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

The Sana'a Illusion

Why Yemen Is Not A Model for Iraq

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.

One of the deal’s key promises to the tens of thousands of pro-democracy activists who took to the streets to bring down Saleh was to hold the National Dialogue Conference (NDC). It was supposed to bring together all the political factions, from the southern separatist movement to young modernizers to negotiate an outline for Yemen’s future political structure; and put the outcome of these negotiations to a public referendum for approval. However, the NDC, held from March 2013 to January 2014, did very little beyond extending the terms of parliament (whose mandate expired in 2008) and the president (whose democratic legitimacy consists of a hastily rushed-through referendum on his serving one term in office). The NDC then ignored its own bylaws and refused to put these decisions to a public vote.

As a result, the number of elected officials in Yemen was effectively set at zero, a swindle that was backed by the entire international community. World leaders continued to praise the conference, and support it financially and politically, even as it became clear that the NDC was not going to deliver on its promises. 

These days, any attempts to scrutinize the government are blocked by the argument that it is a government of national consensus, and therefore untouchable. In turn, corruption has only risen. In 2013, Yemen’s ranking on Transparency International’s corruption index jumped to 167 out of 177 countries. In 2012, it stood at 156. Simply put, it is impossible to hold any official in Yemen -- from the most powerful to the least -- accountable. At the same time, the security establishment, which is beholden to the old regime and its successor, has launched a massive war against freedom of press. It has harassed, imprisoned, and deported over a dozen local and international reporters. It has also banned and harassed several media outlets, such as the Yemen Today television channel. Protests are denounced as expression of support for the old regime.

And the situation gets worse from there: In the north and south of the country, there continue to be full-blown uprisings against the current regime. But instead of calming the regions by offering transparency and inclusivity, the NDC simply turned in to a vehicle for co-opting a cherry-picked selection of clubbable leaders from among the insurgents. Such contempt in a country where, according to UNOCHA, nearly 15 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance has helped the armed groups’ propaganda to no end. The security situation is now so dire that military officers have begun to disguise themselves in public for fear of assassination.

In early July, one group, the powerful armed Houthi rebels, seized the governorate of Ammran outside the capital, capturing dozens of tanks and heavy guns. The rebels killed the highest military commander in the governorate, who is loyal to the Islamists, one of the Houthi’s opponents. Their siege of the city forced more than 30,000 to flee their homes. If the NDC had not handpicked selected Houthis as interlocutors, which increased their power but not their accountability, and had instead pursued a genuine democratic, peace settlement, the insurgency would be weaker today. 

It has become increasingly clear that the transition deal has cost Yemen dearly. Yemenis live in a land of fear and intimidation, petrol queues and hunger, violence and corruption. For them, Obama’s reference to Yemen seemed like a bad joke at best, and an insensitive insult at worst. And it must have been all the more troubling for Iraqis. A few years ago in Yemen, people used to warn of an “Iraq scenario” if its problems weren’t addressed, meaning that Yemen would be the new Iraq. They don’t anymore. People in Yemen have recognized what Obama does not: that it is by now the Yemen scenario that should serve as a warning, not a solution, to Iraq. Just like risky experiments on television, the Yemen model shouldn’t be tried at home. 

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