Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Covering Yemen: Saleh, Saudi and the media - The Listening Post

Dec. 9th - I co-commented last Saturday on "media coverage and Yemen war" segment on The Listening Post program of Al Jazeera English.

Between Despair and Hope: a Yemeni Entrepreneur’s Story in Sana’a

Saeed Alfagieh, 27, founded “Ana Mehani” in Sana’a end 2015,
after winning the first place at a 2014 entrepreneurship contest.

*While the surrealistic and tragic events in Yemen spin us all around, I need to take a moment to tell one story, just one personal story, from Sana’a, about defiance-pain-and-more-pain-despair-and-resilience (yes, just like that, in that order, all linked in a row, because that’s how my family and friends I talk to in Sana’a feel).

* * * *

When Forbes did a few months ago a feature on this inspiring young Yemeni man, Saeed Alfagieh, I believed I had my new hero. Despite a great deal of obstacles, Saeed developed his company “Ana Mehani” midst of the raging war in Sana’a, earning a name among the 100 best Arab startups for 2017 by World Economic Forum.

Saeed Alfagieh, 27, founded “Ana Mehani” in Sana’a end 2015, after winning the first place at a 2014 entrepreneurship contest and obtaining a financial support. Ana Mehani is an off-and-online social labor and marketplace platform that aims to generate jobs opportunities while the country is suffering from about 80% unemployment rate. So far, it covers 6 Yemeni governorates, including Sana’a - it receives daily more than 300 applications and has created more than 40,000 job opportunities.

One of Ana Mehani’s old videos interviewing workers benefiting from their services:

I contacted Saeed once the Forbes feature was published to tell him how he was a hero to me. He told me about the horrific environment he and his team operate in. He had lost many friends under the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Sana’a and yet he refused to give in to despair.

Saeed explained to me how Ana Mehani had to shift its focus and meet the war-related jobs demands; for example, whenever some people’s homes were partially damaged by the shelling, airstrikes and other war-related violence, or whenever some displaced people needed transportation and delivery for their belongings - his team stepped in and linked them with vetted community-based workers. Schools, houses and organizations buildings impacted by the air-strikes all found his services to be a necessity.

With about 10 members, Ana Mehani team aims to find job opportunities midst of the raging war in Yemen.

I wanted to write about Saeed from my own perspective, other than Forbes’ one, so I pitched to my editors. I had an initial green light from my editor at Al Jazeera English. So I wrote the piece. I sent it. My editor kept me waiting for about a month with no feedback. Then, I received a reply of an apology about not publishing the piece. The reply also included a note of how they prefer stories only from “the ground.”

I swallowed my frustration. And I tried to vent and tweet about it:

Months passed by. Saleh was killed on Monday and the capital, Sana’a continues to be engulfed in flames. The fierce fighting between Houthi forces and pro-Saleh forces is destroying all aspect of life in Sana’a. After calling my mother, relatives and friends in Sana’a to check on them, I was thinking last night of Saeed. So I called.

Saeed greeted me with a tired voice.

“We are hanging on. We are working from home now as our office is right at where the clashes happen and I assume it became destroyed,” tells me Saeed, “no doubt, the current situation is not a reasonable working environment, although there are still high demands for jobs and services.”

Saeed voice becomes more tired when he tells me how he lost many international opportunities, in attending conferences and networks abroad. The blockade imposed on entry points to Yemen has crushed his dreams of enhancing his network and skills. “It kills my soul not being able to realize my dreams,” says Saeed.

We pose for seconds as if we mourn. In a helpless attempt to fill the silence, I ask Saeed, “which period was more difficult to deal with, business-wise? During the Saleh/Houthi vs. Hadi/Saudi fronts or during today’s events?”

“My team and I have a strong will to cope with whatever happens. We can see that there are increasing demands for our work, as the war rages on. However, today, the skyrocketing fuel prices are killing us and the Yemeni money exchange rate to dollars has jumped to 442 YR. This is leading us to … I don’t even have a word for it.”

“Are you still hopeful about the future,” I ask Saeed. “I have to be hopeful because I am alive - and I can’t wait for things to stabilize a little bit so we could scale up our work,” he replies.

*This piece was originally published on the Huffingtonpost on the 8th of Dec. 2017.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Chasing Yemen-Stories

Hello from Cairo!

As I mentioned in my commentary on the Listening Post show, if Yemen story used to be a complicated one, today, it’s absolutely way, way more complicated than ever before. No question that the aftermath of Saleh’s death has a lot to do with that complexity.

While living in Sweden over the past 6 years and a half, the dream of going back to Yemen never ceased to haunt me. I went to Sweden for a two-weeks-long study trip mid-2011, believing that I’d be back to Sana’a, my hometown right away. I didn’t even know where was Sweden located on the map. My only connection to Sweden when I was a kid in Yemen was when my mother used to say whenever she would find good woodish stuff and say, “this is great furniture, it must have come from Sweden.” Now, I know, she must have meant IKEA stuff.


Sweden was a coincidence for me. During my first week in Stockholm in 2011, violence erupted in Sana’a. Airports were shut down. Already, I have been receiving death threats against me and my family for my anti-regime writings with the start of the Uprising. I wanted to go back but my family, out of love and protection, asked me to stop writing if I’d ever go back. And I thought; “to stop writing would be like to stop breathing.” Hence, Sweden was my shelter.

In the following four years, I’d live as a political refugee in Sweden. All this time I was only thinking of the day I’d have the Swedish passport and be able to go back to Yemen or at least visit. But as the country has been in an endless violent rollercoaster, I had to wait, wait and wait. Despite the distance, I managed to continue reporting with a gradually increasing focus on international actors’ role in political events in Yemen. Then, in March 2015, the Saudi-led airstrikes military operation began and I was about to have two major events in my personal life: I was writing my MA dissertation to graduate during summer and I was applying for the Swedish passport.

Seeing Yemen from afar being bombard was so painful that I was so slow in writing my dissertation and I only managed to graduate by August that year. Ironically, my application for the Swedish passport went very quickly. In June 2015, I became a Swedish citizen and I realized I could travel anywhere I want but not Yemen - because of the war and the fact that having a foreign passport will make it impossible to enter the country. I was extremely depressed for awhile.

As I started experiencing living in Sweden by a choice, I no longer saw Sweden from eyes tainted by displacemnt, trauma and pain. I was in the healing process. Nothing I regret living in Sweden - except the horrible dates I had with some Swedish guys and living my first one year without taking vitamine d. Overall, Sweden has been so good to me … but now it’s time to fly away - maybe - for awhile or for good.

When the Committee to Protect Journalists called me end of May this year, announcing that I was awarded the International Press Freedom Award, I made the decision to move from Sweden to somewhere in the Middle East. Why? CPJ has put me in a beautiful trouble. CPJ told me that this year of all the countries in the MENA region, they picked Yemen to bring more attention to it. And I take that so seriously. And I want to bring world’s attention on events in Yemen as much as I could.

Having said that:

I am today in Cairo for sometime, weeks, months, years - can’t confirm. It depends on many things which I’ll save explaining in other blog posts.

For now, I am in Cairo to be closer to Yemen and be part of the growing, forced-to-be-so, Yemeni diaspora community in Egypt - many of them are Yemeni activists, journalists and politicians. Despite the new political reality in Egypt, Cairo has been for many decades a crucial hub for events influencing Yemen.

My plan is to report from here as much as possible whether through Sana’a Review or/and the different media outlets I work with as a freelancer. My aim is to understand, analyze and write as Yemen’s new modern history is unfolding dramatically before our eyes.

As atrocities are committed across Yemen by all warring sides, instead of weeping, I will use my peaceful resistance tool and fight through writing.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

My Interview with Mada Masr: On Saleh’s death and the worsening humanitarian crisis in Yemen

Sana'a, Yemen - Courtesy: Abdulwahab al-Ameri

*Events have unfolded rapidly in Yemen over the last few days. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed by Houthi forces on Monday, following news he was moving away from his previous alliance with the Houthis toward new ties with the Saudi-led coalition that has been fighting them, and spurring an increase in violence in the Yemeni capital Sanaa.

Mada Masr spoke to Yemeni journalist Afrah Nasser about Saleh’s death, the deteriorating humanitarian situation, and the dynamics of living outside Yemen and speaking and writing about what is happening there.

Laura Bird: Were you surprised by the news of Saleh’s death? It must have been strange to see graphic images of the leader you grew up under and opposed in 2011 posted online. How did you feel when the news broke?

Afrah Nasser: I was shocked. I always believed Saleh’s alliance with the Houthis was very temporary. He was not only an influential man, he waged about six wars against the Houthis over the past decade and he always won — he even killed the leader of the Houthis. So I expected that he was going to win, but I underestimated the military power the Houthis had, thanks to Saleh. He also miscalculated this temporary alliance and I don’t think he ever thought they would turn the tables against him.

When I met Saleh in 2011, I understood how much this man was clinched to power. He thought he was irreplaceable, unmovable, untoppleable. His death must have even been a shock to him. He never thought that a youth movement on the ground, nor the Houthis, nor the Saudis, would take him away from power. So in that sense, as someone who was affiliated with the revolution, yes, the Houthis did what we couldn’t. But at the same time, they are another face of evil, another face of dictatorship — actually, one that is more brutal and based on sectarian ideology and extreme religious views.

LB: Why do you think Saleh made the decision to switch his allegiance at this point in the conflict? Was this a strategic political move, or one made out of “concern for the worsening humanitarian situation,” as Saleh claimed?

AN: It did look like Saleh was more concerned about the humanitarian situation than the Houthis, especially the looting and corruption within Houthi circles, but I think he felt they were after him and wanted to obtain a victory over them before this happened. They were never on the same page though; the only alliance they had was a temporary one against the Saudis. We’re dealing with two gangs, basically. Neither of them have any ethics or follow any political principles. They only want to survive and are thirsty for power and will crush anyone in their way until they get power. So Saleh realised that these guys were going to take him out so they could have an absolute grip over power and tried to make his move first.

LB: What do you think the ramifications of Saleh’s death are likely to be?

AN: I’m very worried about how the Saudis will scale up their military operation. Right now the Houthis are targeting every presidential building Saleh used to have, because they want to take control of all institutions. I am expecting a major military operation to hit the whole of the north of Yemen, not just Sanaa. This is a new chapter, more bloody than what has already come. I mean, if the war has killed 10,000 people already, this will multiply that number in the coming, not only weeks, but days, hours.

Maybe the Saudis will try to invest in Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh. I mean, even the name will garner sympathy on the ground in Yemen. The Houthis have force, but they don’t have popularity among many people in Yemen. And this will be the defining clash, if they win through military force. We will see, nobody knows.

The next round totally depends on how Yemenis react — the politicians, President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, it’s really up to all of these actors in the south, whether state or non-state, and how they respond. The Saudis, the Emiratis, they can only give them the tools, but it’s up to them how they orchestrate a response against the Houthis. It will be a darker scenario. Who will lead the country? Now Saleh is gone, the state is gone, nobody is ruling.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Saleh's death, checkmate

*A political earthquake hit Yemen yesterday, as ousted Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh was dramatically thrown out of the political scene following his death at the hands of Houthis. 

In a deja vu moment, I was reminded of Gaddafi's fate in 2011, and the atmosphere at the start of the 2011 Arab uprisings as a video circulated of Saleh's dead body being dragged onto a truck by armed men.

In a country known for its deep-rooted "revenge culture", Saleh, in some senses, dug his own grave, when many held him responsible for the 2004 death of the Houthis' godfather Hussein Bader al-Din al-Houthi, older brother of current Houthi leader, Abdelmalek al-Houthi.

Voices in the video cry, "we are having revenge for you, Hussein". Murdering Hussein was only one highlight of Saleh's 33-year rule that was tainted with bloodshed.

As Saleh leaves a legacy of political manoeuvring, corruption, and chaos in the country, his death is believed to be the result of a betrayal within his inner circle, from where sensitive information about Saleh's whereabouts was leaked and a trap prepared.

In his televised speech after Saleh's death, Abdelmalek al-Houthi expressed his gratitude, "towards those 'honorary' Yemeni officials who helped us (Houthis) capture the 'traitor' Saleh".

The Houthi field and military leader, Abou Ali Alhakem reportedly spoke hours before Saleh's death, describing how Saleh's calls with UAE and KSA were tapped, which for him provided evidence of his treason.

This is neither a victory to Houthis nor a defeat to Saleh, despite his death. Both leaders are heads of an unleashed dragon that was, and is still willing for all hell to break loose. However, for the man who was well-known for being the most influential politician in the country, there is no question his death poses a greater threat to Yemen's future, and brings serious ramifications.

During the first days of Yemen's 2011 uprising, I was one of a group of revolutionaries taken to meet Saleh at his palace in Sanaa. "What do you and your friends want?" he asked. We all fearlessly replied, "We want to topple the regime. If not, change your cabinet." Our talk lasted less than 10 minutes as Saleh got up yelling, displeased with our demands, and left the room.

We were allowed to leave and went back to the protests, with Change Square determined to continue the uprising. Me, and all my friends there were born under Saleh's rule.

We have only known one president in our lifetime and never imagined the possibility of replacing him. Although Saleh was regarded as immortal after he survived a fatal assassination attempt in 2011, today we are in disbelief as for the first time, we are truly seeing a Yemen without Saleh.

Saleh's death creates an acute power imbalance as Sanaa city has been under heavy fighting on the ground and air-strikes of the Saudi-led coalition. Civilian inhabitants have been trapped and under siege over the past few days in areas of fighting where there is no food, water or medicine.

I call my family in Sanaa every hour to check on their safety, as the death toll of these recent clashes has jumped to at least 125, with 238 wounded. While civilians pay the heaviest price, the Saudi-led coalition is also paying for losing their last card in their almost three-year-long unwinnable war against the Houthis. Losing Saleh and all the intelligence support he could have provided the coalition with mean the Saudis face a great vacuum in their strategic approach to confronting the Houthis.

The Saudis will likely scale up their military operations. Heavy airstrike shelling going on in Sanaa as I write spells out a bleak scenario, with Sanaa looking potentially like another Mosul.

It seems the situation will likely have to get worse before any prospect of improvement. For a country suffering from a huge heritage of impunity and an absolute lack of accountability, yesterday's events bring the initial problem of Yemen's 2011 uprising back to the surface: The unrealised dreams of millions, that envisaged Yemen as a civil state in which equal citizenship and justice were guaranteed for all.

When Sanaa's Change Square became the focal point for Yemeni pro-democracy protests in 2011, one of the first posters to appear at the square was "welcome to the first step towards our civil state".

Today, the enemy of that dream is the extremist vision the Houthis work to impose, restoring the old Yemeni Imamate system as a futuristic political system. Our recent national memory shows how Yemenis could have dealt with Houthi invasion, as the capital witnessed many anti-Houthi protests raising slogans, such as "no for coup" and "no to armed militias".

The fate of Yemen as a united republic lies in the hands of Yemenis. Today's events are the peak of the clash between the essence of Yemen's 2011 uprising, and the Houthi insurgency - between revolutionary ideas and far-right-politics.

*Article first published on The New Arab, today.