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By Larbi Sadiki

The Tunisian presidential race is heating up. With several front-runners and twenty-six candidates, the upcoming early elections on 15 September reflects a great deal of party and ‘party family’ fragmentation. This article examines the travails and challenges of the north African country’s second democratic presidential elections since the 2011 revolution. The presidential race is unfolding more as a personal political contest rather than a clash between competing political visions for a country weighed down by steep unemployment, deep socio-political marginalisation and massive foreign debt in a conflict-ridden region.

Many parties, three political currents

These elections come at a time when Tunisia’s main political parties are embroiled in political strife. From incumbent Prime Minister Youcef Chahed’s departure from Nidaa Tounes – party of the late president, Beji Caid Essebsi – and the formation of his new Tahya Tounes party, to intensifying factionalism within the Ennahda party, internal divisions have expanded the field of candidates, including several independents, in a wildly dynamic polity.

The current political scene is a far cry from the 2014 race, which was dominated by the veteran politician Essebsi, who stood head and shoulders above the other candidates from within the state machinery. Meanwhile, the fuloul, ‘remnants’ of former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime, were still shaken to the core by the 2011 revolution.

Over the last few weeks, the wide field of candidates have vied to win over voters from Tunisia’s main three political bases: The fulool or azlam of the former Tajammu’ and Destourians parties, made up of loyalists to Ben Ali’s regime, now claiming the legacy of Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba; Islamists; and left-leaning voters.

The struggle for influence over these three voting blocs has brought to the fore contradictions that may revitalise an increasingly politically apathetic Tunisian populace. Many Tunisians had hoped that the presidential campaign would produce some degree of party consensus, narrowing the field to one candidate per party ‘current’. In fact, the opposite has happened.

The candidates and campaign’s political melee

Ennahda’s candidate, Abdelfattah Mourou, will be challenged for the Islamist vote by an independent candidate, and former post-2011 prime minister, Hamadi Jebali.  Boasting few political accomplishments, Moncef Marzouki, first president of the Second Republic who relied on Ennahda voters in his advance to the second round of the 2014 elections, may have exhausted his political capital. The so-called Destourian ‘family’ offers not only Chahed, but also former Minister of Defence and Ben Ali ally, Abdelkarim Zbidi, as well as ex-Nidaa member, Mohsen Marzouk. Other candidates, including lawyer Mohamed Abbou, unionist Abid Brikiand former communist Hamma Hammami, do not appear to be strong contenders.

The plethora of candidates induce a cacophony of claims, counter-claims and contradictions in the elections’ rhetoric. Parties are no longer a clear frame of reference for either political identities or programmes. While several candidates have promised to be a ‘president for all Tunisians,’ this pledge appears to be increasingly unrealistic within Tunisia’s polarised political climate. The 2014 constitution outlines the Presidency as a non-partisan role, but candidates are speaking in two tongues, at once seeking to win over their political bases and appealing to ‘all Tunisians.’ The result is a sort of discomfort with political identity and membership during this first round.

The elections attract the influence of money and the attendant drama. Football mogul Slim Riahi, owner of Club Africain, now with Nidaa, has been dogged by questions over the source of his wealth. The wealthy businessperson and owner of Nessma TV, Nabil Karoui, is serious electoral competition for both Chahed and, thanks to his charity work with marginalised people in the country’s interior regions, possibly Ennahda. Karoui, whose candidacy would have been denied under the modified election law that Essebsi failed to sign before his death, was arrested on 23 August, and remained in custody on charges of tax evasion and money laundering.

Yet Karoui, the leader of Qalb Tounes, remains in the race. In a democratising political system where judicial independence still leaves much to be desired, Chahed’s insistence that the arrest was not politically motivated has been unconvincing, especially as fellow candidates have expressed condemnation. Chahed is more or less using Karoui’s arrest to build steam for a failing anti-corruption ‘crusade.’

Then there is the Free Dustourian Party, led by Abir Moussi. Unabashedly hearkening back to the days of Ben Ali, she considers ‘revolution’ a misnomer for the political transformation set in motion in 2011. Moussi has made an entire campaign out of attacking Islamists, referring to Ennahda only as ‘al-Ikhwan’, a putative threat to democracy and the Tunisian way of life, vowing to chase them out of politics through restored presidential powers.

Abdelkarim Zbidi is perhaps the least eloquent candidate whose stumbling during interviews has drawn attention. Inept communication has not prevented the experienced government minister from becoming a frontrunner. Zbidi might be the West’s preferred leader in Tunisia, having overseen the Ministry of Defence and been privy to security operations. He could be labelled the quasi-American candidate, standing between the Islamists and key ministries, while overseeing the intelligence and security portfolios in close contact with Western military and political elites. In an affront to proponents of the 2014 constitution, who consider it to be a crowning achievement of the revolution, Zbidi has promised constitutional amendments to consolidate the powers of the presidency.

Zbidi, Mourou and Chahed have all attempted to channel Bourguiba, vowing to uphold Tunisia’s foreign policy ‘neutrality.’ Without fail, they rail against the ‘axis politics’ (siyasat al-mahawir) tearing the region asunder. What that means in practice remains unclear.

Absence of vision and substance

Equally vague is the well-worn promise to rejuvenate the country’s ‘economic diplomacy.’ Chahed, running on a ‘pragmatic’ platform of anti-corruption and paying lip service to the untapped potential of the country’s largely unemployed and restive youth, insists that he will renegotiate Tunisia’s agreements with the EU. (He recently renounced his French citizenship, per the constitutional mandate for presidential contenders, surprising many Tunisians who were unaware of his dual-citizenship.) Despite Chahed’s attempts to model himself after Bourguiba-era prime minister Hadi Noueira, he has over the last three years administered Tunisia’s US$2.9 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), with austerity strings attached. His unpopular policies have sparked recurring protests in the capital, as well as the country’s west and south. Construction workers and doctors are the latest groups to threaten an impending strike.

The prime minister’s record does not inspire confidence that he will reverse Tunisia’s descent into economic dependency or limit profiteering by foreign corporations at the expense of local economic gains. His constant spouting of numbers – hundreds of thousands of families receiving aid from the state and a GDP growth rate slowly inching toward 3 per cent – does not mask an unemployment rate of over 15 per cent (more than double the rate in some governorates), skyrocketing prices and public debt soaring to over 70 per cent. Tunisia’s exacerbating socioeconomic marginalisation has prompted many ‘revolutionaries’ of 2011 to opt out of formal politics altogether.

Islamists for presidential elections, not for presidency

Unlike the 2014 elections, the Islamists have thrown their hat into the presidential ring. Notably, their candidate is not party leader Rached Ghannouchi, but co-founder of the Ennahda movement and Vice President of Parliament Abdelfattah Mourou. According to their election slogan, Mourou is ‘the best Ennahda has to offer’ and, given the party’s base of 500 000 supporters, could conceivable advance to round two.

But for those drawing inevitable comparisons with Egypt in 2012, some important differences emerge. Mourou is not a candidate to win the presidential elections. Landing the presidency would be a real predicament for Tunisian democracy and Ennahda itself, which could sweep the board in the November parliamentary elections. Democratisation will buckle under a concentration of power. Here lies the secret of the durability of the Tunisian experiment: it continually produces and reproduces some form of political equilibrium and balance. This balance prevents any one political force from prevailing and continues to be Tunisia’s most important political specificity: the state will be shared as a function of political partnership, in a model close to consociational democracy. There are winners all around, but no losers – almost.

Perhaps Ennahda has reached political maturity as it competes for the presidency, with an eye on the bartering to come (muqayadah)? Short of winning, a strong and competitive presidential candidate will give Ennahda an edge in the wheeling and dealing of the second round, moderating the tempo of democracy to distribute patronage within the Tunisian political system.

By staying true to his word to avoid the presidential race, Ghannouchi can enjoy the status of the sole political elder after Essebsi. That would be a better position, lofty and distant from the travails of the most difficult post in Tunisia politics – that is, if he stays out of the next Parliamentary race for prime minister too.

Since the revolution in 2011, Tunisian premiers have left behind carcasses of battered heads of government. With varying degrees of success, all have failed to deliver the promised goods of development and political stability. Ghannouchi has never tried his hand in civil service or government posts. A late-comer to executive politics at a time of political strife, he would face socioeconomic challenges that would swiftly end his career on a low note. A better outcome for Tunisia’s democratisation would see Ghannouchi as a seasoned interlocutor politician, a moderator who may be needed to negotiate bargains to keep an entire country and democratic experiment on track.

Beyond the election ‘fetish’

All candidates for the presidency need to transcend the election fetish of using Tunisia’s fledgling and durable democratic process into a personality contest. Politicians need to find shared spaces to work together and collectively contribute to democratic and social success, as well as knowledge transfer. Even if Tunisia is democratic, it remains a poor country. It needs more than periodic elections and none of the candidates have offered convincing attempts to address this pressing issue. How can the candidates harness the abundant human capital and knowledge in the country to take advantage of the democratic moment?

Those looking for a leader to rekindle Tunisia’s revolutionary flame and its twin aims of huriyyah and karamah will be hard-pressed to find them among this year’s line-up. Instead, candidates clamour to prove their ‘stability’ credentials, such as Mourou’s claim that he will be the ‘affectionate father’ for Tunisians or Zbidi’s emphasis on strong states, which he extends so far as to pledge restoring full diplomatic ties with Damascus. Are we back to the all-too-familiar political discourse of patrimonialism? Whether or not such discourses still resonate with a divided public is for Tunisians to decide, as they interpret the outcome of the country’s televised presidential debates, a first in Tunisia and the Arab world, before casting their ballots on 15 September.

For the first time in Tunisian history, will we see a ‘deep state’ candidate (Zbidi) face off against an Islamist (Mourou)? Stay tuned for more twists and turns. Nothing stays the same for long in Tunisia’s democratising politics.

Ramzy Baroud Book Tour

The Afro-Middle East Centre is honoured to host well-known Palestinian journalist and author, Dr Ramzy Baroud, for a book tour in South Africa to launch his most recent book, The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story.

Baroud will be addressing audiences in six cities across South Africa: Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, Port Elizabeth, Cape Town and Polokwane. See the full list of events below. Click here for poster adverts for all his events. Apart from his book launches in different cities, Baroud will also be hosted Palestine solidarity organisations for public lectures in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, Cape Town and Polokwane.

Ramzy Baroud is a US-Palestinian journalist, media consultant, author, internationally-syndicated columnist, editor of Palestine Chronicle (1999-present), former managing editor of London-based Middle East Eye (2014-15), former editor-in-chief of The Brunei Times, former deputy managing editor of Al Jazeera online. He taught mass communication at Australia’s Curtin University of Technology, Malaysia Campus. Baroud also served as head of Aljazeera.net English’s Research and Studies department. He is the author of four books and a contributor to many others; his latest volume is The Last Earth, a Palestinian Story (Pluto Press, London, 2018). His books have been translated into several languages including French, Turkish, Arabic, Korean and Malayalam, among others. Baroud has a PhD in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter (2015), and was a non-resident scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, University of California Santa Barbara (2016-17). His forthcoming book is These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggles and Defiance in Israeli Prisons. He is currently a non-resident scholar at Istanbul Zaim University’s Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA).

Baroud’s work has been published in hundreds of newspapers and journals worldwide, including The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Seattle Times, Arab News, The Miami Herald, The Japan Times, Al-Ahram Weekly, Asia Times, Al Jazeera, Gulf News and nearly every English language publication throughout the Middle East. His work is regularly translated and republished in French, Spanish, Arabic and other languages. He has contributed to and was referenced in hundreds of books and academic journals.

He has been a guest on many television and radio programmes, including RT TV, CNN International, BBC, ABC Australia, National Public Radio, Press TV, Aljazeera and many other stations.

He is the author of four books: Searching Jenin: Eyewitness Accounts of the Israeli Invasion (Cune Press, Seattle, 2003); The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle (Pluto Press, London, 2006); My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story (Pluto Press, London, 2010); and The Last Earth, a Palestinian Story (Pluto Press, London, 2018). Baroud is also the co-author, with Samah Sabawi and Jehan Bseiso, of the poetry collection: I Remember My Name (Novum, 2016). His books are available in French, Turkish, Arabic, Korean and other languages.

Baroud has been a guest speaker at many top universities around the world, including George Mason University, Virginia Commonwealth University, Rutgers University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), University of Manchester, University of Ireland, University of Washington, Penn State University and the University of Kwazulu Natal in South Africa.

Baroud spoke and conducted book tours in over twenty-five countries.

 

Johannesburg Events

Date and Time

Events

Venue and Time

Monday,
16 September 2019
18:30 – 20:00

Ramzy Baroud public lecture hosted by Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), Palestine Solidarity Alliance (PSA), South African Jews for a Free Palestine (SAJFP) and Media Review Network (MRN)

Suleiman Nana Memorial Centre, Crosby

 

Tuesday,
17 September 2019
18:00 – 20:00

Public Meeting hosted by Palestine Solidarity Alliance (PSA), Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), South African Jews for a Free Palestine (SAJFP), Ahmed Kathrada Foundation and Media Review Network (MRN).

Baitun Noor Hall, Lenasia, Topaas Street, Ext 5, Lenasia

 

Wednesday,
18 September 2019
12:00 -13:00

Launch of The Last Earth:  A Palestinian Story, with Ramzy Baroud, hosted by Afro-Middle East Centre and Institute for Economic Research on Innovation (IERI)

IERI Boardroom, 159 Nana Sita Street, Pretoria

 

Wednesday,
18 September 2019
18:30 -20:00

Launch of The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story with Ramzy Baroud, Daryl Glaser and Karima Brown, hosted by Afro-Middle East Centre and Department of Political Studies at Wits

Robert Sobukwe Room 207, Wits University

 

 

Durban Events

Date and Time

Events

Venue

Thursday,
19 September 2019
15:00 - 17:00

Public lecture: "Palestinian struggle: Opportunities and pitfalls", with Ramzy Baroud hosted by KZN Palestine Solidarity Forum (KZN PSF)

Women’s Cultural Group Hall, 222 Kenilworth Road, Overport

 

Thursday,
19 September 2019
18:30 -19:30

Launch of The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story, with Ramzy Baroud, hosted by Al-Qalam and Afro-Middle East Centre

Suleman Lockhat Auditorium, 222 Kenilworth Road, Durban

 

 

Port Elizabeth Events

Date and Time

Events

Venue

Friday,
20 September 2019
18:30 – 20:00

Launch of The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story, with Ramzy Baroud, hosted by Afro-Middle East Centre, Black Management Forum and Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy

The Anthenaeum, 7 Athol Fugard Terrace, Port Elizabeth Central

 

 

Cape Town Events

Date and Time

Events

Venue

Sunday,
22 September 2019
14:00

Launch of The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story, with Ramzy Baroud, hosted by Afro-Middle East Centre and Muslim Youth Movement and Al-Ikhlaas Library and Resource Centre

Islamia Auditorium, 409 Imam Haron Road, Lansdowne, Cape Town

Monday,
23 September 2019
18:30

Public Meeting: "The crisis in the Middle East, Israel’s influence in Africa and prospects for Palestine’s liberation", hosted by Palestine Solidarity Campaign

Solidarity Centre, AIDC, 129 Rochester Road, Observatory

 

Polokwane Events

Date and Time

Events

Venue

Tuesday,
24 September 2019
11:00

Launch of The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story, with Ramzy Baroud, hosted by AMEC, UNISA, NEHAWU, YCL, ANCYL, SASCO, ANC and PSA

Main Hall, 24 Landdros Mare Street, UNISA Polokwane Central, Polokwane

Tuesday,
24 September 2019
14:00

Launch of The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story, with Ramzy Baroud, hosted by University of Limpopo and Afro-Middle East Centre

M Block, University of Limpopo

 

 

 

 

 

The Afro-Middle East Centre invites you to an international conference entitled 'In whose interests? Exploring Middle East involvement in Africa'. AMEC’s international conference scheduled for 5 to 6 November 2013 promises a close interrogation of the nature and extent of Middle Eastern states' penetration into Africa. Around twenty Middle East and African speakers and scholars will come together to deliberate on various issues such as aid to Africa, the role of the African Union, educational links, and desire for African resources in the interaction between the two regions. - See more at: http://www.amec.org.za/events/conferences/itemlist/category/263-middle-east-in-africa-conference-2013.html#sthash.OJQi5lDx.dpuf
The Afro-Middle East Centre invites you to an international conference entitled 'In whose interests? Exploring Middle East involvement in Africa'. AMEC’s international conference scheduled for 5 to 6 November 2013 promises a close interrogation of the nature and extent of Middle Eastern states' penetration into Africa. Around twenty Middle East and African speakers and scholars will come together to deliberate on various issues such as aid to Africa, the role of the African Union, educational links, and desire for African resources in the interaction between the two regions. - See more at: http://www.amec.org.za/events/conferences/itemlist/category/263-middle-east-in-africa-conference-2013.html#sthash.OJQi5lDx.dpuf

Concept
Note

Programme Registration
Form
Conference
Booklet

 

Concept note

For many centuries, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has been a theatre that foreign powers have sought to control and gain influence in. In the twentieth century, with British and French attempts to destroy the Ottoman empire, the 1918 Sykes-Picot agreement saw these powers seek to divide the region into their respective spheres of influence. The region’s importance to foreign powers increased as oil became the primary energy source over coal, since the MENA region possessed some of the world’s largest oil reserves.

By the mid-twentieth century, the Cold War, in which the USA and the Soviet Union fought for ideological and global superiority and employed proxy states and forces in various parts of the world, saw these powers and their allies battle for the support of MENA states and non-state actors in attempts to extend their influence over a critical geostrategic region and to exert control over energy resources. Western powers such as the USA and Britain supported Arab monarchies such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, while Arab republican states such as Egypt and Syria were, in the main, supported by the Soviet Union. Two powerful non-Arab states in the region, Iran and Turkey, were both in the western camp for much of the Cold War era.

The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 added a new dimension to foreign intervention as a number of western powers sought to bolster and protect the new entity and ensure the easy flow of Jewish immigrants to it. Israel effectively became the bulwark of western interests in the MENA region.

Despite the end of the Cold War in 1989-1990, the region’s geostrategic significance and oil resources ensured that it would remain the target of various forms of intrigue and intervention. The discovery of large gas reserves gave even more reason to foreign powers to jostle to win influence. More recently, emerging powers, such as India and China, have also sought to access the resources in the MENA region and exert influence over state and non-state actors there. For China, the region is also critical in its belt and road initiative, which aims to tether China’s growth to an opening up of trade routes and markets with Middle East countries.

In the past decade, the involvement of a number of foreign powers in the region has been massively militarised in some countries. The shock of the MENA uprisings in 2010-2011 persuaded many foreign actors to increase their role in the region. Indeed, Syria and Libya serve as good examples of the large number of foreign actors intervening, and of the scope and scale of their interventions. The USA, Russia, a number of European states, as well as non-state military outfits from these countries have been active in military training, strategic planning and advice, on-the-ground military activity, and air attacks that have left thousands of citizens of MENA countries dead or injured. Many of these countries are also key suppliers of weapons to state and non-state actors. The rise of the Islamic State group provided a further excuse to foreign powers who wanted to maintain a presence in the region, and it became the cited reason for the increased military activity of Russia and the USA, as well as other foreign powers.

In many instances in the region, the influence and interventions of these foreign states have often led to the suppression of the popular will, facilitated the violent clampdown on dissent, and generally empowered elites against the citizenry – often with serious implications for the violations of human rights.

In the past decade, the foreign role in the MENA region has taken new and different forms, from seeking to influence youth activists through funding to largescale military intervention. These interventions have also played a role in reconfiguring political alliances and axes in the region. While current politics in the region are extremely fluid, this reconfiguration could produce developments that upset the manner in which state-to-state relations have been conducted within the region in the past half a century, and could also see radical changes in which external states exercise what influence on which state and non-state actors in the region. Will the US role continue along the same trajectory as it had been in the past? Is Russia poised to play a much larger role and develop its own set of MENA proxies and allies? How will fluctuating Turkey-USA relations affect the role of NATO in the region? Will Turkey’s and Iran’s mostly warm relations with Russia result in a new regional-foreign bloc? How will the Saudi-Israeli-American alliance play out in future and how will it affect the future of the Palestinian struggle? These and numerous other such questions are relevant in any discussion on the role of foreign actors in the MENA region.

The above themes and questions will be interrogated at a two-day conference organised by the Afro-Middle East Centre. Academics and experts from the region and globally will discuss these issues and assess the region’s future trajectory.

 

Programme

Day One: Tuesday, 8 October 2019

08:30 – 09:00  Registration

Opening Session: 09:00 – 10:30

Welcome, Introduction – Na’eem Jeenah

Keynote speech – Sami Al-Arian

10:30 – 11:00  Tea Break

11:00 - 12:00 Session 1: Conceptualising intervention in international political theory

Understanding International political theories on intervention – Garth Le Pere

International powers and regional alliances: Implications for regional security- Galip Dalay

12:00 – 13: 00   Lunch

13:00 - 15:00 Session Two: From Colonialism to contemporary  interventions in the MENA region

French and British colonialism in the Middle East and North Africa – Dorothée Schmid

A special case of colonialism: The Zionist movement and the occupation of Palestine – Irene Calis

Russia in the Middle East- Yury Barmin

15:00 -15:15               Tea Break

15:15 - 17:00 Session Three: Finance and economy as a form of control of the Middle East

The politics of International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank lending in the Middle East – Taher Al-Labadi

Using foreign trade, sanctions and economic isolation – Yacoob Abba Omar

The evolution of the oil curse in MENA economies – Mahmoud Araissi

 

Day Two Wednesday, 9 October 2019

09:00 - 11:00 Session four: Regime change as an instrument of control

Of coups and assassinations – Omer Aslan

Regime change breeding chaos: The case of Libya – Shafiq Morton

The foreign hand in the MENA uprisings – Imad Daimi

11:00 -11:30   Tea Break

11:30 - 13:30 Session Five: External military intervention

Invasions, occupation and conquest: Foreign military role in the MENA region– Phyllis Bennis

Foreign powers using local proxies: The case of Syria – Sinan Hatahet

Empowering domestic militaries – Martin Rupiya

13:30 -14:30   Lunch

14:30 - 16:30 Session Six: Responding to foreign intervention

MENA states leveraging foreign interference – Zeenat Adam

The emergence of militant transnational groups in response – Omar Ashour

Foreign interventions in the Middle East and the Kurds- Cengiz Gunes

16:30 Session Seven: Closing

Na’eem Jeenah

by Helen Lackner

Yemen remains in the grip of its most severe crisis ever: the civil war between forces loyal to the internationally-recognised government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and the Saudi-led coalition on the one side and those of the alliance between the Houthi rebel movement and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh on the other has devastated the country. ‘Chaos’ is an appropriate term to describe the situation in a turbulent region. With no immediate prospects for the stable, peaceful, and democratic state that hundreds of thousands of demonstrators called for during the 2011 uprisings, what went wrong? Why is there no prospect even of an internationally brokered plan to help end hostilities, let alone find peace? Conflicts in Yemen stem from a combination of internal rivalries between elites, rising demands of an increasingly impoverished population, interventions from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and western states and neoliberal financiers.[1]

On 12 July 2017, the United Nations Special Envoy told the UN Security Council, ‘The situation in Yemen remains extremely grave. The intensity of the conflict increases day after day…The humanitarian situation is appalling…The country is not suffering from a single emergency but a number of complex emergencies, which have affected more than 20 million people and whose scale and effect will be felt long after the end of the war.’[2] The UN also declared the spread of cholera in Yemen the worst ever recorded worldwide. There are now over 300 000 suspected cases and over 1 700 people have died as a result of the epidemic. Fourteen million people are food insecure, of whom almost 7 million are at risk of famine.

This paper probes the main causes behind the disintegration of the Yemeni state established in 1990, and discusses early promises that were dashed by a succession of problems culminating in the 2011 uprisings, the failed transition of 2012-14,[3] the Houthi takeover of Sana’a, their alliance with Saleh, and the Saudi-led intervention. It also deconstructs the rationale behind the events that led to the collapse of the Yemeni state, as well as the reasons why the international military intervention, starting in 2015, has ensured the prolonging of the war, and its catastrophic consequences for the population.

Origins of the New Republic
The Republic of Yemen was established in 1990 by the merger of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), the former resulting from the overthrow of the imamate in 1962 by a group of republican officers, and the latter emerging from British-administered Aden and the protectorates. These states had different political orientations; the YAR following a capitalist one while the PDRY was the only socialist state in the Arab world. Despite these differences, the two states shared common features that made Yemen a nation: a common culture, a similar fundamental social structure despite both regimes’ efforts to transform society in divergent directions, and a shared economic base of agriculture and fisheries with hopes of discovering oil. Families – and both states – relied considerably on remittances from migrant labour elsewhere in the peninsula and beyond.

Unification was the most popular political slogan on both sides of the border, and was embraced by both populations. But unification was born by forceps rather than through a democratic process: Saleh, who was president of the YAR (1978-2017), persuaded southern leader Ali Salem al-Beidh to agree to a full merger only hours after the PDRY’s ruling Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) had confirmed its commitment to a federal agreement that left considerable autonomy to each former state. This shift laid the basis for tension and led to a short civil war in 1994, decisively won by Saleh with the military support of the factions that had been defeated in the 1986 internal conflict in PDRY, including current ‘legitimate’ president Hadi, and the Salafis returning from Afghanistan. 

Yemen map Lackner

Mounting Crisis and The 2011 uprisings

The Republic of Yemen’s first two decades were characterised by economic crises. More than 800 000 Yemenis were deported from GCC states when Yemen voted against UNSC Resolution 678 that approved military action against Iraq following its invasion of Kuwait. This reduced foreign economic aid to Yemen to almost zero, and added close to a million job seekers at a time of high unemployment. Although this crisis receded by 1995 and aid was resumed, it is worth remembering that remittances from workers abroad, mostly in GCC states, remained more important to Yemen’s economy than aid. Moreover, remittances directly reached mostly rural households, while aid went to state institutions in the early years. This shift changed in the late 1990s when IFIs actively weakened the state by financing organisations such as the Social Fund for Development and the Public Works Project, which operated according to ‘efficient’ private sector principles, though in fact they are parastatals whose salaries allow them to poach the best staff from line ministries, thus reducing their technical capacity. Other factors, such as climate change, rapid population growth and the corruption of the ‘elite’, contributed to increasing poverty and worsened the gap between the majority of the population and the small group of beneficiaries of the Saleh regime. Earning potential within Yemen and beyond was negatively impacted by constraints on migration and lack of job creation policies at home.

Political tensions increased through three episodes:

  1. Opposition parties in parliament regrouped in the Joint Meeting Parties in 2003, composed of Islah (the largest party, itself combining northern Hashed tribes and supporters of Muslim Brotherhood throughout the country), the YSP, Baathists, Nasserists, Popular Forces and al-Haq parties.
  2. The emerging Houthi movement began armed opposition to the Saleh regime in 2004, resulting in six short wars until 2010.
  3. The rise of the southern separatist movement from 2007. It was initially peaceful, but the regime’s aggressive response contributed to the growth and increased influence of the movement.

Combined with the social and economic crises, the only missing element was a trigger for a major uprising. The turning point came in the form of the apparently successful overthrow of the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, encouraging Yemenis to believe that fundamental change was possible. Symbolised in the slogan ‘Saleh out’, the movement included thousands of independent youth and women, and members of opposition parties who were later joined by their leaderships. With a split in the military/security forces in March 2011, the country came close to large-scale warfare between opposing military factions, while the anti-Saleh peaceful civil movement persisted but was increasingly influenced by the political parties, particularly Islah and the Houthi movement. These developments led to intervention by the ‘international community’ in the alleged pursuit of a peaceful solution to the crisis.

The GCC Agreement and the transitional regime
Various events in the course of 2011 gradually weakened the Saleh regime and led, by the end of the year, to the GCC Agreement, which included Saleh’s resignation and his replacement by his former vice-president Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, who was to lead a transitional regime. According to the GCC Agreement, the two-year transition would get the political and economic support of the international community. It included a government of national unity that brought together Saleh’s forces and the opposition’s forces, the restructuring of the military/security sector, and a National Dialogue Conference (NDC) to design Yemen’s post transition structures. This was to be followed by a Constitution Drafting Committee, a referendum on the draft constitution, and elections.

Most of these steps were formally undertaken between 2012 and 2014. However, they failed to achieve the desired result, largely due to inherent design faults, such as allowing Saleh not only to stay in the country, but to continue leading the GPC, and allocating half of the government posts to his party. While this arrangement reflected the actual balance of power in 2011, it jeopardised the national unity government’s potential as ministers from the two main groups (GPC and Islah) competed for power and actively undermined each other. The government developed an unenviable reputation of being Yemen’s most corrupt ever, while failing to halt the deterioration of living conditions. The international community also shared considerable responsibility for the absence of social and economic development. Close to USD 8 billion was pledged for Yemen in September 2012, but these funds were withheld under various pretexts, resulting in continued deterioration in public services.

This period witnessed the quiet rise of the Houthis, who consolidated their control over the northern governorate of Sa’ada. They expanded their control zone militarily and politically westward towards the Red Sea, aiming to control the small port of Midi to ensure they were not landlocked, as well as controlling the entire western part of the border with Saudi Arabia. They also moved east into Jawf governorate, again on the Saudi border, but this time in the belief that the area had significant oil resources. Moreover, they expanded southwards and reached Amran town in mid-2014, only fifty kilometres north of Sana’a, after taking over the stronghold of the senior Hashed leaders.

There have been several points of correlation between the waning transitional regime and the rise of the Houthis. The former was known for its corruption, incompetence, and inability to address the social and economic problems of the population, whereas the latter benefited from their (secret) alliance with Saleh. A final contributor to their success was the internal rivalry within the transitional regime. Hadi had sought to weaken Islah by allowing the Houthis to defeat it, with the intention of controlling the Houthis. One can only presume that he was unaware of their cooperation with Saleh.

In the summer of 2014, large anti-government demonstrations contested the IMF-recommended rises in fuel prices. The Houthis capitalised on their image as an oppressed minority, supporting the popular demands and pushing for government accountability. They managed to take over Sana’a on 21 September 2014, and consolidated their position in the following months.

By January 2015, the submission of the new constitution draft to the post-NDC body was an excuse for a final showdown. Both Houthis and Saleh regarded the proposed federal state as unacceptable for different reasons. Hadi and his new government were placed under house arrest as the Houthi-Saleh military forces moved further south and captured Aden by March. After escaping from Sana’a, Hadi named Aden the country’s interim capital. He and his ministers escaped to Riyadh, while requesting the GCC to provide military support to restore the transitional regime.

A Wider Radius of the War
In the regional context, there was a likelihood of victory in favour of the Saleh-Houthi forces in spring 2015. The newly-appointed minister of defence in Saudi Arabia, ambitious young Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), saw the Yemen downturn as an opportunity to prove himself as a new leader, full of initiative, and determined to solidify Saudi Arabia’s role in the region. He presumed his modern air force, equipped with the latest western weaponry, would easily defeat the ill-trained forces of the poorest Arab state. The Saudi-led coalition destroyed the Yemeni airforce on the first day of the war. By the summer of 2015, it became imperative to involve ground troops, mostly from the UAE and other coalition members, primarily Sudan, alongside mercenaries from various Latin American states. This tactic enabled the coalition forces to ‘liberate’ the area of the former PDRY and some of the northeast of the country by the autumn of 2015. However, the military stalemate has prevailed.

The UN-sponsored negotiation process has thrice failed to stimulate a settlement plan between the warring parties. Since mid-2016, UN mediation has not been able to convene another round of talks. There have been two main political developments in the last two years:

  1. In the areas controlled by the Houthis, worsening tension within the Houthi-Saleh alliance culminated in Houthis killing Saleh in his Sana’a residence on 4 December 2017, leaving them in full control of the northern highlands. This may well be the peak of their power, as they now have to add forces loyal to Saleh to their list of rivals.
  2. The disintegration and fragmentation of the ‘liberated’ areas. The main characteristic of the Hadi government is its absence. Southern governorates are under the control of a range of forces including southern separatists (the Southern Transitional Council (STC) established in May 2017 is the most influential of these groups), various local regional forces, and jihadis. The UAE set up, financed, trained and deployed military and security forces – known in the western governorates as Security Belts, and in the eastern ones as Elite Forces. They are all primarily composed of local Salafis and do not form a coherent body. The northern areas are under the control of the vice president (since April 2016), Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, an Islamist on the extremist end of the Islahi spectrum. State institutions have largely disintegrated, partly due to the failure of the internationally-recognised regime to pay salaries.

While the Arab Coalition includes several states, the decision-making process is controlled by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. However, there is increasing divergence in policy and strategy between them, most visible in the south. Regardless of the rhetoric, Emirati forces are actively supporting separatists via the STC and the security forces. While claiming to address the problem of jihadi groups (AQAP and the Islamic State group), most of their interventions and arrests are against Islah, considered by the UAE to be Muslim Brothers, whom they pathologically detest. Outsiders have difficulty understanding support for extremist Salafi groups who are more dangerous to a moderate Islam than the Muslim Brothers. Divergence with the Saudi regime focuses on this aspect as it supports Ali Mohsen, who is an important Islah leader, and have had, for decades, very different approaches to Muslim Brother-related institutions.

Deepening humanitarian crisis
In the poorest Arab country with high levels of poverty and malnutrition, the current war has caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Some 22 million of the 29 million population are in dire need of humanitarian assistance; 16 million individuals lack clean water and sanitation; 18 million are food insecure, including 8 million ‘on the brink’ of famine; and more than 1 million are victims of cholera, another world record.[4]

About 16 000 individuals have been killed by coalition air strikes, with the most effective weapon being the blockade of Yemen’s main port Hodeida and other Red Sea ports, as well as the imposed closure of Sana’a airport. Several thousands of Yemen WHO LacknerYemenis have died by hunger, disease and other side effects of the blockade, a driving force behind the humanitarian crisis.

An Open-ended war?
The perpetuation of the Yemeni war derives from two main reasons. First, international intervention has added another layer of complex issues, which seem irrelevant to Yemen and Yemenis. The main issue is Iranian-Saudi rivalry. Saudi accusations that the Houthis are no more than ‘Iranian proxies’ have become part of the official discourse throughout the region and beyond, including in the USA. While the reality is that Iran’s actual involvement is minimal, it benefits from a massive propaganda advantage in exchange for limited practical support to the Houthis. This added element tends to complicate the pursuit of a solution.

The second reason is both internal and external vis-à-vis Yemen. In the domestic context, numerous figures on all sides benefit from the war. Not only do they have no incentive to end it, but they have every incentive to prolong it. They include men and boys manning checkpoints and ‘taxing’ passengers and goods (including the basics to keep people alive: food, fuel and people seeking medical aid). Next are the Houthis in areas they control. They both fill their pockets and finance their ‘administration’ through the ransoming of traders and others, but do not use these funds to pay salaries of medical, education or any other civil staff. In the ‘liberated’ areas, the beneficiaries of the war include any number of groups, ranging from AQAP and IS militants to officials of everything from the various southern separatist groups to the few remaining Hadi loyalists. Outside the country, members of Hadi’s government collect massive salaries, submit exorbitant bills to the coalition, but fail to pay staff inside Yemen. This is the irony of the political economy of war.

On the international level, western states sell sophisticated and expensive weapons and ammunition to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. According to SIPRI, in the period 2013 to 2017, Saudi Arabia was the second largest importer of arms in the world, with 10 per cent of all arms imports. Its share of imports had risen by 225 per cent from the previous five-year period. About 61 per cent of its weapons came from the USA, 23 per cent from the UK, and 3.6 per cent from France. In the case of the UAE, the fourth largest importer, the USA is also its largest supplier (58 per cent) followed by France (13 per cent) and Italy (6 per cent).[5] Recently, the US president, Donald Trump, sat with MbS and did a ‘show-and-tell’ display of the latest proposed sales.

Conclusion
This paper has provided a rapid sketch of the events which led to Yemen’s disintegration. Fundamentally, the collapse is due to a combination of internal rivalries between elites, the rising demands of a population which has experienced increased hardship, and the impact of international interventions, both from neoliberal international financiers and politically-motivated actors in support or opposition to the internal rival factions.

The Yemeni war shares some characteristics with the Lebanese civil war, with different external actors attempting to use local factions to pursue international rivalries. Yemenis suffer the consequences to a nightmarish extent. A small ray of hope emerged early 2018 with the appointment of a new Special Envoy of the UN Secretary General, as well as the presence in the UNSC of members who are committed to end this war. This window of opportunity, however, will demand major transformations of the current UNSC resolutions, as well as a new complex and sophisticated approach involving many actors currently excluded from the official negotiating process. This will not be easy, and success is not guaranteed, particularly in view of the complicated international dimension of Saudi-Iranian rivalry.

* This article was first published by AlJeazeera Centre for Studies

* Helen Lackner is a research associate at the London Middle East Institute in SOAS and author of the forthcoming book Yemen in Crisis: Autocracy, neoliberalism and the Disintegration of a State

 


[1]     Helen Lackner (2017). Yemen in Crisis: Autocracy, Neo-Liberalism and the Disintegration of a State, London: Saqi Books.

[2]     Lackner (2017). “Yemen in Crisis”.

[3]     A detailed analysis of the transition can be found in Helen Lackner (2016), “Yemen’s Peaceful Transition from Autocracy: could it have succeeded?” Stockholm, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

[4]     UN News (2018). “Secretary-General's remarks to the Pledging Conference on Yemen”, 3 April. https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2018-04-03/secretary-generals-remarks-pledging-conference-yemen-delivered.

[5]     SIPRI (2017. “Trends in international arms transfers, 2017”. https://www.sipri.org/publications/2018/sipri-fact-sheets/trends-international-arms-transfers-2017.

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