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Patriotic Criticism

[ ["We Are All Abd Rabbo" says message on the chest of protester in Sana'a's Change Square, 21 February 2012. Photo by Atiaf Alwazir.]

This post is in response to some people’s comments regarding my criticism of aspects of the Yemeni transitional government. I was told by someone that my criticism is “accusatory, and will cause the state to fail!”  I am humbled by the power this person has given me, as I do not have the means to make the state fail or succeed, I wish I did.

Let me start by saying that the transitional government has of course taken many positive steps, including:

  • Giving employment contracts for waste collectors, which will reduce corruption and guarantee the workers their right to salaries.
  • Removing twenty generals and numerous governors from their posts.
  • Passing a decree to prevent phone tapping except through a court order.
  • Passing the access of information law in parliament. 

While these are positive steps, it does not mean that the government is perfect, no government is, and therefore no government is above criticism. There are also many indications that the government has taken some positive moves, but there are also many alarming signs that represent a continuation of the past. To name a few:

There has been no real break from the patronage system that many in government continue to benefit from. Parliament announced that tribal sheikhs will receive sixty million dollars, which goes against the demands of building a modern civil state. Youth leaders had articulated specific demands for a comprehensive change to the entire political structure, as a move away from the patronage system toward a modern civic state based on citizenship, justice, and rights. Prior to allocating these funds to the sheikhs, this same government had informed waste collector employees that they cannot guarantee them better wages and work conditions because of the limited state budget. Yet, state officials announced the next day that money will be given to the sheikhs. Only after continued strikes by the laborers did the government accede to their demands and award them employment contracts.

Drone strikes and air raids continue causing displacement and death of civilians, in addition to empowering militants by giving them a recruitment tool. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) would like to expand the drone strikes in Yemen by launching strikes based on suspicious activities that could include carrying arms, even when it does not know the identities of those who could be killed. There are no exact figures for the number of firearms in Yemen, but unofficial estimates suggest that there are between fourteen to twenty million privately owned firearms in the country for a population of twenty-four million. Hence, how will the Yemeni government and the US administration differentiate between militants and armed civilians/tribesmen?

Many Yemenis only point fingers at the United States for the drone strikes, however the Yemeni government is equally responsible—if not more so—for allowing the drone attacks in the first place. If the Yemeni government calls against the drones, the United States will not be able to continue, as it will be a breach of Yemen’s sovereignty.  Of course, the Yemeni government would lose most of the US military and other financial aid if that happens, but isn’t that a risk worth taking in order to prevent the country from turning into a chaotic mess? 

Illegal detention continues, and many political prisoners have not been freed yet. Torture cases have also been reported, a recent example being that of the torture of three southern movement activists by political security agents as reported by Aden Times.

Military restructuring of key generals needs to take place. While the twenty generals have been removed, key military officials such as Ahmed Saleh, the son of the former president, his nephews Ammar and Yahya, and General Ali Mohsin are all still holding the same positions. Saying that things will take time is not a sufficient excuse for us to stop demanding these changes. 

I am a firm believer that any person in power can be corrupted, even those with the best intentions. The only way to prevent that from happening is to have strong institutions that act as watchdogs preventing that person from gaining ultimate power. Since we do not have these strong institutions in Yemen yet, it is our duty as citizens and watchdog groups to be vocal when we see something wrong. This puts pressure on the government to know that people are watching, people will speak out, and media will spread the word.

Unfortunately, some of the same pro-democracy activists who have struggled for freedom of expression during the revolution have changed and are today accusing individuals who criticize the government of being disloyal, unpatriotic, or spies working for Saleh. This is troubling because it means that Hadi and the government have become an untouchable symbol, something we have long fought against.

Hadi and the government have taken some positive steps, but there are also negative implications of their actions or lack thereof. It does not have to be “with him or against him.” Statements like “we must support Hadi” should not imply that we cannot analyze the activities of the government, or express our concerns when things are not done right. We do not want another sacred entity, we need a government for the people and by the people. This may be the reason why Hadi has reportedly ordered the removal of his photos and posters, an unprecedented and positive move.

The main success of the revolution is that people felt free to speak out, and fear was finally broken. We need to expand and build on this, not silence people once more.  We should not allow individuals to curb our right to speak, and we should always question our reality. That is the only way for real change to happen in Yemen.

[This article originally appeared on in response to repeated calls for the author to exercise self-censorship.]

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