Ahmed Mohamed, Liberal Rhetoric and Obama Administration Propaganda
Most readers will know by now that a 14-year-old kid named Ahmed Mohamed was recently arrested in Irving, Texas for, well, for making a clock while Muslim. Ahmed, an aspiring engineer and a robotics enthusiast, had built a simple digital clock and brought it to his ninth-grade high school classes, hoping to impress his teachers. Instead, one of them called the cops on him, and with the consent of the school principal, five police officers arrested him and took him to a detention center in handcuffs. Ahmed has reported that one officer he’d never seen before looked at him and said, “Yup. That’s who I thought it was.” All charges were soon dropped, and the police admitted that Ahmed had not sought to frighten or harm anyone. But the truth of the matter is not that Ahmed’s invention was mistaken for a bomb, but that his black Muslim body was taken for a bombmaker’s.
What followed is also now well known. Ahmed’s story began to circulate over social media and on the news, and got a huge boost when President Barack Obama tweeted: “Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House? We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It’s what makes America great.” Obama’s comment was quickly retweeted more than 438,000 times, and within the next couple of days, Ahmed’s new Twitter account accumulated close to 92,000 followers, with the hashtag #IStandWithAhmed reaching 1.2 million tweets. Ahmed also received expressions of support from other high-profile politicians, celebrities, and industry figures, including Hillary Clinton, Shonda Rhimes and executives at Facebook, Twitter, Google and Ebony magazine. Liberals and progressives largely celebrated this support, citing it as evidence of the enlightenment of the Obama administration, in stark contrast to the Islamophobic, regressive and paranoid politics found in Texas and in the Republican Party. Texas became the foil for Washington: While Texas was mired in anti-Muslim bigotry, Washington was cast as above that.
While Ahmed of course deserves the groundswell of support he has received, hailing his invitation to the White House obscures the fact that the Democratic Party, with President Obama at its helm, is scoring easy political points off of his story. Ahmed is ultimately a popular cause for Obama to align himself with and use to appear levelheaded and magnanimous to his liberal base. (Remember that after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, even President George W. Bush regularly said things like, “Our war is not against Islam, or against faith practiced by the Muslim people” and “There are thousands of Muslims who proudly call themselves Americans, and they know what I know—that the Muslim faith is based upon peace and love and compassion.”) More significantly, Obama’s gesture against Islamophobia obscures how his own administration, and the Democratic Party more broadly, has fostered the anti-Muslim and racist political climate that makes stories like Ahmed’s arrest not the isolated work of the bigoted right, but a downright inevitability.
Obama’s words of support for Ahmed stand in sharp contrast to the violence that his administration has unleashed on brown and black and Muslim and poor people domestically and abroad. Besides continuing to bomb Afghanistan (35 US drones struck in August 2015 alone) and direct the longest war in US history—now entering its fifteenth year—Obama has dramatically expanded the geographical scope of US military strikes, using drones and other weapons to bomb Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and the Philippines. According to even the conservative calculations of the London-based Bureau for Investigative Journalism, there have been nine times more drone strikes under Obama than under his predecessor. And in Pakistan alone, more strikes were launched during Obama’s first year in office than during both terms of the Bush presidency. We know that thousands have been killed, and that many have been civilians.
And this is to say nothing of the Obama administration’s pivotal role in the ongoing dispossession of the Palestinian people by the Israeli state, a dispossession which would be impossible without continuous US military aid amounting to $3.1 billion per year. Or the fact that Obama is not only continuing to detain over a hundred Muslim men at Guantánamo Bay—most of whom are suffering their fifteenth year of imprisonment without having been charged with any crime—but is currently directing government lawyers to block efforts by human rights attorneys to release a man like Tariq Ba Odah, who was officially cleared for release years ago and is now “on the precipice of death.” Tariq’s skeletal 74-pound body has been on an unbroken hunger strike for over eight years, during which he has faced excruciating force feedings through nasal tubes twice a day, every day.
Nor does it include the fact that Obama has directed government lawyers to block any legal accountability for the torture of Iraqi civilians by private military contractors working with the US military during the Bush administration.
Nor does it include the fact that for the last six months Obama has authorized political, military and logistical support to the Saudi-led military coalition that has been bombing Yemen, killing over a thousand civilians with its airstrikes, and contributing to what may be the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with 21 million people in need of urgent assistance. Human rights activists, Oxfam America and Doctors Without Borders are among the groups criticizing the Obama administration’s ongoing arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and Human Rights Watch has suggested that Saudi-led airstrikes on residential areas in Yemen constitute war crimes. But none of this clamor is deterring the Obama administration from finalizing a new $1 billion arms agreement with Riyadh. Grotesquely, the State Department is instead welcoming Saudi Arabia’s new position as head of a key UN human rights panel.
What this litany of violence suggests is not just that Obama and the Democratic Party have trampled on the lives of brown, black and Muslim people much like Ahmed Mohamed, but that their belligerent policies rely on and fortify the anti-Muslim and racist climate that make stories like Ahmed’s arrest unsurprising. We know that if a US drone had sighted Ahmed making his clock in large parts of Pakistan instead of in Texas, he might well have fit the criteria for “signature strikes” that continue to target individuals the government does not know, but determines are behaving suspiciously. The American media might then have followed its pattern of tepidly discussing the merits of such a strike—if details about it had ever emerged. By contrast, we know that it would (rightly) be considered beyond the pale to even discuss the merits of dropping a bomb on Paris or London to kill someone suspected of intending to commit a crime. The same hierarchy of life that allows for this contrast rendered Ahmed presumptively guilty and subject to arrest in Texas.
Of course, there is a relationship between US foreign and domestic policy—and the types of people who are criminalized and targeted abroad are also criminalized and targeted inside the United States. Under the Obama administration, this is evident in FBI entrapment cases like the notorious Newburgh Four case, which involved the government using an agent promising huge sums of money and consistent psychological manipulation to lure four desperately poor, black, Muslim men in an impoverished neighborhood to go along with a fake plot for a fake crime that could never be realized without the government agent himself. It’s also clear in the Tarek Mehanna case, wherein overly broad material support statutes were used to prosecute a young Muslim American man for exercising his First Amendment rights to political speech. He is now serving 17 and a half years for a thought crime. It’s evident in the FBI surveillance and criminalization of Muslim communities, and the NSA surveillance program leaked by Edward Snowden. It’s also evident in the way mass incarceration works in the United States. If President Obama was serious about confronting structural racism in the United States, he could start by calling off his district attorneys from petty drug offenses that disproportionately focus on African-Americans despite the fact that drug use is the same across white and African-American populations.
While the Obama administration has hypocritically used the fact of Ahmed Mohamed’s arrest to score political points, the least the rest of us can do for Ahmed and the many others who risk experiencing the violence and inequity of the state is to recognize and reject government propaganda and the accompanying media spin that encourages sentimentality toward a power with so much blood on its hands. Obama has said that he takes a “stand with Ahmed” in Texas. And it’s understandable that Ahmed, who is a child, has reacted to the president’s support with enthusiasm. But we owe it to Ahmed and to others like him to remain unimpressed with the rhetoric of power, however charming, and to always align ourselves with those on the receiving end of its might.
Where Is Israel in the Refugee Crisis?
Last week, SodaStream CEO Daniel Birnbaum and Mayor Talal Al-Krenawi of the Negev Bedouin city Rahat issued a joint statement offering the absorption of 1,000 refugees from Syria, who would be supported by employment at the new SodaStream factory in nearby Idan haNegev. The statement came after recent headlines on the closure of the factory in the West Bank settlement Mishor Adumim, hailed as a victory by proponents of BDS, and signaling the fall of another domino in the company’s neverending public relations nightmare. As SodaStream’s stock price dropped to a low of $14.48 in early September, some remarked that Birnbaum’s offer is little more than a cynical ploy for good press, with little chance of actually being executed.
That may be the case—and certainly the likelihood of such a plan is next to nil—but to focus on SodaStream alone is to miss the larger question here. Where is Israel in the debate on Syrian refugees? Why is it that countries such as Hungary have faced harsh criticism in light of their opposition to absorbing a slice of the growing refugee population, while Israel—which not only shares a border with Syria, but even overlaps that border in a 48-year occupation—appears to bear no such responsibility? What makes Israel exceptional?
Israel is not simply exceptional; it is the exception. Israel has a long history of violating or ignoring international law, most notably, war crimes in its continued attacks on Gaza and the expansion of civilian housing in West Bank settlements. And then there is its own, ongoing refugee crisis: the ever growing population of Palestinian refugees displaced in 1948, including Palestinian refugees who remain in Syria today.
The body of international law that both protects refugees and regulates the behavior of states in times of war and occupation was produced in response to the horrors of World War II and the mass murder of Jews and other political prisoners and minorities. Indeed, our entire language of human rights emerged from that historical moment that also saw the violent creation of the State of Israel. Europe’s support for Israel as a project and as a solution to its own refugee crisis was founded on the same logic that guided the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, also in 1948. From this historical conjuncture, Israel became the constitutive exception to human rights and international law.
The Holocaust, then, serves as the historical precedent both demanding the intervention of states on behalf of refugees, and also exempting Israel from this responsibility. Within Israel, the parallel between the historical plight of Jewish refugees and the growing regional refugee crisis has not been missed. For Holocaust survivors and their families this connection may be deeply personal, as expressed by Birnbaum in the SodaStream press release: “As the son of a Holocaust survivor, I refuse to stand by and observe this human tragedy unfold right across the border in Syria.”
And Knesset opposition leader Isaac Herzog echoes the sentiment: “Jews cannot be apathetic when hundreds of thousands of refugees are searching for safe haven.”
Yet, when it comes to Israel, Syrian refugees are not merely refugees. Crossing the Golan Heights, the haggard body of the refugee is transformed into an infiltrator, traversing a boundary still defined by an ongoing state of war between the two countries. The question of absorption is not even on the table because it cannot be on the table; it is a question of giving a legal status to a population of enemy combatants.
It is with this logic that Netanyahu tempered Herzog’s sympathy: “Israel is not indifferent to the human tragedy of the refugees from Syria and Africa. But Israel is a small country, a very small country, that lacks demographic and geographic depth; therefore, we must control our borders, against both illegal migrants and terrorism.”
The figure of the infiltrator thus encapsulates both of these categories—the illegal migrant and the terrorist—because the body of the infiltrator is necessarily illegal, necessarily the seed of terror. The threat of the infiltrator outstrips these categories because she doesn’t have to steal a job out of the hands of a citizen or to wire herself to a bomb. It is the body of the infiltrator itself that threatens the demographic stability of the Jewish state.
Of the two “depths” of Netanyahu’s remark—demographic and geographic—only the former is relevant. It is not that the country is so small it can’t absorb additional populations, but that the sustenance of a Jewish and ostensibly democratic state is a firm Jewish demographic majority. Thus, while Netanyahu claims Israel is too small, the state maintains an active policy of encouraging Jewish immigration.
The refugee issue strikes at the tension at the heart of the Israeli state: demography versus democracy. One thousand Syrian refugees would not upset this balance. But the problem of refugees in the Middle East is not new, and among those who have been recently displaced are Palestinians who have been living in refugee camps for the last 67 years since the 1948 war. Of the 560,000 Palestinian refugees registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency in Syria, approximately 480,000 remain, with the rest largely in Lebanon or Jordan.
And so, in the unlikely scenario that Israel was to grant (temporary) residency to Syrian refugees, the question would remain as to who these “Syrian” refugees would be. One possibility is that Israel would offer to absorb a limited number of Druze refugees. That course of action would reflect a larger policy of distinguishing between Druze and Muslim or Christian Arabs, most notably through the practice of military conscription. But more to the point, does Israel accept Syrians, while excluding the Palestinians in their midst? Does the state allow temporary status to Palestinian refugees, only to displace them for a second time from their homeland?
When the Palestinian Authority recently asked Israel to accept Palestinian refugees from Syria into the West Bank and Gaza Strip, they reminded Israel that the responsibility to such refugees goes beyond immediate humanitarian aid, but represents “a right for all Palestinians living in exile and in refugee camps.” The Syrian refugee crisis could make a crack in the dam holding back the return of Palestinian refugees.
And there is the ultimate reason why no one takes suggestions like Birnbaum’s seriously. We would leave room for the possibility that the SodaStream CEO, more than a plotting capitalist villain, may be sincere in his concern for Syrian refugees. But this earnestness (or not) is marginal to the demographic concerns of the state. The problem of refugees, if anything, points to Israel’s own precariousness: For all its lofty claims of democracy and equal rights, the Jewish state is threatened in the face of a mere thousand refugees.
The GCC Needs a Successful Strategy for Yemen, Not Failed Tactics
For the last 45 years, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has tried to mitigate its Yemen problem through short-term tactics, rather than construct and give resources to a strategy for solving it. That policy has failed repeatedly. A bold and lasting transformation is needed, not the same ineffectual meddling.
Traditionally, the attitude of most GCC members toward Yemen has been fond but standoffish. The Gulf states have been fairly generous in funding projects and providing aid, but held populous Yemen at arms’ length, for reasons both demographic and ideological, the latter being fear of Marxism and republicanism.
Saudi Arabia has always regarded Yemen as a direct threat. King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz is reputed to have warned his sons that “the good or evil for us will come from Yemen,” and so to keep it weak and divided. It is unclear exactly what the Saudi royal was wary of: Yemeni intentions of taking over the entirety of Saudi Arabia; efforts by Yemen’s Hamid al-Din dynasty to defeat their Al Saud rivals; or merely attempts by Yemen to recover the three provinces of ‘Asir, Jizan and Najran that ‘Abd al-‘Aziz had captured from Imam Yahya in 1934. But the king’s advice was taken to heart, and has been implemented ever since. “The Saudis want a moderate government in Sanaa—on a short leash,” Michael Van Dusen, a long-time senior staffer for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote in 1982, referring to hundreds of millions of dollars in annual disbursements to both the Yemeni government and Yemeni tribal leaders. Those payments now total several billion dollars per year, and go to individual officials and security men as well as the original recipients. Those on the Saudi payroll run the gamut of Yemeni politics. This policy “degrades the authority of the central government” in Sanaa, argues a descendant of Imam Yahya, ‘Abdallah Hamid al-Din. “In what other countries do citizens receive a salary from a foreign government?” In many ways, the Saudi approach in Yemen is reminiscent of Iranian policy in Iraq, which is castigated as interference by nationalist Shi‘i and Sunni Arabs in Iraq, and by the Saudis and their Western friends alike.
In addition, and as it has done in many Muslim countries, Saudi Arabia subsidized the export of puritanical Wahhabism into a nation that traditionally was Shafi‘i Sunni in the south, and Zaydi and Isma‘ili in the north. This state-sponsored evangelism was perceived as a threatening political encroachment on Zaydi space. It also grated on many Yemenis’ national sensibilities, something the Wahhabis should have known, given the words of the Prophet: “The people of Yemen have come to you, most sensitive in their souls, softest of hearts! Belief is from Yemen, wisdom is from Yemen! Pride and arrogance are found among the camel owners; tranquility and dignity among the sheep owners.”
The 2011 uprising in Yemen brought millions of people into the streets, protesting against precisely the elite corruption and autocracy that Saudi Arabia (with Western backing) had worked to entrench. Saudi policy toward Yemen since the popular revolt is almost certainly an attempt to maintain the status quo ante. Indeed, the GCC initiative that claimed to break the political impasse has been seen as an effort to achieve an apparent transition of power while ensuring, sub rosa, that the same coterie of Saudi clients remain in place. Certainly, the Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm is an attempt to reinstate ‘Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi to the presidency. Yet Hadi was President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih’s long-term vice president, his clique shows traits similar to the deposed Salih’s, and a terrorist-traced salafi, ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Humayqani, has reportedly been appointed as Hadi’s “adviser.” Many Yemenis will see Humayqani as a Saudi-placed eminence grise.
Not only is this policy expensive, but it also doesn’t work to keep Yemen docile: “The Saudis have really gotten very little for their money,” according to Barbara Bodine, a former US ambassador in Sanaa. One reason, as the scholar Maria Eleftheriadou notes, is that many of the tribal leaders on the Saudi dole “became ‘city sheikhs’ having moved to Sanaa,” where they steadily lose “their moral authority, their power of persuasion, especially among the younger generation.” All of these problems come at a time when Saudi state incomes are falling (and likely to remain low) while domestic costs are rising (and likely to keep going up).
The “kinetic” approach of Decisive Storm is equally ineffective. The Israelis, and to a lesser extent US administrations, have adopted the tactic of “mowing the grass”—periodic military operations to keep perceived security threats manageable. Sixty-five years have shown this policy to be not only financially and morally ruinous, but also actively counterproductive: It generates ill will among the population, and encourages the salafi jihadism it aims to remove.
The GCC states could continue doing the same thing but expect a different result—Einstein’s definition of madness—or they could try a different way of achieving the desired end state of a non-threatening Yemen. The dying King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz’s admonition has always been interpreted negatively. “Beware of Yemen; it is your Achilles’ heel,” as Van Dusen paraphrased it in 1982. Yet the king left equal the possibility of good coming from Yemen, too. So, how could that be achieved?
Europe spent much of the last thousand years wracked by war after bloody war, with various nations trying to subordinate, or at least weaken, neighbors and “allies,” to no good effect. Only a decision to move to a strategy of mutual benefit finally achieved a peaceful Europe, and led to the prosperity (and gridlocked democracy) of the European Union. A prosperous, truly federal Yemen would be no military threat to the GCC as a whole or to Saudi Arabia individually. Indeed, were a federal Yemen admitted to the GCC, it could again supply cheap labor, but the remittances would also increase the consumer base for GCC goods and services. The only conflict would be for contracts.
The GCC fears that the Zaydi Houthis are a fifth column for Iran, and claims they receive a copious Iranian weapons supply. In fact, the Fiver Shi‘a—with their founding doctrine of resistance to an unjust ruler—are an ideological threat to the Islamic Republic’s theory of velayat-e faqih (rule of the jurisprudent), and were mostly armed by Salih. The Gulf states could regard the Zaydis as a cherished Arab ally against the Iranians, whose Safavid antecedents destroyed the first Zaydi state. Instead, GCC policy is driving Zaydis into Iranian arms.
This problem is not new or theoretical (nor are Persian hegemonic pretensions). As an Athenian politician advocated 2,500 years ago: “When a free community, held in subjection by force, rises, as is only natural…we fancy ourselves obliged to punish it severely; although the right course with freemen is not to chastise them rigorously when they do rise, but rigorously to watch them before they rise, and to prevent their ever entertaining the idea.”
The GCC tactic of divide, bribe and rule is a consistent failure. A new strategy is urgently needed, one based on the European model of building mutual advantage. It’s time to change.
A truck cruising down Qasr al-‘Ayni Street dressed as a blue papier-mâché boat. A belly dancer clad in a silver lycra dress and a blonde wig, upper body undulating out of the window of a white sedan. Tahrir Square, lit up like a local wedding, crowded with thousands, their faces painted red, white and black, sounding horns and waving flags.
These jubilant scenes filled downtown Cairo on August 6, a national holiday marking the opening of the New Suez Canal, actually an expansion of the existing one, a project heralded as “Egypt’s gift to the world.” In the record time of a single year, a team of engineers shook sky and earth to dig a new channel that allows ships to pass through at a faster rate. Prior to the grand opening, the media featured coverage of widows parting with wedding gold and children breaking their piggy banks to buy Suez Canal bonds. Ordinary citizens, many of whom are not wealthy, bought these symbols of nationalism, thus contributing an estimated 64 billion Egyptian pounds (over $8 billion), according to the Central Bank of Egypt, or 88 percent of the total project cost. Promising 12 percent returns in five years, the bonds sold out in two weeks. Signs plastered around the country, and even as far away as Times Square in New York, reminded Egyptians of their achievement. They had changed the map of the world. The canal’s revenue would more than double by 2023. Egypt would be great again.
Economists, however, have their doubts. The Suez Canal is not operating at full capacity. Shipping companies welcome the reduction of wait time at the locks from 18 to 11 hours, but they are not as enthusiastic as the government claims. Plus, doubled revenues are contingent on major increases in global trade, something that the new waterway cannot create by itself.
So why, then, are people celebrating? The August 6 parade seems like an absurd victory for statist propaganda in the “new Egypt” of President ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi. It is easy to dismiss the celebrants as brainwashed masses, high on nationalist opium, descending into the streets to rejoice over a dubious feat funded with money that they might lose, for how or whether the government will make good on the bonds is particularly unclear. Critics of the state project suggest that the money would have been better spent improving the education or health care infrastructures that are in disrepair.
In light of these criticisms, we decided to get an on-the-ground sense of what people were celebrating. Walking through downtown Cairo from ‘Abdin to Tahrir, we asked Egyptians—men and women who were carrying flags or signs, or wearing face paint—“What makes you so happy today?”
One woman we talked to on Muhammad Mahmoud Street, grandmother of a girl around 7 and a boy around 10, both with their faces painted in Egypt’s national colors, toed the party line. She said that she is happy because the new canal project will shower Egypt with blessings. The grandmother added, “I am happy so long as Sisi is my president.” She was pleased with the presence of police in full force in Tahrir for the celebrations and called them “beautiful.” The boy, however, cautioned us to stay on the periphery of the square and away from gatherings of males, indicating his knowledge of the possibility of sexual harassment and assault.
Other interviews also elicited responses that hinged on hope for a better future. A young man in his early twenties, from the working-class neighborhood of Sayyida Zaynab southeast of Tahrir, beamed with pride. “The whole of Egypt’s population is standing with its president,” he boasted as he waited tables at a local fish shop. “No one could have done what Egypt has done in a year.” The waiter stressed the economic benefits to Egypt—the canal would bring in more tourists and greater income, generating job opportunities, so that the country could stand on its feet again. He only wished that the fees for passing through the canal would be collected in Egyptian pounds rather than US dollars. He said his excitement was in line with the opinions of 95 percent of Egyptians. He called the remaining 5 percent “terrorists” who were unhappy about Egypt’s success.
For another woman, walking with a couple of other women and several children near the McDonalds in Tahrir Square, the potential for economic success was deeply personal. “I’m a head of household,” she explained, using the feminine pronoun. “Perhaps the wealthy don’t know my struggle,” she said, but “products have gotten expensive.” She is happy today, she explains, because economic growth means a better life, if not for her than for her children. We were interrupted by her adolescent daughter who, with shining eyes and a radiant smile, chanted, “Taqaddamna! Taqaddamna! Taqaddamna!” (“We have progressed! Progressed! Progressed!”)
Perhaps most revealing, however, was an exchange between two older men sitting in front of a print shop across the street from ‘Abdin Palace. We stopped to ask about a poster on which was written, in bold, red Arabic letters, “Masr bi-tifrah” (Egypt Rejoices). In response to our question—“What makes you so happy today?”—the shop owner explained that he was happy for his children and that the canal project is something that his generation is passing on to future generations. The man sitting to his right scoffed. Pointing to the garbage piles in the street, he said, “We’re right around the corner from the district office,” alluding to the lack of interest in infrastructure shown by the authorities. He continued, “Nothing has changed. State mismanagement is still the same.” Instead of projecting prosperity, he worried that the economic situation would continue to worsen. The shop owner called his friend a pessimist.
The hope and concern juxtaposed in this conversation reflect an ongoing debate around the meaning of the canal. While the young waiter, the concerned mother and the print shop’s owner see the canal as ushering in a bright future, the minority voice of dissent questions to what extent this new era is a departure from the past. The shop owner’s friend insisted that, like always, it’s the businessmen who stand to benefit the most. He explained that the logisticians for this project and its overseers are the same as those during the overthrown Husni Mubarak’s time, and that they are the ones who will reap its rewards. Meanwhile, no one is picking up the trash.
Seemingly far from these concerns, a young mother walking with her son in Sayyida Zaynab told us that in these difficult times Egyptians are looking for something to make them happy. “I am happy when I see you happy” was her immediate response to our question. Karima was much less preoccupied with short- or long-term economic gains, promises of political stability, renewed diplomatic relations with other countries, or any number of other benefits that the canal expansion is purported to portend. Instead, when we asked her why she was celebrating, she responded simply with “bi-nitlakkik” or “we’re looking for any excuse.”
Even though the street parties seemed over-the-top and strange, the motivations are familiar. People want their children to be able to make a living, their country to be prosperous and their fellow citizens to have something to glory in. While it is questionable that the current government’s means will advance these ends, on August 6 many Egyptians reveled in the dream of a better tomorrow.
Sisi and Suez
On July 26, 1956, Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. With this action, the young Egyptian president was catapulted to world prominence as a recognized leader of the Arab nationalist and Non-Aligned movements of the time. The nationalization secured for Nasser a reputation for resolute anti-imperialism and commitment to national autonomy. It also dealt a devastating blow to what was left of British and, to a lesser extent French, hegemony in the Middle East.
Since 1956, the Suez Canal has carried great political weight in Egyptian discourse. Soon after the nationalization, the French, British and Israelis conspired to seize the canal from Nasser by military force. While the three powers won on the battlefield, they were routed in international public opinion. Then US president Dwight D. Eisenhower, fearing that such a transparently imperialist venture would encourage newly independent states to side with the Soviet Union in the Cold War, forced the withdrawal of British, French and, eventually, Israeli forces from the Canal Zone. Nasser hailed the retreat as a great victory over outside aggressors, elevating his personal status and further convincing Whitehall that he posed an existential threat to British interests in the region.
Nearly 60 years later, another Egyptian president, ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, is seeking to channel the charisma of Nasser, and the discursive power of the Suez Canal, to strengthen his position in domestic, and perhaps regional, politics. The sycophantic fanfare that has flooded Egyptian media is eerily reminiscent of the pandering seen in Nasser’s time, but the analogy ends there.
The latest expansion of the Suez Canal (there have been several enlargements before) is neither economically nor politically equivalent to Nasser’s nationalization in 1956. Moreover, while state-encouraged propaganda was relatively new and effective 60 years ago, today it speaks more to the weakness than the strength of the government. The canal hype may begin to sow doubt among fence sitters who see a government celebrating victory while the day-to-day hardships of ordinary Egyptians grow rather than dissipate.
The increasingly over-the-top theatrics meant to cement in the eyes of the Egyptian people the great import of this latest national project have largely reduced the canal expansion to an object of international ridicule, causing a degree of discomfort to many Egyptians. Seeing supposedly independent newscasters wearing sailor suits or camouflage headscarves and saluting a stream of ship-shaped cakes hurts the credibility of any attempt at a sober account of the expansion’s potential benefits.
In reality, while the government’s wildly optimistic revenue forecasts are unrealistic, the expansion likely will protect if not expand the Suez Canal’s market share in international shipping. The 9 percent annual growth projections are almost certainly impossible. The Panama Canal is undertaking a decidedly more studied expansion to allow larger container ships to pass through in the hope of stealing traffic from Suez. That Egypt has widened and deepened its canal may, however, erode Panama’s ability to lure shipping companies away.
The more important question, however, is this: Given the enormous challenges facing Egypt and the country’s financial straits, was this expansion the right use of over $8 billion? Probably not. Given the dilapidated state of public hospitals and the abysmal quality of public education, it’s difficult to doubt that Egypt has many higher priorities.
What’s perhaps most frustrating, though, is that this question was never publicly debated before the decision to expand the canal was taken. Indeed, the lack of transparency in decision-making has been the problem with a regime dependent on strongman politics ever since the days of Nasser. A “president,” with deep roots in the military, has a self-aggrandizing vision. He works to realize it, often with little or no advance study, and the makers of Egyptian opinion rally behind him. The clairvoyance of the leader is to be trusted without question.
Now more projects are being announced without serious and public discussion of whether they fit Egypt’s priorities. The failure to settle on a parliamentary elections law that could provide Egypt with an independent legislature to review and debate the president’s decisions is a gross disservice to Egypt and its long-term interests. Without a national assembly, Egypt continues to be ruled by decree with no one in the position to exercise oversight or demand accountability.
This lack of thorough planning is a key reason for the shambolic performance of government in Egypt over the course of several decades. To stir up excitement for the economic conference held in Egypt earlier this year, the government announced plans to build an entirely new capital city in the middle of the desert between Cairo and ‘Ayn al-Sukhna. An interview with Dan Ringelstein, director of urban planning and design at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the company given the new capital portfolio, revealed that his team had come up with their scheme in a mere two months. Such a grandiose project should not be greenlighted without a great deal more research. Moreover, all of the planning happened in secret. There was no open conversation about the wisdom or the feasibility of the idea.
In the end, the memorandum of understanding with the Emirati company that was meant to bankroll and build the new capital was canceled. Now a new deal is being negotiated with an entirely Egyptian group of companies whose source of financing is thus far unknown.
With the overwrought ceremonies inaugurating the latest expansion of the Suez Canal, President Sisi is attaining neither Nasser’s prominence nor his significance. He is, however, following very carefully in Nasser’s footsteps of haphazard and opaque authoritarianism. There is no shortage of research on the consequences of that trajectory for Egypt.
Yemen's Imposed Federal Boundaries
With the war in Yemen well past its hundredth day, confusion persists as to the underlying causes of the conflict. Far from a sectarian proxy war between Shafi‘is under the patronage of Saudi Arabia and Zaydis backed by Iran, as the mainstream media would have it, the hostilities are rooted in local quarrels over power sharing, resources and subnational identities. These wrangles, in turn, are part of a broader negotiation process among domestic forces over a new social contract after the 2011 removal of the long-time president, ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih. At the core of this struggle lies a dispute about the future state structure, which provided the catalyst for the breakdown of the post-Salih transition road map sponsored by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the ensuing escalation to full-blown interstate war.
The continuing failure to bring the adversaries to the table recalls the civil war in North Yemen in the 1960s, when rivalries for regional hegemony between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Britain prevented a local settlement between Yemeni royalists and republicans. Much to the same effect, today’s international support for President ‘Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi fuels the adamant insistence of his locally untenable government-in-exile on the implementation of the lopsided UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which calls for the unilateral withdrawal of Houthi fighters from captured territory and the resuscitation of the GCC initiative as preconditions for, rather than objectives of, talks. In order to break the deadlock, it is crucial to reopen a dialogue about the six-region federal division, which was rammed through, over the objections of the Houthis and others, at the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) that was intended to be the showpiece of the post-Salih transition.
Though hailed as a forum for averting Syrian-style civil war in Yemen, the NDC did not live up to expectations. As a Yemeni friend of mine sarcastically remarked after its conclusion in early 2014, “the NDC resolved all of Yemen’s problems—except for the secessionist strife in the south, the Sa‘da conflict in the north, national reconciliation, transitional justice and state building.” In other words, it failed to overcome every major stumbling block on its agenda.
The lack of genuine consensus on a new state structure proved the most salient shortcoming. As the NDC approached its original closing date in September 2013 with no agreement in sight, a subcommittee with eight representatives from each of north and south—known as the 8+8 Committee—was charged with finding a solution to the southern question. In its Agreement on a Just Solution, the working group, which included one Houthi delegate, unanimously affirmed that the Republic of Yemen—a unitary state with 21 governorates—should become a federal entity. This agreement was never revisited or approved by the NDC’s 565-member plenary, but simply accepted as a fait accompli.
Though united behind the principle of federalism, the 8+8 Committee failed to settle on the number of new federal regions (two, five or six) or their boundaries. Instead, the committee outsourced these decisions to another fairly unrepresentative committee, handpicked and chaired by President Hadi, which was to study the parameters of a federal order. Established shortly after the release of the NDC’s final communiqué, this 22-member Committee of Regions took less than two weeks to delineate six new federal regions—Azal, Saba’, al-Janad, Tihama, Aden and Hadramawt. The process violated NDC rules, lacked broad consultation and was too short for the detailed studies that should have been commissioned. Nevertheless, its conclusions were referred to the Constitution Drafting Committee.
Even though all but the Houthi representative had signed off on the new map, most major political movements, including the Yemeni Socialist Party, the salafi Rashad Union and the southern hirak, as well as the Houthis, publicly rejected or expressed reservations about the six-region federal division. The Houthis argued that the plan distributed natural wealth unevenly. It deprived the Azal region, in which the Houthis’ historical homeland of Sa‘da is situated, of significant resources and access to the sea. Here the Houthis were referring, respectively, to the hydrocarbon-rich governorate of al-Jawf and the Red Sea province of Hajja, both of which the movement has traditionally considered within its sphere of influence.
Riding a wave of popular discontent with the transition, the Houthis radically altered the political landscape when they took control of the capital, Sanaa, in September 2014. The conquest fell just short of a coup, as the Houthis signed the Peace and National Partnership Agreement (PNPA) with President Hadi and others to relieve tensions. Articles 8, 9 and 10 of this agreement called on Hadi to reconstitute the National Body for the Implementation of NDC Outcomes, which was to revisit the state structure to align it with the NDC, rather than the Regions Committee, agreements.
Even before the draft constitution was released in January 2015, the Houthis reiterated their rejection of the six-region federal structure contained in the document. When Hadi nevertheless attempted to move forward the constitutional process by circumventing the PNPA, tempers flared. On January 17, the president sent his office director Ahmad bin Mubarak to deliver the draft document to the National Body, which had not been reconstituted. Enraged by this political intrigue, the Houthis flat-out kidnapped Mubarak to thwart the six-region federal order. The move set in motion a chain of provocations that culminated in the overthrow of the Hadi government, his escape into exile and the Saudi-led bombing campaign.
A crucial, albeit frequently overlooked fact is that the Houthis have repeatedly stated their acquiescence to a federal system—be it jointly with the hirak, in the form of a two-region federation, or in the form of a six-region division based on a sound political process. Rather than a rejection of federalism per se, the Houthis’ refusal of the six-region division is as much grounded in the lack of a genuinely inclusive decision-making process as in the specific parameters that undermine their interests. While none of this background serves to justify the Houthis’ recourse to arms, it does highlight the need for a new transition process based on equitable power sharing and sincere ownership across Yemen’s diverse political and geographic landscape as the only way out of the crisis.
Youth in Turkey’s 2015 Elections
On June 7, Turkish citizens went to the polls to elect the 550 members of the Grand National Assembly. Although the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) won 41 percent of the vote, it lost its majority in the parliament for the first time since 2002. It was a major blow for the party’s founder, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose plan to become a more powerful executive with fewer checks and balances seems to have been vetoed by the electorate. On the other hand, the deciding factor in the elections was the impressive success of the leftist, Kurdish-majority Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which won 13 percent of the votes (up from 6.5 percent in 2011). The HDP received this additional support mostly from conservative Kurds who had previously voted for Erdoğan’s AKP, as well as from many progressive Turks.
The AKP came to power in 2002 with the support of millions who had been marginalized by the oppressive Turkish state. Over the past 13 years, the country has witnessed the transformation of the AKP from a peripheral political party into the very embodiment of the state. During the 2015 campaign, the AKP marshaled the economic and administrative resources of the state to an unprecedented extent to boost its own chances. President Erdoğan, who is supposed to be above partisan politics according to the constitution, stumped on behalf of the AKP, holding daily hours-long rallies that most of the major television channels (state-run as well privately owned) were told to broadcast live. Large state-owned companies such as Turkish Airlines ran lengthy TV commercials reminding people of the AKP’s achievements. Yet, despite all of these efforts, the AKP lost 20 percent of the support it had in the previous legislative elections.
Along with Kurds, who steered away from the AKP for various reasons, including the government’s stance on the Kurdish resistance to ISIS in the Syrian town of Kobane, youth seem to constitute another social group that increasingly sees its future elsewhere. According to an opinion poll conducted right before the election, 29.5 percent of voters below the age of 23 backed the AKP. More surprising, the HDP came in second among youth with 23.8 percent support.
Two summers ago, thousands of young people took part in the Gezi Park protests against the perceived rise of authoritarianism. One outcome of Gezi is the organization called Oy ve Otesi (Votes and Beyond), which mobilized tens of thousands of volunteers to monitor the integrity of the June elections. The example of Oy ve Otesi points to the rising importance of active participation by youth in electoral politics.
While the Gezi uprising was a point of departure for some youth to look collectively for alternative ways to make political change, it was also a point of comparison for the AKP’s politicians to define the values they find desirable in youth. President Erdoğan repeatedly announced that his party’s aim is to cultivate a “pious generation,” and opined that “this country’s youth are not the vandals at Gezi.” Reflecting a decades-long Islamist tendency, the AKP government has allocated extensive resources to generate youth-led social change through its educational and cultural policies. The AKP’s recent emphasis on reviving the “authentic” Turkish-Islamic civilization (medeniyet) reflects this project. As an overarching framework, the idea of giving new life to “our civilization,” through the cultivation of “the medeniyet vision” among youth, increasingly informs the AKP’s cultural policies aimed at youth as well as the policies of Islamist-oriented foundations with ties to the AKP government. But the relatively low level of support among young people for the AKP suggests that they have other, more pressing concerns.
In a country with high rates of youth unemployment and youth poverty, it comes as no surprise that young people are making political choices that are different from those of the general electorate. Turkey may have to hold snap elections in the upcoming months if a coalition government cannot be formed, but the results of the 2015 balloting point to several significant shifts in the political choices of the Turkish people, especially of youth, although the AKP continues to be the most popular one.
The Multiple Wars in Yemen
With UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva involving the usual suspects and only a few new faces, it is time to raise the question of Yemen’s future as a state.
The talks involve exiled President ‘Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the Houthi movement Ansar Allah and minor figures from the long-time ruling General People’s Congress (GPC, now split into factions tied to Hadi and former President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih), the leading Sunni-identified Islamist party Islah and its ally in Hadi’s government-in-exile, the Yemeni Socialist Party.
The only representatives outside the competing would-be regimes of Hadi and the Houthis at the talks come from two recently established parties, including the salafi Rashad Union, whose popularity in Yemen remains to be seen. Hadi insists on implementing UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which would compel the Houthis to withdraw from major cities, including the capital of Sanaa, reinstate himself as head of state and continue the transition toward a federal state, as agreed at the GCC-brokered National Dialogue Conference last year. The Houthis oppose the six-part federal plan but agree on key transition issues decided upon at the Conference. From their perspective, Hadi’s regime has failed to execute the agreed-upon policies and, in any case, the situation became entirely different after Ansar Allah took over Sanaa last September. In the eyes of many Yemenis, whether they support the Houthis or not, they are right: Since the conclusion of the $24 million conference, very little has been done to address the demands put forward in the rallies gathering millions of Yemenis throughout the country in 2011.
The questions one has to ask at this stage: Is the National Dialogue Conference plan still viable as a road map for Yemen’s future? And do the delegates at the talks have the authority in the first place to set the country on this path? Many factors point in another direction. Of the Geneva negotiators, only the Houthis seem to have a strong base of political support on the ground, at least in the areas where the movement hails from. Excluded from the talks are representatives of the South, who are battling Houthi aggression under the label Southern Resistance (al-muqawama al-janubiyya). As for Hadi, his term as transitional president ended in February 2014, and amidst the current warfare, in the eyes of many Yemenis, he is a man who invited the Saudi-led coalition to kill civilians while kicking back in the luxury of a Riyadh palace. There is considerable reason to believe that he lacks the local support to return to power in Yemen.
Still, in the international media the war in Yemen is characterized as fighting “between forces loyal to the beleaguered president, ‘Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and those allied to Zaidi Shia rebels known as Houthis, who forced Mr. Hadi to flee the capital Sanaa in February.” The expression “Hadi loyalists” misleads the world about what is happening in the shadow of the Saudi air strikes. This dubious category groups together forces as different as the eastern tribes, popular committees in various regions, the Southern Resistance and even al-Qaeda. Few of these forces actually engage in fighting for Hadi and his regime of failed promises. For some, Hadi’s return to power is downright undesirable; for others, it is simply irrelevant. In central Yemen, such as in Ta‘izz, the country’s third largest city, resistance to the Houthis springs from local motivations rather than support for Hadi. While the Southern Resistance supports the air strikes and receives military aid from the Saudi-led coalition, its ideas about post-war political solutions differ from the expressed Saudi aim of restoring Hadi. Basing the Geneva talks around the reinstatement of Hadi as leader of the country simply prolongs the suffering on the ground and generates a false sense of certainty about post-war stability.
The Houthi militias, assisted by units of the Yemeni army loyal to Salih and stationed throughout the country, are facing armed confrontation in eastern and central Yemen, and in the entirety of the South. The South is the territory that, prior to Yemeni unity in 1990, formed the independent state of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. In Marib, the province east of Sanaa, local tribes have united to stop the Houthis from taking over the oil fields, motivated by the tribal ethos of self-rule and alliance with similar-minded state leadership. Further to the southeast, the tribes in Shabwa have formed a coalition with the Southern Resistance.
As applied to the South, the expression “Hadi loyalists” stems from three misconceptions. First, the fact that Hadi is originally from the southern governorate of Abyan makes some believe he must have the fealty of his fellow southerners. The second error is to read too much into the fact that Hadi fled to Aden, of all places, in February and was initially welcomed there after the Houthis introduced their five-man presidential council. That body deposed him de facto, though he had already resigned. Once in Aden, Hadi withdrew his resignation.
The Southern Resistance, the militias fighting against the Houthi-Salih invasion of the South, consists of Popular Committees and groups of local vigilantes who pledge themselves to defend “the people of the South.” The Resistance is part of the pro-independence Southern Movement that has grown steadily since 2007 with the mission of reclaiming the full independence of the South. Activists in this movement consider Hadi and his regime (which includes many southerners) responsible for the years-long marginalization of the South and the erstwhile state’s violence against peaceful demonstrators there. That violence claimed hundreds of victims in the South while the world was focused on the dialogue in Sanaa. For many, the war in the southern governorates is a replay of the 1994 civil war that ended with President Salih conquering the South and sealing Yemeni unity by force. Southerners call it “occupation.” While the Southern Resistance lacks a central command, it has unified the various territories of the South in an unprecedented way. This is a popular resistance movement that organizes locally, involves all sectors of society, men and women, and has fended off the much better equipped Yemeni army and Houthi militia for weeks. Victories in al-Dhali‘ governorate prove the steadfastness of the fighters, many of whom have no military training as a result of systematic discrimination against southerners in the army and security forces.
Here is the third misconception that gives rise to the term “Hadi loyalists.” Some assume that because the Popular Committees were initially set up by Hadi’s government to take care of security in areas without an army or police presence, and remained on the state payroll, they must support Hadi’s comeback. In central Yemen, Popular Committees fight for local concerns, too, allied with tribes and other social forces. The common denominator is resistance to Houthi-Salih aggression and protection of local territories—not an affinity for Hadi.
One of the dramatic consequences of the fighting on the ground, as opposed to the Saudi-led air strikes, is the division of the country. For the Southern Resistance, it is a war between North and South. There is no money or might in the world that would bring southerners back to “unity” under a regime in Sanaa, whether headed by the Houthis or by Hadi. Acknowledging that fact might bring the international community closer to lasting solutions to the Yemeni crisis.
The narrative of “Hadi loyalists” is propaganda aimed at lending legitimacy to the Saudis’ project in Yemen. According to this rhetoric, sadly adopted by the Saudis’ allies and the world media, the Saudis are simply “assisting” Yemenis who want to bring back the proper government. Saudi Arabia has been militarily and non-militarily involved in every single political crisis in Yemen over the past five decades, simply to ensure that a regime on its leash prevails. Yet its strategy of bombing has largely proved counterproductive as more and more civilians die and the blockade of aid convoys exacts a heavy humanitarian toll. What the Saudis could do is to sever the link between their former man in Sanaa, ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih, and the Houthis. The war in Yemen has a lot to do with power struggles in the capital. But for Yemenis elsewhere in the country, the fighting is about protecting their neighborhoods from invasion by the troops of the Houthis and Salih and achieving a decent standard of living, something Hadi and his government were never able to deliver.
Yemen Talks in Geneva
On June 8, Yemen’s (self-)exiled president, ‘Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, conveyed his ideas about UN-sponsored talks in Geneva, due to start on June 15, and downplayed their scope. The conversations are to take place mainly between politicians handpicked by him and his Saudi hosts, on the one hand, and Ansar Allah (or the Houthi movement) and members of the formerly ruling General Party Congress (GPC) who do not support Hadi, on the other. These two sides roughly correspond to the alliances that have been fighting in Yemen since March.
On al-Arabiyya television, however, Hadi explained, “These are not talks. It is only a discussion about how to implement UN Security Council Resolution 2216 on the ground.” UNSC 2216, passed in mid-April, endorsed Hadi as the “legitimate” elected leader of Yemen and invoked past resolutions backing the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative and the National Dialogue Conference it prescribed for ending Yemen’s internal conflicts. The April resolution also imposed an arms embargo on the Houthis and their allies.
Hadi was adamant in his television appearance that the Geneva parleys are not aimed at reconciliation between the warring parties. In his keynote address at a conference sponsored by the German government in Berlin on June 11, former prime minister ‘Abd al-Karim al-‘Iryani said, “We cannot [afford to] fail in Geneva.” Al-‘Iryani thus stressed the urgency of an agreement requiring the good faith and sincerity of the negotiators. Hadi and his sponsors, however, seem intent on defining the terms of Ansar Allah’s surrender rather than achieving a political settlement that leads to equal representation of all the country’s factions in a future government.
Yemen’s ambassador to the United Nations, Khalid al-Yamani, announced that the government-in-exile is sending seven representatives to Geneva, with two each for the anti-Hadi portion of the GPC and the Houthis, and three for the remaining parties, such as the Yemeni Socialist Party.
Hadi’s choice of delegates offers clues as to the Saudi agenda in Yemen. At last supporting “revolutionary” change, the Saudis seem to favor two new political parties that are to be prominently represented at the meeting. Perhaps the most revealing representative is ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Humayqani, secretary-general of the salafi al-Rashad Union, founded in 2012 in the wake of the previous year’s nationwide uprising against former President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih. He is one of just two party leaders slated to participate in the talks. Neither man has played an important role in previous governments. The selection of al-Humayqani may indicate the Saudis’ hope that Rashad can be propped up like the Egyptian al-Nour party to compete with the Muslim Brothers (now almost eliminated in Egypt and marginal in Yemen). Doubtless the founders of Rashad were inspired by al-Nour’s stunning success in the Egyptian legislative elections in 2011-2012, in which the salafi group garnered 25 percent of the vote. Al-Humayqani aspires to be a “clear Islamic voice.” At the National Dialogue Conference, Rashad was represented by five members who stressed the party’s commitment to peaceful negotiation.
In Yemen, the Muslim Brothers are the main component of the Islah coalition. Islah fell out with the late King ‘Abdallah of Saudi Arabia, who would not tolerate the party’s criticism of the Saudis for backing the ouster of President Muhammad Mursi in Egypt. Khalid al-Anisi, an Islah leader, stated that Hadi was incapable of solving Yemen’s problems. In the wake of the Houthi advance on areas west and south of Sanaa, ‘Abdallah’s successor King Salman appears to have partially rehabilitated the Muslim Brothers. No Islah leaders are to be present in Geneva, however. In their place will be Fahad Kafayan, the little-known pro-Islah minister of fisheries. He will be joined by his colleague Riyad Yasin, foreign minister in Hadi’s government-in-exile. A doctor whose forebears came to southern Yemen from India during the period of British rule, Yasin left Aden before Hadi (who came to Sanaa in 1986), and recently struck up a friendship with his son Jalal. At the National Dialogue Conference he spoke for the moderate southern independence faction headed by ‘Abdallah al-Asnaj, the only southern force that took part. In Hadi’s government he replaced the much more competent ‘Abdallah al-Sa‘idi, who was favored by al-‘Iryani. Many Yemenis are bewildered by Yasin’s presence in the Geneva delegation because he lacks experience in negotiations.
Another representative, ‘Izz al-Din al-Asbahi, who is Hadi’s minister of human rights, hails from the Hujariyya, a region south of Sanaa. He worked for NGOs for several years before joining government. Ahmad al-Maysari, who served as governor of Aden under Salih, is to attend as representative of the GPC faction that does support Hadi. The other party leader who was named is ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Jubari, secretary-general of the newly established Justice and Development Party. Jubari is a staunch opponent of Ansar Allah who has blamed Iran for the chaos in Yemen in interviews with Saudi newspapers. He went to Riyadh soon after Hadi arrived there about three months ago.
‘Uthman Mujalli, a shaykh from Sa‘da province (the Houthis’ geographic base and key constituency), once sat in Parliament as one of Salih’s most loyal henchmen. His family gained influence after being given land expropriated from Hashemite families in the aftermath of the civil war in the 1960s. When the Houthis took over Sa‘da in 2011, Salih ordered Mujalli to blow up his house and depart for Saudi Arabia. After returning to Yemen, Mujalli fled to Saudi Arabia once again when the Huthis took over Sanaa in September 2014. He is attributed salafi leanings and considered a Saudi protégé. It should not be a surprise to anyone if he is appointed governor of Sa‘da should that province become administered by a government hostile to the Houthis.
As for Ansar Allah, those who have been designated as representatives at the talks are Mahdi al-Mashat, Hamza al-Houthi, who negotiated with the UN envoy on behalf of his cousin ‘Abd al-Malik al-Houthi, Ansar Allah’s leader, and Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam and Salih al-Samad, both of whom took part in recent negotiations in Muscat, Oman. Former foreign minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi is to represent the anti-Hadi GPC faction. According to the Iranian Fars news agency, GPC secretary-general ‘Arif al-Zouka and his deputy Yasir al-‘Awadi have already gone to Geneva.
Though Ansar Allah had agreed to join the UN-led talks, they appeared to have second thoughts after Hadi’s statements. They did not board the plane that was to take them to Switzerland. One of their representatives told the Associated Press that they objected to the idea of two delegations—“one representing the embattled government, and one seen as representing a ‘coup.’” Rather than being pressured to withdraw from Sanaa, as Hadi seems to intend, the Houthis are keen to continue broader multi-party discussions.
It would seem that in recent weeks Saudi Arabia has accelerated its air strikes in order to be able to declare an end to its combat mission before the start of Ramadan. Thus far the kingdom and its allies have not even achieved a pyrrhic victory.
Conflict, Forced Migration and Property Claims
Amidst widespread fighting in Iraq and Syria, millions of distressed civilians have fled their homes. In Yemen as well, war has led to mass displacement as people try to escape threats to their lives and livelihoods. These instances of forced migration create overwhelming immediate problems such as the need for shelter, food and medical care. If insecurity remains a problem, then forced migration can lead to lengthy displacement of people within their own country or in a country of refuge. The longer displacement lasts, the more significant the problems that can develop with regard to land claims and property rights.
Yemen has experienced conflict-related property issues in the past, particularly in the south after the 1994 war, and these problems are likely to appear again as there is no national cadastral system. In Syria, land registries exist in the governorates, but the internal displacement that we see now, layered on top of what occurred in the past, has the potential to create a tangle of property claims that will be difficult to resolve given the complexities of public administration under contested sovereignty. Iraq already serves as an example of how conflict and population displacement can create a morass of property conflicts and compensation claims.
Property-related problems include:
- Absence of records. Not everyone fleeing an advancing army remembers to take the title to their house or land with them, or can protect documentary evidence during their displacement.
- Contested claims. As a conflict spreads, civilians move to avoid violence or to find protection under a particular group. This movement may lead to situations such as occurred in East Timor, in which people fled rural areas and settled in urban areas, often in the homes of others who had been displaced, creating overlapping property claims.
- Conflicting tenure systems. Many displaced people have customary rights to land rather than formal titles. If they are displaced for long periods of time they may find their property occupied by others. In some situations, such as northern Uganda, people have returned from lengthy displacement to find occupants of their customary land who have titled it in their own names.
- Loss of memory. If displacement is lengthy, older people die and surviving children may not possess knowledge of where the family property was, or know its extent.
The international community’s current approach to the homes, lands and properties (HLP) of displaced persons is to establish a statutory system to examine documentary evidence once hostilities end. But waiting until war is over marginalizes those who have lost important evidence over time, held property under customary or hybrid tenure systems or had precarious tenure to begin with. It also allows multiple claims to be derived over the course of the war as homes, lands and properties are used as spoils of war and ethnic cleansing. Ultimately these problems can make refugees reluctant to return from host countries.
A emerging project at McGill University seeks to establish ways to begin collecting and organizing HLP evidence in wartime, in order both to retain evidence that would otherwise be lost and to allow return programs to be tailored to evidence actually held, as opposed to what is ideal. The project seeks to work with refugees from the Syrian war to establish a digital archive for a wide variety of evidence useful for HLP reclaiming. Initial work with Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey found that very few have HLP documentation, because they fled quickly, or because being caught with such documentation while fleeing would provide information about their HLP and kin. The initial work also found that many refugees do not realize they already possess valuable forms of HLP evidence that could be organized and put in electronic documentary form, such as:
- remembered descriptions and histories of HLP, particularly knowledge of details and features that would come only with long-term occupation;
- photographs on mobile phones, including selfies, pictures of residential and farming areas and shops, streets and houses;
- participation in exercises with satellite imagery and aerial photography that involve locating one’s HLP and identifying the HLP of neighbors and relatives, and recording the network of neighbors, relatives and friends in a particular area.
The project looks at examining the primarily informal, hybridized and customary evidence that refugees do have and how this can be gathered, upgraded, combined and corroborated with other forms of evidence, and then inserted into useful types of cadasters for use in their return to, and restitution of, HLP.
Contested property claims can be a residual source of conflict long after violence ends. Families who lose assets face severe challenges in recovering economically from war and displacement.
The more that can be done to document the property rights of displaced people, the faster the recovery will be when the violence ends.