The Sana'a Illusion

Why Yemen Is Not A Model for Iraq

Anti-government protesters in 2011.
Anti-government protesters in 2011. (Ahmed Jadallah / Courtesy Reuters)

Last month, U.S. President Barack Obama suggested that Yemen could be an example for how to bring stability to Iraq. “You look at a country like Yemen -- a very impoverished country and one that has its own sectarian or ethnic divisions,” he said. “There, we do have a committed partner in President [Abdu Rabbu Mansour] Hadi and his government.” His comments came as a shock to most Yemenis. The contradiction between their country’s political reality and its reputation as an Arab Spring success story has always been glaring, but now it had become absurd. 

Just days before Obama spoke, demonstrations -- which were largely ignored by the international media, since few foreign journalists are allowed into country these days -- had broken out in the capital. Angry protesters shut down Sanaa’s main streets, burning tires and shouting chants against the transitional government and against Hadi, the man who heads it. Yemenis, it seemed, had simply snapped under the strain of severe fuel shortages, kilometer-long lines at gas stations, and 20-hour electricity blackouts. 

On the same day as the protests, the UN held a conference in Beirut between Yemen’s new power brokers and its old elite. During the meeting, the country’s progress -- specifically on inclusivity and stability -- was widely praised. But the truth is that the internationally backed 2011 deal that transferred power away from Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled since 1978, was a rotten one. It merely handed the presidency over to his deputy, Hadi, and ensured that Saleh would continue to play a role behind the scenes. He was also given immunity for all his wrongdoing during his 33 years in power. And that is not the same thing as democracy. Even worse, the deal made a real transition to democracy in Yemen all the harder and it sowed the seeds of new conflicts.

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