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Public protest and visions for change: Yemen's peaceful youth movement 

by Saleem Haddad and Joshua Rogers

This article is based on Saleem Haddad’s talk to the Society on 28 March 2012. Saleem Haddad and Joshua Rogers work for Saferworld’s Yemen programme. The programme focuses on promoting political inclusion and enhancing understand- ings of security and justice mechanisms in Yemen. The research formed part of an EU-funded project that took place in Yemen and 17 other countries.

Saleem Haddad holds an MSc in Development Studies from SOAS. He previously worked in Yemen for Medecins sans Frontieres, researching the humanitarian impact of the ‘global war on terror’.

Joshua Rogers holds an MA in International Relations from the Free University of Berlin and a BA in History and Politics from Oxford University.


Yemen’s civil protest movement has been the largest in Yemeni history and the longest-running of the Arab Spring uprisings. In a country where 75% of the population is under the age of 25, Yemeni youth have been instrumental in peacefully challenging the country’s exclusionary politics. Although regime forces have shot hundreds of protestors, the protest movement has created unprecedented opportunities for young people, including women, to debate the future shape of Yemeni society and politics. Yemeni youth are not just voicing a set of grievances; many have begun to articulate visions for a more inclusive political system which they feel could lead to long-term peace and security.

Our research was conducted in July and August 2011 and examines the views which youth have expressed on the grievances and expectations mobilising the protest movement. It offers a snapshot of young people’s perceptions of political legitimacy and pathways of change. Our findings were generated from consultations with youth from diverse backgrounds in four major cities: Sana’a, Taiz, Aden and Mukalla, and supplemented by interviews with politicians, religious and tribal authorities, businessmen, women and other leading personalities. Within each location, the research team tried to ensure a balance of opinion between politically independent youth, those associated with a range of political parties, tribal youth, rural youth, and those who did not engage in any form of protest. In some cases, political tensions meant it was not possible to bring such diverse groups together in one room, and the views that emerged most strongly from the research tended to reflect those most commonly referred to as ‘independent youth’ associated with the country’s peaceful youth movement.

Exploring youth grievances

The most striking feature to emerge was the broad similarity of opinion in all four cities on the key drivers of protest. When asked to identify the top five grievances the problem of corruption consistently topped the list of youth concerns except in Mukalla where the Southern issue predominated.


Corruption was seen as a deep-rooted system affecting all aspects of society. At the macro level, youth participants discussed how international aid reinforced corruption by making national leaders accountable to international actors rather than local people. The specific roles of the US and Saudi Arabia were highlighted as contributing to the entrenchment of a corrupt system through formal and informal payments made to individuals within the state, military commanders, and tribes. Lack of accountability helped create a system where the regime’s inner circle had access to key sectors of the economy, and was rewarded through government contracts and the allocation of budgetary resources. On a day-to-day level, corruption affected youth most strongly in education and employment opportunities, as well as everyday transactions in the public sector, the justice system and the police. Youth spoke of jobs being bought and sold, exam questions being provided to those with connections, and the routine need to pay bribes to public officials.

Economic Challenges

Unemployment and poverty came second on the list of youth grievances. Over 2011 unemployment, according to unofficial estimates, increased from ca. 40% to between 60–70% of the population. Chronic poverty is severe, with an annual per capita income of under US $900. Nearly half the population earns less than $2 per day. In this context, most Yemeni youth have little hope of finding work abroad, where external markets have been closed to them for political and security reasons. Low standards of education have meant that they lack necessary skills to prepare them for the domestic labour market, but also for more lucrative opportunities in neighbouring Gulf countries.


Exclusion, articulated in different ways by different participants, emerged as another major grievance driving the protests. Young people had an expansive understanding of marginalised groups, identifying youth, women, rural communities, religious minorities, Southerners, non-tribal citizens and even all those not associated with the GPC as excluded. Exclusion was linked to the political system, in which a large-scale appropriation of public funds was used to maintain, through patronage, a narrow ruling coalition and incentives for developing the productive capacity of society were minimal. Political exclusion, young people argued, promoted nepotism at the expense of equality of opportunity and individual merit. Participants also discussed the interaction of multiple mechanisms or layers of exclusion. Young women discussed their multiple exclusion as women and young people from political processes as a factor driving their participation in the protests; and many said that their exclusion cut across all aspects of socio-economic and political life. When asking for greater inclusion, many prioritised their identity as young people, rather than as women.

Security and Justice

The reform of the military and security apparatus was cited by many youth as being an essential precondition of achieving long-term peace and stability, as much of the current violence was traced to divisions within the military itself. Security forces are segmented, with extensive overlap and duplication of functions between the Police, Army and Central Security Forces. Their rivalry and that of their commanders results in ineffective policing that follows logics of power-maintenance, not security provision for people. Government violations of political and human rights has been another key grievance in the eyes of protestors. Stuck between a corrupt judiciary, deteriorating traditional conflict management systems, and a state security apparatus that has exerted a disproportionate level of force in the name of ‘stability’ and ‘counter-terrorism’, many Yemenis find themselves in a vacuum when it comes to law enforcement and the provision of security’, and this was a grievance cited by youth in all regions.

The Southern Issue

For many Southerners, the process of unification was not smooth, and is seen as the beginning of an unequal relationship between North and South, and the increasing marginalisation of Southern governorates. Protestors from Aden and Hadramaut largely expressed themselves in language emphasising the separateness and uniqueness of their own region. Participants from both regions stressed that the deteriorating economic and security situation combined with perceived inaction on the part of the central government to address these issues had catalysed secessionist sentiment. Overall, grievances of young people in the South took three main forms. The first related to the desire for greater political representation; the second to the control of the South’s natural resources (including the contentious issue of land rights) which were seen to have been misappropriated by Northern elites; and the third related to the South’s distinct historical and cultural identity. In particular, Hadrami youth expressed particular pride in their ‘civic’ identity as distinct from the ‘tribal’ attitudes prevalent in the North.


In addition to discussing grievances, youth expressed views on the reforms needed to ensure long-term peace and security. The common demand heard throughout the streets of Yemen in 2011 was for the fall of the regime and its replacement by a modern civic state. Yet the notion of a civic state has remained fluid and contested, representing many things for different people. In characterising what the civic state should embody, many cited rule of law as the key to ensuring equality and justice for all citizens and to resolving issues of weak governance and corruption. Wealth and power must be freed from the clutches of narrow interest groups; the state and its institutions should work for the people rather than for a specific group in society. Investment in education was seen as essential to improving civic awareness, the competitiveness of the Yemeni workforce and promoting economic development.

Decentralisation and local autonomy

When asked who was best able to address challenges facing the country, youth consistently cited the important role played by local level administration, from neighbourhoods and communities to local councils and informal local authority figures, in contributing to positive change. The general feeling was that governorate-level action had a more legitimate popular base than national-level decision-making. While national-level leaders and state actors were seen to be driving the current crisis, it was felt that if left to their own devices, local communities and leaders were better equipped to effectively deal with their constituents. Views varied on the degree of local autonomy that was desirable, but the concept of greater decentralisation as a means to promote and protect local interests received considerable support. Federalism (subject to varying interpretations) was cited by many in the South not demanding outright secession, as an option which would promote equality among regions. Demands for greater decentralisation were seen by participants in Mukalla as a non-negotiable way to reduce conflict, ensure greater control over their resources and to fill the administrative vacuum left by the central state. Youth in all four cities felt that one strong leader at the centre was not the best model for Yemen’s heterogeneous and historically decentralised socio-political structures.

Views of the ‘old regime’, military, political parties and tribes

All the youth consulted felt that the need to address the split within the military was a top priority and that this split had driven the country to the brink of economic and humanitarian collapse. Indeed for many youth, reform overall was about redefining and de-politicising the role of both the military and tribes within formal political processes. However, the role of the tribes remains deeply contested as tribes remain the most pervasive social force in Yemen, and Yemenis, even those critical of tribal influence in the political system, often pride themselves on their tribal heritage.

While only 20–35% of Yemenis consider their tribe to be their primary unit of identity, tribes remain key power brokers in Yemeni politics. On the whole, youth were highly suspicious of current political elites and their ability to reduce conflict and deliver change. Beyond tribal and military elites, young people referred to those leaders affiliated with the GPC and the opposition coalition of the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP). Parties were seen as self-serving interest groups, out of step with the demands of ordinary Yemenis, which had been used to legitimise and maintain the regime’s rule. Youth felt that the regime had actively weakened political parties’ positive potential either through co-option or through policies designed to divide the opposition e.g. the fragmented Southern al-Hiraak movement.

Positive Legacies: ‘Change’ Squares

At the time our research was conducted in July 2011, Yemen’s protestors had been camped out in the squares for six months. In a culture where public space is rare, this provided an opportunity for Yemenis of diverse geographical, social and political backgrounds to meet face-to-face. According to participants in group discussions, this was significant in bringing Yemen’s heterogeneous society together to share and discuss ideas. As one young man in Taiz explained: ‘we met each other for the first time: leftists, Houthis, Islamists, tribes, all in one place and exchanged ideas…and we saw that our demands [were] united ’. For some youth, the protests represented a social revolution as much about empowering citizens and changing mentalities as about political change, toppling leaders and re-drafting the constitution.

Positive Legacies: A new role for women 

One of the most immediate changes since protests erupted in Yemen has been the increased visibility of women and their participation in the protests. Young men in Aden discussed how women were ‘the backbone of the revolution’, and talked about how the courage of women to break social taboos by protesting in the streets gave youth an incentive to emulate their example on an unprecedented scale. In addition to empowering women, the protest movement provided an opportunity to educate men on gender issues. Women remarked that even before the Yemeni female activist, Tawakul Karman, won the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2011 they had begun to notice the political process opening up to them, although they also expressed caution that gains could easily be reversed. The need to build on and promote a greater role for women emerged in all focus groups, including those conducted with young men. The positive role played by women in Taiz and Aden, where women served as judges and in police forces were highlighted by some men in Sana’a as exemplary cases. Young women in all four major cities emerged as more articulate and conciliatory than their male counterparts, demonstrating a willingness to discuss different points of view in contrast to the more argumentative and combative debates in discussion groups with men. This affirms the necessary and important role which women can play in contributing to social and political change in Yemen.

Vol 20. 2012