Recently I had the opportunity to interview an American woman who has lived in Yemen since 2009. She stayed in the country through the Arab Spring and the Yemen Revolution in 2011, and has great insight into the politics and culture of the country. For her own safety I haven’t used her name or any personal details.
Below are some of the highlights of the interview, which covered the Yemeni Revolution, democracy in Yemen and the Middle East and al-Qaeda. However, if you want to read the whole interview with this fascinating woman, here is a PDF link to the entire interview
How the revolution started…
When they saw the power of the people in Egypt, obviously dealing with many of the same issues, I think people got swept up in it. The square [in Sana’a] filled up. I think before Egypt they wouldn’t have though it was possible, that they would have made a difference. But when Mubarak stepped down in Egypt they thought “If we commit to this we can create change”.
There was also an aspect of “we don’t care about the consequences anymore”. I think that’s what the guy [Mohamed Bouazizi] in Tunisia thought…I mean he sets himself on fire! In the Islamic world if you commit suicide you go to hell. But when there’s that level of desperation, when people are so controlled by religion and politics, you get to the point where people say “you know what, you can shoot me but with my life the way it is right now I’m ready to sacrifice myself”.
From the beginning there were skirmishes, but the government couldn’t really attack protesters. At least they try not to, because they know how that will be portrayed in the Western media. But they will pay citizens who support the government to go and attack peaceful protesters, then in the media it gets reported as clashes between citizens. On the ground though everyone knows these people are paid by the government to go and attack protesters. But as the protests got bigger and bigger, the government tried more and more to stop them. They would fire live ammunition, use teargas, things like that. March 18th  was the first day when somewhere around 58 protesters were killed. All through this time though there was talk of brokering a deal that would get the president to step down. In late May he refused to sign it. With that the clashes really started.
The situation in her city…
We had a lot of street fighting. It’s hard to remember when it was worst. It would kind of come in waves. I remember October being really bad. The thing was though, throughout the revolution, whether you were a foreigner or a Yemeni, if you were involved it was obviously very dangerous. But as a civilian, unless your house was in the wrong place, you weren’t in as much danger. And most Yemenis have a house in a village, so they could go there if their home was in danger. The fighting was also localised to certain areas. My house was on the other side of town from the fighting, which meant it never got close to my house. You could hear it though, when it was happening. I was teaching at the time, so on days when the street fighting was heavy they would call off classes and we’d stay indoors. So there was danger, but it was manageable.
On the risk of kidnapping…
When I first came in 2009, which was before the revolution, I knew that the more harmless versions of kidnapping were an issue. When I would get dressed in the morning I would always think “Is this something that I would be ok wearing for a really long time”. So that was always in the back of my mind. But now that the threat is actually higher, I don’t think about that at all. It’s not something that I fear. I recognise it as a risk, but I try to live in a way that minimises that risk.
And I feel like you can minimise the risk, even if you can’t bring it to zero, but that does cost you something. Like I don’t walk through the streets, which is something I enjoyed doing before. I also wear the lithma [veil] now, which I never did before. Just to cover my face, so I don’t look like a foreigner.
Extremism in Yemen
There’s definitely a small percentage of extremists that would hate me for being an American, but the general population is different. They hate the America that’s far away, but the moment that you’re in their country they take care of you and are honoured that you’re there.
Extremism also comes in waves. When I first arrived in 2009 there was a conflict going on between Israel and Palestine (Operation Cast Lead/Gaza War). At a time like that, or a time when US troops hit the ground in the Middle-East, people would start to sympathise more with terrorist groups.
So in 2009 I would walk down the street and there would be an Israeli flag painted on the street, and it would have “Death to Israel” written on one side and “Death to America” written on the other. And it was written in English, so I could read it! So I’m walking over it, as an American, and at the same time people on the street are yelling to me “I love you” and “Welcome to my country!”
Al-Qaeda in Yemen
The structure of al-Qaeda is kind of…they have a lot of independent guys that will claim the name of al-Qaeda, but they’re not submitted to the core leadership in a way they did before. That’s kind of a problem for the leadership, because they do have principles actually! For example, some men recently attacked a military hospital. They were killing patients in the hospital and doctors. That was a terrible PR move for them, and the al-Qaeda leadership came out later and apologised for it.
Q: That’s a very different view than what we have in the West, of a scary, united al-Qaeda group.
Yeah, to me it’s scarier now. If they were submitted to this kind of leadership…it sounds funny to say, but I have a little more trust in these guys who are going to keep the others in check a little bit. But now you have these guys who are going rogue, and are just a little bit more violent without the set of principles.
Though it’s still important to note that terrorist organisations such as AQAP have killed far more Yemenis than foreigners. They regularly target Yemenis political security officers, they attacked a military parade, and like I said they recently attacked a military hospital. So there’s a significant portion of the Yemeni population that hate AQAP because they’re suffering.
The chances for Yemeni democracy
Like Egypt, in Yemen there are two parties that have enough strength and support to put someone in office. One is the Islamist party, and one is the party of the former president (the Mutamar). The problem is that if the Mutamar wins the next election people feel there hasn’t been a transfer of power, and there’ll still be this festering sense of frustration that we’re back where we started. If the Islamists win the election…they’re a strong party but at the end of the day it’s going to be hard for them to hold power because the majority of Yemenis don’t want an Islamist government. They’re not going to want the reality of what that means, and we saw what happened in Egypt. Even if they’re elected, there’s not going to be satisfaction in that. So it’s hard for me to see an outcome to an election that people are going to feel satisfied with.
Once again, if you enjoyed reading these please click this link for a PDF of the whole interview.
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