Book Review: Yemen and the Search for Stability: Power, Politics and Society after the Arab Spring edited by Marie-Christine Heinze

 image courtesy of Sala Khaled

image courtesy of Sala Khaled

Dr Sawsan al-Refaei finds that this book represents a critical and timely contribution to the current debates on the near future of conflict in Yemen, by drawing on lessons learned from the four years preceding the war. It provides valuable insights to the on-going efforts to resume peace talks in Yemen.

I was privileged to receive a copy of the book Yemen and the Search for Stability, which took me back to the bittersweet memories of the active, hopeful and persevering me in Yemen during 2011 to 2014. It awakened mixed memories of the past: pride in the solidarity but also reminders of the merciless acts of power, politics and interest which formed in the face of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ aftermath.

The thick volume takes the reader back in time, through three sections. The first section, ‘Competing Visions’, awakens dormant longing for the time around the Yemeni Revolution.  The section describes the time when an established regime, that had outlived many Yemenis, was overthrown by the voices on the streets. In its fascinating pages, the authors walk us through the critical yet nostalgic path that revolutionary men, women and youth, southern and northern, Yemenis have trodden.

The first chapter of this section, ‘Post-revolution Scepticism’, tells the stories of Yemenis who were finally able to “address the unaddressable and question the unquestionable”, giving more significance than currently acknowledged to the intellectual and philosophical impact of the revolution on people’s faith in the traditional and religious polity.

The next chapter gives insights on the new realm of feminist resistance that followed 2011, paving the way to what is perceived by feminists as a historical win of constitutional and legal rights. The section identifies patterns of how initial calls by women activists for justice and rights were always dragged into the square of morality, regurgitating long-held patriarchal attitudes. Similarly, the following two sections describe the unique governance models that existed in eastern tribes and the southern movements which influenced the transition period.

The second section dives into a painful look back at the revolution, ‘Discontents of Transition’. The chapters in this section map the various political interlocutors and describe their attempts to find their footing on territories along volatile borders. Valuable information is presented on how the transitional leadership traded the stability of the country for equilibrium in power, and sub-powers distributed (for example, juridical and financial authority could be given in instalments to gain loyalty, not based on legislation and not given as a whole so as to ensure loyalty continues), one piece at a time, in fear of total collapse of the GCC initiative. These discontents are discussed in the book – from the stage and camp tents of Change Square to the conference rooms of the National Dialogue.

While a post-Saleh leadership has always been curtailed by the different political brokers, these same powers were backed-up by the transitional government itself, so that any attempt to set a well-defined and vigorous transitional program by technocrats was hindered. Eventually, people’s demands for a system that enforces the law and combats corruption was not possible.

The chapter on the ‘Huthi Enigma’ describes the Huthi movement as a dynamic and highly transformative power bold enough to continue gaining both power and popularity despite difficulties. It analyses their use of coercion to serve their own rather than Yemen’s interests.  The following chapters address the dilemmas of the southern movement and the large spectrum of Islamist projects planned for Yemen.

In its third and final section, ‘Socio-cultural Upheavals’, the authors energetically and insightfully discuss the thin line between the reality and myth of youth and women being the driving force of the revolution. Multiple chapters analyse how the different orthodox and repressive manipulators of power controlled the stage of the revolution, limiting the role of youth and female activists from realizing the fruits of their protests. However, at the same time, the authors do not overlook the local impact of youth during this period. Interestingly, the chapter on what is described as ‘youth-non-movement’ tells stories of young men and women who did not surrender to social norms or potential risk, and instead engaged enthusiastically using virtual means and on the ground.

The book concludes with a question on whether federalism can save Yemen, a question  that is definitely still legitimate eight years after Yemen’s uprisings. After treating the historical evolution of decentralization in Yemen, the book does not shy away from questioning whether federalism still appeals to all elite interests and can stabilize Yemen.

The book is not only a good read but also a valuable  compact of lessons learned on how the near future of Yemen can be addressed. It smoothly manoeuvres through the key aspects of the post-Arab Spring era in Yemen and bravely takes on the precarious task of drawing conclusions which could influence the face of Yemen’s next transition. The key story here is: failure to address people’s demands and grievances and responding to the demands of the multiple and conflicting political patrons alone will only lead to further division and instability. This will not stabilize transition, let alone create a future unified state.

I would have liked this volume, with its many pages, to have covered the dilemma of civil society organizations during and after the ‘Spring’ era, not only because this topic is so relevant to all the sections described above but also because readers will inevitably  sense the absence of an important component in society that has both affected and been affected by the politics of transition.