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Yemen: independent intellectuals under threat

Polarisation is wiping out all independent or dissenting voices. Yemeni intellectuals are constantly at risk of acts of violent intimidation, arrest or assassination. Français

Demotix/Luke Somers. All rights reserved.In Yemen, only ruins are left of the revolutionary process which raised such enthusiasm in 2011. Political and sectarian polarisation have been the outcomes of the military campaign launched by Saudi Arabia against the Houthi militias in March 2015, in addition to humanitarian disaster and a military and strategic failure.

Polarisation is wiping out all independent or dissenting voices. Yemeni intellectuals are constantly at risk of acts of violent intimidation, arrest or assassination—another element fuelling radicalisation.

On 2 January 2016 in Sana’a, Nabil Subay, a Yemeni journalist, heads for lunch with friends. Unidentified gunmen attack him on a busy street: they beat him violently about the head and shoot him in both legs. He is taken to hospital and operated on. One of his colleagues, Muhammad Aysh, immediately places responsibility on the Houthis, given that the city is under their control; they allowed this aggression to happen and let the perpetrators escape. No one claims the assault, a familiar pattern for such acts for decades.

Wamidh Shaker, Subay’s wife, posts the following response on her Facebook page: “You will not bring change, we will! What you did today to Nabil will not change him in any way. Remember, we are the ones who change things, not you!” The word used for change (taghyeer in Arabic) is not chosen by accident: it is a direct reference to the ‘change’ square in Sana’a, where hundreds of thousands Yemenis spent many months in 2011 and 2012 to first demand, and later achieve, the downfall of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Wamidh’s challenge fits in neatly with her husband’s courageous stand; he is a journalist, an intellectual, a satirist, and father of their two sons.

Nabil Subay has been famous among Yemeni intellectuals for the past 15 years. Born in 1978 into a modest family in Dhamar, south of Sana’a—his father was a migrant worker in Saudi Arabia—he first attracted attention with his innovative poetry. This was followed by his stimulating and often iconoclastic political statements.

In 2003, going against the grain, he spoke out against widespread Yemeni popular support for Saddam Hussain, pointing out that dictatorship is responsible for more suffering in Arab societies than US imperialism. In 2005, he was sued by the government for his sharp criticism of Saudi policy in Yemen, and was banned from publishing for a few months.

In 2007 he started the weekly al Shareea (the Street), a first venture into investigative journalism. This weekly publicised some of the major scandals of the Saleh era, in particular the trafficking of subsidised diesel to the Horn of Africa by regime cronies and the treatment of the Black minority, the akhdam. His independent spirit influenced his younger brothers: Jamil became a photographer, Murad an artist whose political murals since 2012 have earned him the nickname of ‘Yemeni Banksy’ in the western press, as well as a number of international prizes. His sisters as well as the youngest brother are also politically committed.

Tired of the difficulties of being a journalist working in an impoverished press with bad distribution, as well as having developed a fascination for the potential of social media, Nabil Subay has recently taken up blogging, and now has 60 000 followers on Facebook. This has increased his popularity. His posts are uncompromising and his satire remains well targeted. His fearlessly critical positions are considered less than constructive by some, but they are characterised by his unique sense of humour and wordplay, which have made his name.

This “lion of the word” (asad al kalmia) has come to symbolise the hopes of the many youth who came out on the streets against Saleh and who also reject the regime of Hadi and the Islamists. As early as 2012 he pointed out the failure of the revolution, the fragmentation of society and the need to save the country from identity politics. His independence of spirit is recognised on all sides but it makes him many enemies among the Islamists, Saleh supporters, southern separatists, the Houthis and other powerful people whose contradictory statements he daily points out.

Yemen needs to overcome the current conflicts between Sunnis and Zaydi-Shi’a, north and south, Islamists and ‘liberals’.

With the 2015 war, Nabil Subay has taken a stand equally opposed to the Saudi bombing, Houthi policies, Hadi and his allies, and the southerner separatists. Although he could have escaped abroad, he chose to stay in Sana’a with his family, living and writing despite the bombing and the pressures.

His partnership with his wife Wamidh Shaker, from a family active in the southern movement, as well as his own social and religious Zaydi origins, also enable him to go beyond the binary logic of an increasingly polarised intellectual and political field. This simplistic dualism does, however, make life dangerous for independent intellectuals; no one protects their autonomous voices and they are likely to pay the price demanded by an increasingly violent society.

The attack he suffered in early January 2016 symbolises a deep and worrying dynamic emerging in a country which, only a few years ago, and particularly during the 2011 revolutionary moment, demonstrated a flourishing of ideas and creativity. As the political situation has become increasingly tense since 2014, far too many independent and moderate personalities have been murdered or suffered violence and intimidation.

An unrelenting process has emerged, which is fed by all political currents. The first targets for assassination have been moderate Houthi leaders, whose assassinations have often been claimed by al Qaida. The deaths of Ahmed Sharafuddin, Abdul Karim Jadban and then Abdul Karim al Khaywani have weakened the position of those who sought the integration and normalisation of the rebels in the political system, a position very remote from the warmongering logic promoted by Abdul Malik al Houthi and his opportunistic ally Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Senior Muslim Brotherhood figures have been arrested by the Houthis after their coup in January 2015: this is the case of Muhammad Qahtan, a widely respected Islah party politician, whose fate remains unknown. His death, in a prison possibly targeted by Saudi missiles, has been announced more than once, but never confirmed.

The Houthis have also arrested and are holding in solitary confinement Abdul Qader al Gunaid, a doctor from Taiz. Muhammed al Mutawakkil, a descendant of Zaydi imams and the mentor of many independent intellectuals, was assassinated in November 2014. He was a figure of moderation and political compromise and, in a way, he appears to have been killed to clear the field for the emergence of the murderous polarisation of common benefit to all warmongers.

Yemen needs the critical intellectual voices which are currently under threat. A new round of peace negotiations are, in principle, due to start on 15 January, though as yet their location has not been finalised. More than likely, like earlier ones, they will only have a limited impact. They are taking place in a context which is so remote from the reality on the ground and involve elites who are operating within a war logic.

For all those who want to see the return of peace, the need to build agreements and bonds beyond the polarisation is patently obvious. What needs to be done is to create a dynamic of convergence that overcomes the current conflicts between Sunnis and Zaydi-Shi’a, north and south, Islamists and ‘liberals’ etc.

The voices of Nabil Subay and other independent thinkers, such as Wamidh Shaker, Samy Ghalib, Bushra al Maqtari, Farea al Muslimi, Muhammad Aysh, Ammar al Awlaqi and Nadia al Kawkabani are essential participants in the emergence of a new political framework. Today, with the internet and transnational media it is possible to develop and broadcast ideas in a safe and secure environment in contrast with the situation on the ground. Many of these intellectuals have chosen to settle abroad, albeit temporarily.

In the coming weeks, Nabil Subay will decide how he will address the situation after the attack he has just suffered. Let us hope that he and his family will take into consideration the risks he faces in a country that has never given so little scope for independent thinking.

Thanks go to Helen Lackner for translation from the French.

There is an acute and growing tension between the concern for safety and the protection of our freedoms. How do we handle this? Read more from the World Forum for Democracy partnership.
About the author

Laurent Bonnefoy is a researcher at the CERI/Sciences Po in Paris and the deputy principal investigator of the WAFAWproject funded by the European Research Council. He is a specialist in Yemeni politics, in particular Islamist movements, and authored Salafism in Yemen: Transnationalism and Religious Identity (2011, Hurst & Co.).

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There is an acute and growing tension between the concern for safety and the protection of our freedoms. How do we handle this? Read more from the World Forum for Democracy partnership.


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