published in the Guardian's Comment is Free

With the support of the international community, President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi came to power in Yemen as the consensus candidate – when the opposition coalition and the former ruling party signed an agreement on political transition put forward by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

After months of turmoil, the agreement ended the 33-year rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh but it marginalised a large segment of Yemeni society, including those who led the movement for change.

Hadi's "election" in February – in a national poll where he was the only candidate – did not sit well with many, but others welcomed it as a symbolic step to steer Yemen away from a potential civil war.

Some of Hadi's initial decrees surprised critics, giving people hope that he would lead Yemen independently. His decisions to reassign military and security officials from their posts, and his appointments – such as replacing the governor of Taiz – were widely welcomed.

Also, on 22 September he signed a decree authorising the creation of a commission of inquiry to investigate human rights violations during the 2011 uprising – though with the immunity law, the chances of prosecution are near impossible.

The immunity law, stipulated in the GCC agreement, is not the only obstacle. A continuing problem is that the GCC's transition agreement places a lot of importance on President Hadi, without any reference to what would happen in his absence. Analysts worry that this makes him an easy target for those who would benefit from derailing the transitional process.

Fearing for his life, Hadi has been protected by the military's First Armoured Division (FAD) which supported opposition protests against Saleh last year. The head of the FAD, General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar (a kinsman of ex-president Saleh who eventually turned against him) is known for his bloody past, making him more valuable as a friend than an enemy.

Hadi's relationship with Ali Mohsen is seen by many as one of convenience, where protection is exchanged for loyalty, and there are some worrying indicators that Ali Mohsen may be gaining influence through President Hadi's tacit and sometimes declared approval.

For example, people welcomed the creation of a new Presidential Protection Force made up of three brigades of the Republican Guard, headed by Saleh's son Ahmed Ali – and one brigade from the FAD – as essential first steps towards unifying the military.

However, the 314th brigade of the FAD that was affected by this decree was one that had refused to defect with Ali Mohsen during the uprising and always remained loyal to Saleh. Hence, this decree only reduced the power of Saleh loyalists, leaving intact Ali Mohsen's influence over the military.

The Hadi-Mohsen relationship instilled fear in people that the patronage system – one of the hallmarks of Saleh's rule – may continue under a different guise in favour of the Islamist party Islah, the dominant force in the traditional opposition, due to its close ties with Ali Mohsen.

According to reports by local newspapers, employees at the ministry of electricity filed an official complaint against the minister for employing his relatives and friends without merit. They listed 19 new employees all of whom are affiliated to Islah.

One government employee stated on condition of anonymity: "In the past, the minister would only employ his pro-regime friends. Today, the new minister brought his friends from the party to take over the leadership of some divisions without the required skills. It's like one mafia replaced another."
These practices might affect Hadi's credibility and thus affect the goals of the National Dialogue, which is one crucial test for the president.

Among other things, the dialogue intended to begin next month needs to build trust with the rebellious Houthis in the north and the separatists in the south. It is of vital importance for Hadi to address their grievances and include these marginalised yet powerful groups in the process for a successful dialogue.

So far, no members of the important technical committee for the National Dialogue are affiliated to the Southern Movement, though there is talk of the state issuing a public apology for past wars in the south and north – which may restore trust in the process and facilitate their involvement.
A widespread perception, though, is that the National Dialogue will only empower political parties and will neglect the people and their needs.

Last month, Hadi issued another decree to add six new members to the technical committee, four of whom are from the Islah party, shifting the balance. It also decreased the number of women to less than 30%, which has been commonly accepted as the minimum quota for women's participation in the various committees.

For Yemen to move forward, a sincere healing process needs to begin, and a bottom-up approach needs to replace the top-down elite model for the dialogue to succeed or else it will become just another political conference. If the National Dialogue fails, so will Hadi's legitimacy.

Another indicator that the leadership is not taking people's opinions into account is Hadi's recent statement praising the efficiency of drones and acknowledging his approval of the strikes which have resulted in many civilian deaths.

With no mention of the civilian casualties from his home province of Abyan, Hadi's legitimacy is slowly fading. A backlash against his statement was immediately felt in the country.

After his speech, Hadi quickly acquired new nicknames including "Abdu Drone Hadi", coined by activist Abdulrahman Alansy. "Exchanging local support with international glamour rather than striking balance between both will simply turn him into a Yemeni version of the weak and ineffective Karzai," said Ibrahim Mothana, youth activist and co-founder of the al-Watan party.

More than seven months into his presidency, it appears that Hadi is not interested in bargaining with the masses, and instead is focused on pleasing the inner political circle, extending the exclusionary politics of the Saleh era into the new transitional government.

Hadi should take on this historic responsibility with a vision for the country and move beyond managing the power struggles, which is what Saleh did for 33 years and which cost him the presidency. With all the difficulties Yemen is facing, it is not to his advantage to sideline revolutionaries and other important and powerful groups in Yemen, from whom he should gain his legitimacy.

Gone are the days when legitimacy only comes from a small inner circle. The extent to which the people are able to push for reforms will demonstrate whether Yemen will move towards a more inclusive political process.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Students Protest against Militarization of their University

First published in Al-Akhbar
Students marched to President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi's house 
Students in Yemen’s capital are mobilizing to demand the end of the military presence on their campus. Their demand is proof that the people are by no means satisfied with the results of their hard-fought for revolution.

Holding colorful posters and marching besides a large megaphone, a group of young men and women were chanting for freedom. These protests symbolize the new wave of the revolution, one that is not satisfied with only a change in leadership, but demands comprehensive regime change.

“No to state security. No to the military. Free our university!” students chant in Sanaa University.

The first march was organized by the student branch of the Yemeni Socialist Party on Sunday September 17 but many students participated, including those not affiliated to any party. Since then protests have continued regularly, joined by students of various backgrounds, all rejecting the continued occupation of the university.

 This call is directed at the First Armored Division (FAD), commanded by General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, a one-time confidant of former president Saleh. On 21 March 2011, following the brutal sniper attack on peaceful protesters that resulted in at least 45 deaths, Ali Muhsin began siding with the protesters.

Since then a large number of FAD soldiers have been deployed around Change Square - the heart of the revolutionary movement – on the premises of protection. The square is located adjacent to the university, and hence the FAD have easy access to the educational facility.

Pro-democracy protesters at the time had mixed feelings about this move. From a strategic standpoint, it meant a formal split in the Yemeni military, which reduced possibility of a complete crush of the uprising. Some felt, however, that Ali Muhsin’s past might serve as proof that his involvement was not intended to support change, but was rather a political move for personal gains. Nevertheless, the majority accepted the decision and welcomed him chanting “Welcome, welcome FAD, and their leader Ali Muhsin.”

The FAD is still in control of the university, despite the fact that Change Square is no longer closed off, and numerous streets have opened to traffic. In addition, the protesters are no longer under direct threat from the former regime, as the new transitional government is composed of former regime and the traditional opposition (the Joint Meeting Party coalition).

Despite that, some still feel the need for protection. “I understand that they should not be here but lets be honest, the situation is still dangerous these days, and we need them to protect the students,” said Sami, a father of two, and a protester who was camped in Change Square. “Also, many scandalous things happen between boys and girls on campus. Who will control that if they are not here?” he added.

Soldiers from the FAD seem to agree that their role is merely protection, and are surprised to hear the student sentiment against them. “They are liars, there are no soldiers inside the campus, only at the gates. We are here to protect them,” said Mohammed, a soldier from the FAD who is based at the eastern entrance of Sanaa University. “Those protesting are infiltrators who have an agenda and want to create chaos. They are just politicizing this because they are socialists,” he added.

Students rebuff this statement saying that the soldiers are seen in many different parts of the campus, and not just at the gates. They allege to have seen soldiers train, to have identified military barricades and tanks in the Olympic center, in addition to two battalions behind the architecture college. They claim that photos and videos, such as this oneof soldiers training inside the university support these allegations.

Numerous students have complained of soldiers beating and detaining them. On 26 September 2012 three students were violently arrested by the FAD. “I was arrested and beaten and taken to a room inside the university. They only let me go after the students almost stormed the building,” said Hani al-Guneid, a fourth year student in the Faculty of Arts.

Guneid was beaten again on October 6 by unknown men as he was walking out of the university.

Students have complained of feeling intimidated by the soldiers at the gate. Asmahan al-Qadi, a first year agriculture student said she feels stressed every time she goes to university. “More than once the soldiers have caused me to be at least half an hour late for class due to questioning and searching my bags. When I arrive late, professors don’t understand.”

Abuse From FAD soldiers is not a new phenomenon. During the uprising, FAD soldiers beat up and detained many independent activists who criticized either al-Islah political party (the most powerful party in the opposition coalition) or the FAD and placed them in private prisons.

The mother of a current student said she is protesting for the future of her children. “We suffer from oppression and injustice at the hands of the military – even the university wasn’t left alone.”

In addition to the direct violations, students denounce military interference in student affairs. This has taken many shapes, most notably the direct interference by the head of the FAD, Ali Muhsin, in the internal affairs of the university.

This was most notably felt when an alleged letter from Ali Muhsin to the president of Sanaa University was leaked. In this document, Ali Muhsin requested the admission of a student into the university, bypassing procedures. For many students, this exemplifies his power over the university administration.

For these reasons demonstrators continue to protest against the military presence in the university. Instead of soldiers under the command of the General, students suggested that guards affiliated to the university administration replace the military.

The students have articulated these demands and have formally contacted officials in the government, but up to date no response has been given.

Security control over education institutions has a history in Yemen. During Saleh’s 33 year reign, security agencies controlled many of the universities. Yet, the revolution’s calls for a civil state gave hope for a break from the military regime. Simultaneously, the military and security apparatus occupied a number of schools during the uprising. In a 46-page report entitled,Classrooms in the Crosshairs: Military Use of Schools in Yemen’s Capital, Human Rights Watch details the occupation of schools not only by the FAD, but also by other military forces such as the Republican Guards, headed by General Ahmed Ali Saleh, and opposition militias and armed groups.

“Before the revolution, we were demanding that security agencies leave the campus, and when the revolution began we had hope but now it’s even worse, we have the military here!” said third year student Mutassem Abdulsalam with a smirk.

Despite the students’ worries and disappointment at the status quo, these protests give some students hope that the essence of the revolution is still alive.

“The student revolution to kick the military out of the campus is the first step towards regaining popular consciousness,” said political analyst Mohammed al-Maqaleh, reviving hope in the hearts of the many disappointed revolutionaries.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Updated: When in doubt - seek advice

 I wrote this post yesterday, and today I woke up and found an e-mail from Harvard University responding to my inquiry about the funding.  They informed me that the controversial funding will not be accepted, and that they will post a document explaining this on their website in two days.

Here is the joint statement from Steven C. Caton, Professor of Contemporary Arab Studies at Harvard University and the Yemen Working Group:
Clarification on funding of the Harvard Conference on Yemen

October 7, 2012

We wish to indicate that Steven Caton is organizing the Conference “Yemen in Transition: Challenges and Opportunities” in consultation with the Yemen Working Group, and it was he who raised the funding for the conference.

It must be understood that neither Professor Caton nor Harvard University nor the Yemen Working Group that consists of professionals and academics would ever accept funding with any conditions attached that might influence either the contents of the conference or its outcomes.

Harvard University and the Yemen Working Group are dedicated to free, unbiased and open scholarly inquiry. This principle guided the way the conference was organized and is reflected in its contents. The conference is open to the public and its proceedings will be videotaped and made available on the net to the general

It must also be understood that Huda Alsharifi, who was among the sponsors, never attempted to influence Professor Caton regarding the organization, contents or participation of speakers at the conference.

Various media have recently made accusations against Professor Caton, Harvard University and the Yemen Working Group that have led several participants from Yemen to withdraw from the conference unless the funding from Huda Alsharifi be returned.

In the interests of encouraging those Yemenis to reconsider their decision and after consultation with the Yemen Working Group, Professor Caton has asked Harvard University to return the funding to Huda Alsharifi and he and the YWG will seek funding from other sources.

The decision to return Alsharafi's funding is done to make it possible for the Yemeni participants to join the conference; it does not in any way give credence to the false accusations and allegations made against the conference organizers or its participants.

Steven C. Caton &
Yemen Working Group

Given this change, I have decided to participate in the conference, despite the negative media hype and the fact that many people are still upset. Thank you for all those who gave me invaluable advise. It is truly appreciated.

Atiaf :)

As everything goes in Yemen, confusion, rumors, criticisms and lots of emotions spearhead the debate on an upcoming Conference at Harvard University entitled: Yemen in Transition: Challenges and Opportunities.

The cause of these critics: a sizable donation from Huda Al-Sharafi, a businesswoman and Yahya Mohamed Saleh's business partner.  Yahya Saleh is head of the Central Security forces and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh's nephew.  His forces shot and killed peaceful protester.  

On the Harvard page, the sponsors are listed as follows: Sponsor(s): 
American Institute for Yemeni Studies, Ash Institute (Harvard Kennedy School of Government), Crown Center (Brandeis University), Dean of the Social Sciences (FAS, Harvard), Islamic Legal Studies Program (Harvard Law School), Middle East Initiative (Harvard Kennedy School of Government), MIT Middle East Program, Outreach Center (Harvard Center for Middle East Studies), and Women and Public Policy Program (Harvard Kennedy School of Government). We also would like to thank the generous support of Huda Alsharifi.

For many Yemenis this is a disappointing scandal.  Some have interpreted this to mean that Huda Al-Sharafi is just a front for Yahya Saleh to partially fund the conference.  Two days later, many local articles and facebook posts have spread rejecting this conference, and accusing the organizers and the speakers of being too close to Saleh.  Other criticism was based on logistical issues and political dynamic within the Yemeni-American diaspora.  In addition to concern that the Southern issue was not given the importance it deserves in the conference.

Now to explain why I'm writing this post.  I am one of the speakers.  My paper is entited: the War on Terror: between security and morality.  The focus will be on impact of air strikes on the forgotten civilians of Yemen.

So  I am torn between two thoughts:

On the one hand, i think to myself I should still go and here is why:
  •  I would like to fly with my own funds, but since I can't at this point, I could raise some funds through crowd funding for the cost of the ticket and the hotel.  
  • I believe that some Harvard University graduates will go on to become policy makers, and i hope to be able to make at least one person question the current counter terrorism policy in Yemen.
  • I believe that this is an academic conference that was well intentioned, and that the organizers worked hard on planning, but that one of the sponsors was not vetted appropriately.  but i also believe that Yahya Saleh will not, and can not control the papers presented, nor the outcomes of the conference. 
  • Finally, and most importantly, I have been to Abyan. I interviewed people  who had their homes destroyed, their children killed or wounded, and their hospitals attacked because of air strikes.  Yemeni government and activists have ignored them.   I dream about these kids, and I want to give them a voice.  Their parents have asked that their stories be told and so I want to share their struggles. If this means that my "reputation" might be tarnished by some people who like to generalize and would not like to think deeply, then maybe it's a risk I should take.
On the other hand, I am thinking:
  • This is a matter of principal, and even if it's a good opportunity, other opportunities will present themselves.
  • Even if i pay my own way there, I am giving credibility to a conference partially funded by Yahya Saleh's partner.
  • Even if i raise my own funds to go, at this point, no one will even listen to what i have to say, because the reputation of the conference is tarnished.
  • The media backlash against me will be high.  as exemplified by one facebook status of a Yemeni-American activist who has already said on facebook: "I expect speakers to cancel their participation within 24 hours" even though we are all still waiting for official responses from Harvard about this funding.
So, with all these questions, and four points saying I should go, four points saying I shouldn't go, I would like to get your opinion on what I should do?