2021 marked the tenth anniversary of the Peaceful Popular Youth Revolution in Yemen. It was a year distinguished by a proliferation of scholarly and journalistic commentaries forming conclusions about the success or failure of the events of the “Arab Spring.” In the Yemeni case, most of these conclusions have been those of overwhelming failure. Peaceful protests in 2011 eventually transmuted into violence on an unprecedented scale in 2015, the revolutionary movement imploded, rival armies assembled, and a plethora of in the Arabian Peninsula jostled for supremacy in the country. In many ways, it is the quintessential story of a revolutionary tragedy: of aiming and failing, of ideals succumbing to reality, and of an authoritarian resurgence. And yet if we take a moment to observe how the revolutionaries in Yemen marked their decennial anniversary, an image of revolution comes to the fore that defies over-arching narratives of closure. In the midst of a war that has cost the lives of nearly a quarter of a million people, we heard references to a beautiful moment in 2011, to virtuous being and exemplary morals that survive the ages; and to an event whose essence will materialize once more. Along with these celebrations, we also heard accusations of betrayal, self-indulgence, rival and reinvented revolutions, and of free-riding elites. In this short piece, based on fieldwork in the early years of this event, recent communications with revolutionary friends, and reflections published to mark this anniversary, we suggest that traces of this revolution endure at a range of levels, from the individual self to the very discordance that underpins the current war. As another anniversary beckons, we propose that what erupted ten years ago continues to defy closure.
Beauty and Nostalgia
In early February 2021 in the town of al-Turba in Taiz governorate, a small gathering of a few hundred people took to the streets in celebration. Against the backdrop of a brutal war that has raged for the last several years, leading to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people from bombs, bullets, disease, and starvation, there was a conspicuous lightness to the affair. Families strolled down Jamal Street hand in hand, their children waving balloons and mini Yemeni flags. Among them were young men and women who themselves were children when the revolution erupted ten years ago. A few soldiers darted about, taking a break from the front lines, along with the “youth”—the men and women who first opened the call for the overthrow of the regime in 2011. Celebrating an event that many hold responsible for the present catastrophe did not pass unnoticed on social media by those who decried the indulgence of revolution. As the march petered out, a nearby public square was commandeered to mark the occasion: there were talks about the past, present, and future of the revolution, recollections about all it had achieved and statements about its endurance. Into the evening, fireworks filled the sky and, as is custom, a soldier lit the torch of the revolution. He proclaimed before the television cameras and a small crowd his fidelity to the revolution, invoked the sacrifice of its martyrs, and recalled the most virtuous, now long defunct, of revolutionary deeds—when soldiers, like himself, faced the regime’s war machine unarmed on demonstrations, facing gunfire with their “ .”
Former revolutionary youth across the country and in exile celebrated the occasion alone, posting pictures of their younger selves on Facebook, sitting in tents in the former revolutionary encampments, and marching in the streets, always smiling. Praise flooded the comments sections with references to “the beautiful days” and the “true” and “glorious” revolution. They recalled, in awe of themselves and one another, their ‘civility’ and how former adversaries united in recognition of a shared enemy (the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, 1978-2012). They spoke of this event as a , something innately good and to be recovered at the opportune moment. While there was a degree of pleasure to be had in recalling this moment, it also belied a painful anxiety about the passing of time and the finitude of the human life course. A message from a friend questioned the possibility of ever achieving such unity again, hinting despondently at the present dispersal and division among old friends and comrades who had sat together in the revolutionary camps.
Another social media post stressed the importance of recounting the significant moments of resistance. We were told that every detail of the revolution must be recorded, from the first cry of “we are peaceful!”, to the first tent erected, to the first martyr, and the first collective prayer. They recalled the massacres in the camps as moments in which the purity of sacrifice converged with the creativity of politics. We were reminded of the a 250-kilometer exodus from Taiz’s Freedom Square to Sana’a’s Change Square in late 2011—as the “sacred” journey of resistance through which “the youth” sought to save the revolution from the machinations of political parties (especially al-Islah/ The Yemeni Congress for Reform) and foreign delegations (the United Nations and the then US ambassador). It called for writing every detail of this moment, no matter how small: how it was planned, how they navigated the mountains on foot day and night, what they ate, what they talked about, how they were received along the way, and the moment when they descended into Sana’a to be met with machine-gun fire on Seventy Street. The post emphasized that “to remember the Life March is to inscribe its place in the history of the 2011 revolution both as an enduring revolutionary act and an inspiration for generations, and a revolution, to come.”
Purity and Betrayal
Grandiose statements alluding to the purity of the past came from a place of unprecedented torment. The majority of the youth who responded to the tenth anniversary as a chance to share memories of a long-lost moment, have spent the last several years unemployed, at home, isolated, and targets themselves of a secondary revolution that took the nation by storm in 2014. For these youth what happened in 2014 was an act of betrayal, with an apparent ally from the revolutionary camps breaking rank, sacking the transitional government, spreading militarily throughout the nation, and putting their own interests before those of the people. Within months of the takeover, a twenty-two-state coalition spearheaded by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the transitional government retaliated with devastating military force. The new revolutionaries, known as (often called ‘Houthis’), had originally emerged as a Zaydi revivalist movement in the 1980s in response to religiously and politically motivated discrimination by the Saleh regime and Saudi hegemony. In their eyes, the 1962 Republican Revolution that overthrew the Zaydi imamate had come to serve as a pretext for banishing them from political life altogether. Throughout the revolution, they had suspected the hand of their adversaries—many of whom now claimed revolutionary identities—in steering the course of the event in their own favour. In the final roadmap of the 2013-14 National Dialogue Conference—an event heralded as a “political solution” by the UN envoy to the many divisions and schisms throughout the country—they (as with other groups, such the Southern Independence Movement) foresaw in its rhetoric of “” a plan to forsake their and the sacrifices of their martyrs, by confining them to a life of forced economic deprivation in the newly proposed federal divisions. Whichever betrayal one chooses to believe, most of the population today have suffered the brutality of the which commenced in 2015 and whose targets have not just been the new revolutionaries but the basic infrastructure through which life is possible. Many of those who condemn the Saudi campaign also condemn the , whose respect for they regard as no greater than that of the drones flying overhead.
Of the revolutionary youth who have remained in Yemen to this day, many invest their time and energies carefully cultivating their political avatars on social media. Others have felt thrown into action by their circumstances, leading them to take positions on the battlefields that they had never foreseen for themselves. One student from the revolutionary encampment in Sana’a lamented the moment he became a homeless, itinerant soldier on the front lines in Dhale’ for the ‘legitimacy’ (the transitional government), forced by moral duty to take up arms following Ansar Allah’s demolition of his family home. He is aware of the stark contrast between his current and former selves and wants people to know that he had no choice. For others, joining the army has been less to do with ideology or personal affliction than the necessity of securing an income in a war economy. A minority with the requisite qualifications have found employment in humanitarian agencies or fashioned themselves as political analysts within a global community of experts. Some have managed to flee the country to Cairo, where they help to shuttle the war-wounded between the airport and local hospitals. Others have fled to Qatar where they have distant family, or to Istanbul where they run revolutionary television channels. Some have fled to Moscow, the Horn of Africa, some to East Asia, while others have crossed the Sahara Desert to board the dinghies leaving the Algerian coast for Europe. For many, “refugee” has become an ascendant status. Displacement also extends not just to those who are on the move, crisscrossing continents, or winding up in Internally Displaced People camps. For those who remain, there is an existential displacement, with former revolutionaries now finding themselves without place or purpose in a dystopian reality.
In seeking to account for the turmoil of the present, many youth have found some consolation in distinguishing between the “mistakes” and “sins” of their revolution. One mistake we hear is that the revolution did not erupt on its own terms, requiring instead prompts from events in Tunisia and Egypt. For example, one post laments that the revolution was not “of pure Yemeni origin,” vaguely hinting that autochthonous rebellion would have been preferable. This insinuation resonates, unintentionally, with President Saleh’s insistence in early 2011 of Yemeni : that Yemen is different from its neighbors and that any such disruption would unleash a natural propensity for civil war. Another “mistake” was that the revolutionary youth was too innocent, thereby rendering the encampments an exploitable arena for the vested interests of political parties and corrupt individuals. It is to the elite partisan world of political power, which came to infuse the revolution that these youth attribute “sin.” They would remind their critics that it was not they who pushed for the power-transfer initiative that granted Saleh immunity, nor they who invited a twenty-two state military coalition into their territory, or who colluded with Ansar Allah. Many, however, have continued to put their trust in political elites, some of whom even have connections to the old regime. They do not see this as contradicting their revolutionary values.
Although relegated to the status of sin for their grand act of betrayal, Ansar Allah did not allow the tenth anniversary to pass uncelebrated. They too had occupied the revolutionary squares, had their share of martyrs, and had marched through the capital invoking the will of the people and celebrating the civility of the revolutionary message. Despite the absence of celebrations in the streets of Sana’a, on their television channel they recalled the events of 2011 through an anti-imperialist lens. The tenth anniversary was an opportunity to remind themselves and their enemies how Washington, Saudi Arabia, and corrupt Yemeni elites linked to the opposition parties had hijacked this event for their own personal gains. They reminded us that the power-transfer initiative and the ensuing National Dialogue Conference had sought to perpetuate imperial domination over Yemen. In these recollections we gleaned another, implicit, message: let us do all we can to ensure that a past of political alienation does to repeat itself. The reportage assertively concluded that the February 2011 revolution was saved in September 2014, by “.” For Ansar Allah, the present war marks anything but the end of revolution.
Innocence and Indulgence
As the youth celebrated their beautiful moment, they did so knowing that many hold them directly responsible for the inordinate levels of suffering that today plagues the country. It matters little whether they claim their event was hijacked or betrayed. It is they who set this course in motion by disrupting an , albeit an authoritarian one. Those in the diaspora know that when they post on their newsfeeds about the purity of their revolution, comments will inevitably come their way accusing them of material privilege, of not suffering like us, of insensitivity, self-indulgence, and of blind zeal. To their denouncers, what occurred in 2011 was al-nakba (catastrophe). For example, in reply to a post lauding the revolutionary efficiency and progressiveness of the conference in al-Turba, a man asks pointedly “but will it be open to self-critique?”
The fiercer the criticism, the fiercer the claim to innocence and the purer the event appears. The youth scorn Ansar Allah for their act of betrayal, of having sat with them in the tents speaking the same revolutionary language all the while plotting sabotage. They see the triumph of this enemy as a regression—a return to an era of backwardness and despotism, against which the 1962 revolution erupted. Talk of regression merges with fear of the “ghosts of Saleh” haunting the present, refusing to allow the New Yemen to emerge from the rubble. The youth for online newspapers seeking to remind all those who show signs of nostalgia for the law and order of Saleh’s regime, that life prior to the revolution was masdud (a dead end) and certainly no measure against which to speak of progress.
With reminders of their glorious moment—of an exemplary moral individual parading through the streets of Sana’a, holding corrupt and corrupting persons to account, acting with dignity in word and deed, and challenging all those who would threaten the Yemen of their ideations—we find bold proclamations that “the revolution continues!” The integrity of the original revolutionary individual thus appears to remains intact beneath the horror and bloodshed of battle—that it both was and still is “A peaceful revolution that does not carry guns or artillery, but the rose of love and the dove of peace, and that sings the song of patriotism and freedom,” as one activist put it. Others find refuge in the belief that the revolution has reinvented itself on the battlefield as part of a seamless continuum set in motion in 2011. There is virtue in violence. Claims of revolutionary endurance and adaptation are accompanied by occasional references to messianic visions of a future civil state in which the beautiful moment will be once more. Other voices chime in: “We are broken but we have no remorse” and “There is no shame in the February  Revolution.” In private they speak of psychological trauma and a lost generation.
And then there were those who said nothing on the anniversary of their event. These individuals ardently refused to rally any longer behind grand schemes and all they promise for the human condition. Unwilling to free the past from the shadow of the present, they find refuge in the conviction that it is better to believe in nothing.
The Urge to Conclude
What are we to conclude from such a cacophony of voices? Must we say with any conviction that this revolution has succeeded or failed? Need we mythologize the unity of voice for the purposes of telling a single story? It is often thought that the Arab Spring revolutions failed because they lacked over-arching ideological visions of social change. If such unity is a precondition for revolution then we may swiftly discard the 2011 revolution in Yemen to the dustbin of history. And yet to do so, we propose, would be to miss the experience of revolution qua revolution. The defining feature of this revolution when it erupted in 2011 was of a vast array of people, with a vast array of convictions, celebrating revolutionary change as something immanent at the level of the self. Today, when we hear from so many rival voices that the revolution continues, that it has been betrayed, that it has reinvented itself, that it will return, or that it endures through personal ethics, we must be cautious about enforcing closure or presuming failure. Instead, we should consider whether open-ended dissensus, discordance, and disagreement—the stuff of “failure”—might be better understood as the part and parcel of the story of .