Yemen's Absent Angry Young

Yemeni youth march during a parade commemorating the second anniversary of the uprising against Yemen's former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa on February 11, 2013 (MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images). Yemeni youth march during a parade commemorating the second anniversary of the uprising against Yemen's former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa on February 11, 2013 (MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images).

Yemeni youth march during a parade commemorating the second anniversary of the uprising against Yemen's former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa on February 11, 2013 (MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images).

2011 was the year that Yemen’s youth hit the streets to protest against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. It was a long time coming: youth unemployment had hit new heights, and the sheer number of youths in Yemen—the average age of the country was 17 that year—meant that the country was teeming with angry, disaffected young people with very few prospects.

One of the names people give the events of 2011 in Yemen is the ‘youth revolution.’ Youth groups emerged up and down the country, independent of the established opposition political parties. The large number of youths who chose to stand alongside, but not be a part of, these parties—seen by many as a part of the old establishment—was a sign of their disaffection towards them.

Some of these independent youth groups became more prominent than others, notably the Coordinating Council of the Youth Revolution of Change and the Supreme Council for the Youth Revolution. Yet, as time passes, these organizations have become less and less active, sometimes disappearing from the public eye. Many of the youth activists of 2011 have joined former opposition parties such as Al-Islah and the Yemeni Socialist Party.

This opens these activists up to accusations that they have been co-opted, that they have ‘sold out.’ Many Yemenis are looking for an alternative to the General People’s Congress, the party of former President Saleh and current President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, and the old opposition parties. They are looking for a third force. With the absence of any strong national youth movement that could have easily gained mass support, groups representing sectarian and regional identities, such as the Houthis and Al-Hirak, have stepped into the breach. These groups are largely untainted by association with the former regime and the corruption associated with it. The Houthis have been particularly successful in attracting support from people who are not necessarily associated with its Zaidi religious base, in particular the leftists.

One of the interesting things to note about the 2011 protest movement in Yemen was that it did not bring many leaders national fame and prominence. Tawakkul Karman is perhaps the most famous of the youth leaders, yet her popularity has waned in Yemen, and she is more respected outside the country than within. At the time, a lot of people thought that this absence of a leader was a positive, a sign that it was the idea and the movement behind the protests that was attracting support, and not an individual being lionized, as so often happens in the Arab world. Yet this lack of leadership among the youth has led to a vacuum, and others have filled it.

Currently, the independent youth do not have much of a voice on the national stage. Protests are few and far between, and the numbers that turn up are dwindling. Talk to young people on the streets of Yemen and they will largely paint the same picture of disaffection. Nothing has improved since 2011, they say; in fact, things have got worse. They ask, ‘Where is the change?’ The absence of a mass national youth movement, one of the few groups a nation such as Yemen could currently rally around, is one of the reasons for this lack of change.

Many of the most prominent—and most promising—members of the independent youth movement have been participating in Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference over the past nine months. This has taken up their energies, and it can be argued that it is a major reason for the inactivity on the part of the youth movements. The individuals who have taken part on behalf of the independent youth have faced some criticism from those who oppose the National Dialogue, and have been accused of buying into the Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative that brought about the National Dialogue, something that the independent youth rejected in 2011.

But these young people have also picked up valuable political experience in an arena that has some resemblance to a parliament, they have pushed through motions they favor, and have rocked the boat in a realm that does not often see youth participation. With the National Dialogue now coming to an end, the opportunity has presented itself for these youths to use their experience to move to the forefront of Yemeni politics. Maybe the youth voices of 2011 will grow louder once more in 2014.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.


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