Yemeni forces continue to push against fighters affiliated with al-Qaeda. Their major victories come on the heels of the inauguration of Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, who is now entrusted with the task of leading the country through a peaceful transition. A new constitution and presidential elections are expected by 2014. Faced with the most strenuous of circumstances – the unyielding ruling family, the US-lead war on al-Qaeda, sectarian tension, unsettled political divides between south and north, and unforgiving poverty - the youth of Yemen have successfully managed to introduce a hopeful chapter to an otherwise gloomy modern history. While they should be proud of this, they must also remain wary of the challenges awaiting them in the next two years.
The next phase will be decisive one for Yemen. It will either take the country a step forward towards real reforms - which should resolve some of the country’s most protracted regional strife and confront the rampant inequality – or leave it to suffer a worse fate than that under Saleh’s family. The early signs are worrisome, compelling regional experts to warn that Yemen may be heading the same route as Somalia. “With two conflicts carrying on simultaneously, that of the Houthi Shia in the north and the secessionist movement in the south, the militarization of Yemen and the primary US focus on it as another battlefield in which to engage al-Qaeda, is only set to continue,” wrote David Hearst in The Guardian.
The US has much unfinished business in Yemen. Like other US military adventures, the focus often stays solely on military targets, without taking much notice of the larger social and political challenges in the country. Needless to say, from a Yemeni viewpoint the US must be the least attractive foreign power engaging their government. During the popular revolt against Abdullah Saleh last year, Yemenis were irritated by US support of their discredited president. They were also unhappy with the US’ constant meddling in Yemeni affairs, and its unrelenting war on various militant groups. The current open coordination between the Yemeni president and the US is sure to prove costly to both parties in the long run.
A recent Al Jazeera report claimed that, “Washington has stepped up drone attacks in Yemen since President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi took office in February, and the Pentagon said it had recently resumed sending military trainers to the Arab state.” This kind of reporting is hardly helpful to the image of the new president who many hope will lead the country to independence.
The fighting is intensifying against militants affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as many have reportedly been killed in the city of Zinjibar, the town of Jaar, and also in other areas in the south. The foolishness of engaging in traditional warfare against a decentralized network of fighters - whether directly affiliated with or inspired by al-Qaeda - without paying much attention to the underpinnings of violence in a devastatingly poor country like Yemen, cannot be overstated. The strength of such militant groups is often driven by two main factors: their successful appeal to disfranchised, angry youth in marginalized and impoverished communities, and their physical maneuverability. Such groups can strike anywhere, anytime, with minimal means.
Even if one could accept that the central government of Yemen, with US support, might successfully route out militants from their southern strongholds, this will certainly lead to the spreading out of terror acts to far beyond Yemeni borders. The May 21 suicide bombing during a military parade, which was readily claimed by al-Qaeda, leaves no doubt that reclaiming a few towns in the south will not rid Yemen of its chronic violence. In fact, US-assisted war against mostly poor communities can only lead to more recruits for militant groups, and turn a traditional warfare, demarcated by tribal lines, into a violent mayhem that will complicate an already chaotic battleground.
The Yemeni government should know well that violence compounds, rather than resolves problems. This has been the norm since Yemen’s independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1918, and from British colonial rule in the south in 1967. Violence throughout the tumultuous years since either widened conflicts, or created new ones. Yet, the new ‘transitional’ government is playing into US hands by embarking on yet another unwinnable ‘war on terror.’ The issue is not that terror should not be fought, but how successful can such a fight be while recreating and augmenting the very circumstances that led to its inception?
Yemen is poor. Entire communities teeter between mere survival and complete and utter despair. The United Nations’ Human Development Index –which is measured based on life expectancy, level of education, and standard of living - ranked Yemen in one of the most dismal spots, 154 out of 177 countries. Now, due to the revolution, the regime’s insistence on holding onto power, the US war on al-Qaeda, and the latter’s unprecedented – and expected – growth, the situation is getting much worse.
“More than 10 million people — almost one in two men, women and children — in Yemen — are facing a looming catastrophe. Families are surviving, but only just. Food and fuel price spikes, coupled with political instability, have left Yemen’s economy in tatters,” wrote Kelly Gilbride of Oxfam, in a heart-wrenching piece on CNN. She further asserted that “[a]lmost half of Yemenis do not have enough to eat today and Yemen is entering its hunger season. The world can bring Yemen back from the brink of catastrophe — but only if it acts now.” But acting ‘now’ should not just translate into a few donation pledges here and there.
The humanitarian crisis in Yemen is largely rooted in the fact that the country is an open field of competing interests, making it susceptible to corruption, exploitation and terror. To be spared hunger, Yemen must regain its independence - not through a new flag and national anthem, but through an inclusive national program that reaches out to all sectors of Yemeni society: the disfranchised, neglected south, the war-scarred north, and the rest of the country with its chronic inequality. Schools, hospitals and factories must replace military encampments. Large chunks of the budget – especially of the newly pledged 4 billion dollars from neighboring Arab countries – should help feed people, rebuild destroyed homes, and create job opportunities. Effectively all the changes should contribute to more stable social horizons.