Saturday, December 31, 2011

Social Media in Yemen: Expecting the Unexpected

This article was first published in Al-Akhbar English


A young group of men and women hover over their laptops while sipping expensive lattes at one of Sana’a’s four main Western style coffee shops. For the past six months, the majority of people in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a have received between two to four hours of electricity a day. Many of the customers are “electricity refugees” as activist Hamza Al-Sharjabi describes people who move from place to place in search of public spaces with generators for Internet and electricity.
Many activists are also at the cafes, often carrying with them heavy backpacks with their laptops and the chargers needed to power their camera, laptop, and phones.

One of these cafés is located about 1 kilometer from an entrance to the square, making it a proper spot for activists to meet, charge their equipment, update their blog, tweet, or go on Facebook via the terribly slow internet. In addition to these expensive cafes, generators and Wi-Fi can also be found inside the square in various tents including the media committee’s tent and others.

The creativity of people inside change square who turned empty tents into high tech Wi-Fi spots may appear as an oxymoron in the Western mindset. When it comes to Yemen, many people would not imagine that such a vibrant online community could exist in the region’s poorest countries.
In addition it may seem unimaginable that social media would have an important role to play in Yemen where illiteracy rates reach approximately 45% according to UNDP and where Internet penetration is less than 2%.

However, it is important to note that a large majority of the Yemeni population are youth, by some estimates, close to 60 percent. These youth also represent the majority of users online. While it is important not to exaggerate the impact of this small group of users, it is also important not to disregard their effect.

This effect also needs to be recognized in the context of the wider debate in the “online” community regarding the role of social media in the revolutions that swept the Middle East. Some dubbed these revolutions as the Facebook or Twitter revolutions and attribute the revolutions to these social networking sites. Others have completely dismissed its role, especially in societies with low literacy and Internet penetration rates. Another group, myself included, believe that social media is not a silent witness, nor is the cause of the mass people’s movement. Twitter and Facebook do not cause revolutions, people do. These people, fueled by years of injustice and wide grievances, are the true agents of change.

Organizing & networking
The power of these revolutions lies in the people’s strength to collaborate together. While the bulk of mobilization efforts in Yemen happen through word of mouth, radio, brochures and SMS services; sites such as Facebook helped people meet each other with one click, without having to travel great distances between cities.

Online forums and Facebook groups help people meet each other from different parts of the country. It helps create connections between people with similar interests that otherwise would have never met. These groups, some of which are private, are also the hubs of organizing for the next day’s marches.

Many independent groups who have members from various parts of the country hold online meetings in closed Facebook groups, where they vote on important matters, and share documents. There are over 30 revolutionary Facebook groups that vary in theme and topic which include women in the revolution, media campaigns such as Support Yemen, and revolutionary news.

The most recent “Life March,” for example, which took place from December 20 - December 24, saw hundreds of people march 267 kilometers from Taiz city to the capital Sana’a by foot. It was organized in Freedom Square in Taiz, and also on Facebook for others to join in the discussion. A page was set up with information on the location and time of the event. The group later evolved to include information on the march, photos, and videos. Messages of support poured in from people throughout the nation and abroad.

A live stream was set up for people to watch the event unfold. Activists abroad also joined in the media campaign by creating sites such as lifemarch.net with an interactive Google Map of the march, phone messages from activists, and reports on the march.

Given the fact that the Life March was organized by independent protesters, it not only went against the stance of the ruling party but also against the desires of the formal opposition political parties. This meant that none of the formal media outlets covered the event on television, radio, or printed press. Social media became the sole outlet for people to get an update on the Life March.

Sources of information in the absence of independent media
The Ministry of Information in Yemen controls printing presses, the main television channel and radio stations. Hence, radio and television broadcasters are not completely free to decide the content of their shows and printed press is not free from censorship.

Newspapers and magazines in Yemen are divided between private, government controlled, and party-affiliated magazines. Independent media is therefore lacking, and social media has filled that void.
Some bloggers and citizen journalists have become sources of information, forcing their writing style to shift from personal diaries to more objective “news” in order to fill the information void.

A group at Change Square called the media committee assigned themselves as one of the media voices covering the revolution. Information, photographs and videos are updated regularly on their blog, YouTube channel, and Facebook group. Some of their information was used by local, regional and international media.

Twitter has also become a very important source for spreading information to the world minute by minute especially given the low number of foreign journalists in Yemen due to the strict laws regulating entry visas to the country.

The main challenge with new media is credibility. While some twitter users are recognized activists and trustworthy sources, not all users can be relied upon. In the midst of thousands of online “activists”, it can be difficult for individuals to differentiate between reliable and non-reliable sources. For example, some foreign journalists have on occasion quoted some individuals as eyewitnesses who were not in the country, but were online activists from abroad.

With pure intentions, some activists abroad, have mistakenly spread false information when they were in fact not in the country by relaying information based on what others have said. This has caused rumors to become “facts” in the online world. In addition, while trying to help, online activists have sometimes created confusion by spreading various accounts of the same incident.

Documenting violations and Advocacy
Social media does not only serve the purpose of news sharing, but technology has also enabled activists to better document human rights violations. Sites such as Bambuser help spread news instantaneously through live streaming from mobile phones. The live stream details the exact location of the event through Google Map and maintains records of the time and video. This helps with the documentation process and removes any obstacle or doubt to credibility.
Security issues are of concern to activists because many of these new tools can also help in tracking individuals. For example, live streaming is great for documenting violations, but it also gives the exact location of the person recording the video which could aid government security in making arrests or intimidating activists. These tactics have also moved to the online arena through electronic threats, harassment, bullying and hacking.
When an activist receives an e-threat, the online community sometimes acts as a defense attorney, providing advise and advocating on the person’s behalf through media campaigns, petitions, and various online advocacy methods.

Social Media: Part of a Larger Whole
It is important to emphasize that users of social media are a minority in Yemen and other developing countries. Nevertheless, new media, as one tool out of many, has indirectly played a significant role in the mass people’s movement.
It is important to remember however, that online activists are not the only revolutionaries. In the media’s ultimate search for heroes, the West often coins online activists as leaders of the revolution simply because they can relate to them. They speak their language, and they can follow their blog. However, not all revolutionaries are online and their role should not be forgotten. Just because they do not tweet or facebook or have a blog does not mean they do not exist.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

In Yemen, the Life March Revives the Debate on Immunity for Saleh

First published on Muftah.org

Hundreds of Yemenis are marching 250 kilometers from Taiz to Sana’a to protest the immunity clause contained in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative.  Demonstrators began their journey on Tuesday December 20 and are hoping to arrive in Yemen’s capital in time to hold protests in front of the Parliament on Saturday.


On that day, Parliament is scheduled to vote on a law granting immunity to President Ali Abdullah Saleh and many senior officials, in accordance with the terms of the GCC implementing mechanism signed by Saleh in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on November 23, 2011.

Dubbed the “Life March,” the demonstration is reviving the pro-democracy movement after the disappointment that followed the signing of the GCC implementing mechanism.
“The youth walking all the way from Taiz to Sana’a is a historic moment that is beyond description. It shows resilience and power of the people,” said one of the protesters.

Members of the pro-democracy movement have a number of grievances with the GCC deal, including the movement’s exclusion from the negotiation’s process, the lack of real comprehensive change in the plan, especially in the military arena, and the granting of immunity to Saleh, his aides, and many others.

Due to a lack of transparency, no public document listing those who will be granted immunity has been released.  However, off the record, members of the Joint Meeting Party (JMP), an opposition coalition, have admitted that some members of the opposition are included in the immunity deal.


Hope Restored

The Life March has revived hope that peaceful resistance is still possible even after ten long months of protest.  In the many cities and villages protestors have passed through, they have been welcomed with cheers, music, food, and shelter.  Along the protest route, many have also joined the march. A number of Facebook groups have been created to document the march, and a live stream has been setup for people to follow the protestors’ journey.
By fostering new forms of resistance, Taiz city has become a symbol for innovation and inspiration in Yemen.  This trend has continued with the Life March, making people feel proud and hopeful once more.



Implications & Challenges
The ruling party has accused the JMP of inciting protestors to march from Taiz to Sana’a. In particular, the party has accused Hamid al-Ahmar, a businessman and prominent figure in the Islah party, of funding the life march to disrupt the GCC agreement. Some political analysts believe that Hamid al-Ahmar and other players, who have not found a place in the GCC deal, may have incentives to halt the plan. The ruling party has also called for GCC mediation and threatened to derail the GCC deal if the Life March is not stopped.

Protestors at the Life March have denied the ruling party’s allegations and have stated that neither the JMP nor any other group has been involved in organizing the march.
While the march has certainly invigorated the revolutionary spirit, not all pro-democracy activists support the initiative.  Some feel that it is a waste of time, and that effort should be placed on building pressure groups to oversee the newly formed national government.


The Pro-Democracy Movement and the GCC Deal
While the majority of pro-democracy activists feel that the GCC initiative and implementing mechanism are imperfect, not everyone agrees on the current and future actions that the movement should take.  Currently, the movement is divided between those who disregard the GCC deal entirely and do not feel the need to address any of its components, and those who believe that the GCC initiative and its implementing mechanism are imperfect, but insist that the movement should participate in the political process and form new political parties and pressure groups.

There is also another group, within the movement, that supports the GCC initiative as the only viable solution. Munir Al-Mawery, an outspoken activist abroad and member of the national council, wrote in an op-ed piece in Al-Masdar online “If Parliament refused to pass the immunity law, this will be a precious gift to the deposed president and his family who will seize the opportunity to thwart the initiative, cancel the presidential elections and allow the return of the ousted president to his palace.”


Conclusion
While the GCC initiative and implementing mechanism provide one possible exit to the deadlock, it did not involve popular participation and, therefore, did not address any of the street’s demands.  With real grievances ignored, and no representatives to speak on their behalf, many Yemenis feel alienated and disappointed.

The Life March demonstrates that the revolution will continue and evolve into different forms. Political players have yet to learn that the Yemeni people will no longer tolerate a system of exclusion.  If a real solution is to be reached, protestors and major stakeholders need to be part of the process.  Collective participation is the only way to give the people a sense of ownership and endow the political process with real legitimacy.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Human connection is what it's all about

In the past couple of days, I have been extremely pessimistic, negative, and sad regarding the situation in Yemen. Today, a small incident reminded me of the many positive elements of Yemen.

While sitting in the taxi, on my way to a meeting, the car stopped at a red light. To our right sat a group of four men, who managed to turn the broken sidewalk into a picnic spot. They were eating some salta & bread. As soon as they saw us, they screamed ghada, ghada... lunch lunch, and gestured with their hand for us to join them. We did not join them. The driver thanked them, and then drove off, but my smile remained.

Many of us living in Yemen have had this experience multiple times.  This is just one tiny example of many, that demonstrate the hospitality and friendliness of the people in Yemen. This human connection is what makes Yemen so special, and keeps us smiling despite all the troubles.

Lunch time at change square in Sana'a, Yemen

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Yemen's GCC Initiative: Cosmetic or Comprehensive Change?

First Published on Al-akhbar

After nine months of mass protests calling for an end to the regime, and six months after the initial Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) initiative was submitted, Ali Abdullah Saleh signed the GCC’s implementing mechanism on 23 November 2011, at a ceremony in Saudi Arabia. The deal involved the transfer of his powers to Vice President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi, in return for immunity from prosecution. A national unity government will be created, evenly divided between the opposition and Saleh's ruling party.

While the GCC implementing mechanism marks the first step in a political process on the long road to change, it fell short of the comprehensive change protesters have been demanding for some 10 months. It fails to appropriately restructure the military, ignores a large section of the population, grants Saleh immunity instead of serving justice and provides for elections that allow only one pre-determined winner.

On the day of the signature, confusion loomed in Yemen and mixed feelings surfaced in the streets of the capital.

Some expressed hope that this signature would save Yemen from economic and humanitarian collapse, others expressed happiness because “this dictator was forced to sign and relinquish his power to the vice president, and the JMP and the youth” said Ahmed, a member of the opposition coalition, the Joint Meeting Party (JMP).

Not everyone shares Ahmed’s enthusiasm. “I am not happy because we went to the street to demand an end to the regime and the current system, not just the removal of one man,” said Fatima al-Aghbary, protester and member of an independent youth coalition. Many protesters echoed Fatima’s worries, expressing feelings of betrayal and deep disappointment with the JMP.

At the outset of the demonstrations, groups representing most of the pro-democracy coalitions at the square came up with a list of demands. At the top of the listarticulated by the Coordinating Council of the Youth Revolution of Change (CCYRC) in March is the “removal of the current regime peacefully and removal of all its figures and all members of the President’s family and his relatives from all leadership posts in the military and civil institutions.”

The GCC implementing mechanism is imperfect, but from a diplomatic standpoint is an acceptable solution. While it is a compromise between the different formal political parties in Yemen, it is also a good compromise for foreign countries that have interests in the country – mainly Saudi Arabia and the United States. Supporting the GCC mechanism means that both countries can show some support for the democracy movement, but at the same time maintain an old system that is beneficial to both Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Saudi Arabia is not keen on seeing independent civic youth take leadership, as this pro-democracy movement could spill over into neighboring Saudi Arabia. The United States on the other hand, has a deep relationship with the current government due to its counter-terrorism unit and the “war on terror,” and therefore would not want to see that relationship disappear.

Given the complexity of interests involved in Yemen it is no wonder the plan contains many vague stipulations that could be interpreted in various ways.

Military restructuring

One of the main problems in Yemen is family/tribal control over the military and security apparatus, which therefore provides that family/tribe total control over state resources. For example, the son of the president heads the Republican Guards and the Special Counter-terrorism Forces; the nephew of the president controls the Central Security Forces; and the president’s brother controls the Air Force.

It should come as no surprise then, that the democracy movement called for a restructuring of the military as a means to end the military/family dictatorship. The movement demands: “Dissolving the political security forces and national security forces, and forming a new national security agency under the umbrella of the Ministry of Interior,” in addition to, “merging the Republican Guards with the military forces, and dissolving the national defense council to ensure full impartiality of the army and security forces.”

According to the GCC implementing mechanism, the new government will appoint a committee to "restructure" the security forces, including the army, the police and the intelligence services, headed by VP Hadi. While this sounds great in theory, it remains unclear what powers this committee will have to make real reforms, especially since it is very unlikely that Hadi will be able to push for these reforms, as he is considered to be weak and uninfluential.

More worrisome, is that there is no clear stipulation that bans the son or nephews of the president from remaining in their posts. In addition, any recommendation to remove government forces will also mean the need to remove Ali Mohsin, the “defected” military General, from his post. This could either lead to renewed military clashes between the two sides, or the restoration of an old friendship between Ali Mohsin and the Saleh clan as the only way for both camps to stay in power.

The day after the signing, large billboards appeared in the streets of Sana’a, showing Saleh and his son Ahmed, in military uniform, by his side. The text on the billboard reads: “You raised your son very well, that is why he will always remain by your side.” These billboards are an indication of the future plan to keep the son in his sensitive and powerful position.

The extent to which the committee is able to restructure the security forces and the military, will lead to the same extent of real change in Yemen. If these security forces are not dissolved, or merged into one national security agency, then the shadow of Saleh and the system he created will continue to rule the country.

Lack of inclusion

The GCC initiative and mechanism only addressed the formal political parties, and disregarded those who were the fuel for the mass people’s revolution: the youth. It also overlooked the powerful political groups with wide grassroots support, such as the Houthis and the southern secessionists. Since these important groups were not part of the discussion, they naturally do not feel ownership of it, and therefore feel that it is not binding for them.

These groups will most likely also be excluded from the unity government that divides seats between the JMP and the ruling party. In addition, since the JMP is made up of different political parties, it is unclear to which extent parties other than the dominant Islamist Islah party, will be represented.

In addition, although the mechanism indicates that “national dialogue” will take place with the presence of youth, women, Houthis and southern secessionists, it is unclear whether a new government that is seen as illegitimate will be able to mediate such talks. There might be a need for an honest broker in the middle to carry such a heavy burden. This might be a place where independents can fill the gap.

Women on the other hand were mentioned very briefly in the implementing mechanism, despite the fact that they were part of the revolution from the beginning. The mechanism states that women should have “appropriate representation” in the new government. The vagueness of the term “appropriate” will create widespread debate, and of course the interpretation will differ from group to group.

Women’s groups need to push for real representation at the decision making level and to be part of all the important committees, including the constitutional committee.

Immunity clause v. justice

After the deaths and injuries of hundreds of peaceful protesters and civilians, the immunity clause given to Saleh and his close allies feels like “a slap in the face” says Ali, a 19-year-old protester. The immunity clause violates the youth’s demand that seeks to “legally pursue and prosecute corrupt officials that caused, assisted and incited the killing and injuries of peaceful protesters.” From a diplomatic standpoint, the immunity clause was a necessary compromise in order for Saleh to agree to sign.

The immunity clause not only goes against the demands of the people, and against human rights, but it’s also a dangerous precedent to set in a society that will take matters into its own hands if justice is not served.

Realizing such inherent dangers, the implementing mechanism tried to address this concern by emphasizing the creation of a national commission for human rights, charged with investigating individual complaints regarding human rights violations and compensating victims.

But despite multiple redrafts the rights commission was excluded from the final agreement. With no court to intervene, the families of victims of violence such as the March 18 sniper attacks on peaceful Sana’a protesters, resulting in 50 deaths, will feel alienated. Finding no legal means to seek justice, the victims and their families may take matters into their own hands. In a society with a tradition of revenge, this could stir a cycle of retribution leading to years of war.

One-person election

The upcoming election scheduled for February 21 will be a grand show to mark the beginning of a new phase. But the new phase will begin with a flawed process – an uncontested election. Both the JMP and the ruling General People’s Council (GPC) agreed in the implementing mechanism to accept one candidate: Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi, in order to move past the political deadlock.

Of course many different electoral systems exist, but this one-person election will naturally not sit well with the Yemeni people. As elections imply a way for an electorate to select someone among multiple candidates for office, the upcoming “election” is more of an “appointed” post rather than an election.

Having an election might emphasize the importance of a process. However when the process is a failed one, wouldn’t that legitimize an illegitimate process? It is precisely for this reason that some independent youth are deciding whether to select another candidate for the elections, even if it is just a symbolic move.

A legally binding signature may not be enough to ensure that elections will be conducted in a timely fashion. It is not beyond question that Saleh, or the people around him, may continue to create conflict either to postpone elections, to prolong his stay, or to make sure his son remains in a powerful post. Also problematic is that the GCC implementing mechanism places a lot of importance on one person: Abd Rabu Hadi Mansour. What if he suddenly dies, or is killed? Will both sides be able to agree on another candidate? Will elections be postponed indefinitely?

Conclusion

While the GCC implementing mechanism has some important stipulations, it should be placed in a context where the rule of law is absent, and implementation is often lacking. In the absence of an independent judiciary, who will monitor the implementation? Time will unravel the answers to the many questions that still remain.

Despite all these imperfections, Saleh has legally signed away his political career. It is up to the people in the street to make sure that happens, and to continue to push for broad changes. Independent groups should form pressure groups to monitor the implementation of the mechanism and to put pressure on the new transitional unity government.

The hope for Yemen is that the independent civic groups will organize to become the third voice in order to bring true democracy to Yemen.

Revolutionary addiction


“Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol or morphine or idealism.”
- Carl Gustav Jung quotes

It’s hard to understand an addiction unless you’ve experienced it, and most of us have experience one form or another at some point in our life. I recently came to the realization that I have an addiction called the Revolution.

I’m a person who loves life and wants to enjoy every second of it. But for the past ten months, all I could talk about is politics, and most of the activities I have been engaged in are related to the revolution. While I’ve always loved politics, it never completely and utterly consumed me like this before. Since January, my life has turned upside down.

I didn’t realize the negative side of it, until I noticed that I no longer talk about anything other than the Revolution. I miss talking about "nothing" and enjoying it. I miss laughing with friends so hard until tears roll down. I miss talking about what dress I wish was on sale, and what the latest movie is. I miss reflecting internally on how I feel. I miss talking to friends about their relationship problems. I miss talking to my brother and sister about their first year in university.

This obsession is making me miss out on important daily life, and its draining me emotionally.
I miss my old me.

Despite the irony that my friend pointed out of simultaneously wanting my OLD self back, and dreaming of a NEW Yemen, I need to step on the breaks and take a moment to reflect in order to remember that life is bigger than just one moment in history.

This is why I decided that I must undergo these 10 Steps of Revolution Rehab. I’m sure I’m not the only one suffering from this illness. If you are as well, here are some steps that could help you triumph over the addiction.
  1. Admit that you are powerless over the Revolution – and that you life has become solely dedicated to it. 

  2. Actively take weekends for R&R (rest and recuperation) to restore your sanity. 

  3. Admit that in the process of your addiction, you may have neglected those closest to you, including family and friends. Seek apology from them.
  4. Take a couple of hours each day to do non-Revolution related activities. Facebook and Twitter do not count.
  5. Actively seek artistic nonpolitical activities. Try to express yourself through the arts.
  6. Stay away from the computer for one entire day.
  7. Dedicate at least one day a week to doing absolutely nothing related to the revolution. You can not talk about it, think about it, or do anything related to it.
  8. Engage in conversation that is not related to the revolution at least once a day.
  9. Do not go to change square for one entire week.
  10. Do not attend a demonstration for one entire week.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

كن يمنيا وحسب! شعر الدكتور نزار الحبشي


أسمي يمني بن يمني اليمني
أنا يمني وبطاقتي يمنية وحسب
لا ينتقص من وطنيتي وولائي عصبية إنتماء لحزب أو قبيلة أو منطقة أو مذهب
ولائي لليمن وحدها، لا يشكاركها ولائي أحد
عشقي لليمن وحدها، لا ينافسها في عشقي لها أحد
ثُرت من أجلها هي وحدها.... وحدها هي فقط
ثُرت من أجلها لم أنتظر إذن ولا توجيه من أحد
ثُرت من أجلها لا أنتظر نفقة من أحد
ثُرت من أجلها لا أطمع في مال أو منصب أو سلطة أو نيل رضا من أحد

ترفعت دوما أن أكون جزء من النظام حاكمٌ أو معارض
لم يصرف لي الحاكم يوما مبلغا من المال أو سيارة أو قطعة أرض بلا حق
لم أستغل علاقتي به قط لأحصل على تسهيل أو منحة لأبني أو منصب أملأ به كرشي بغير حق
لم يكن لي من الوظائف مثنى وثلاث ورباع أستلم رواتبها بغير حق
لا أستلم مال من جارة ولا صديقة ولا أستمع الأوامر من أحد
لم أطلق طلقة في الهواء، لم أقتل أحد ولم أنهب شئ من أحد
أحترمت ديني وسموت به فلم أجعله سلعة أزايد بها على أحد
لم أستخدمه لأجعل من الحق باطل والباطل حق متى ما أردت

حررت نفسي أولا ففاقد الشئ لا يعطيه لأحد ناهيك عن البلد
ثُرت ضد كل الباطل ومن أجل كل الحق
سأقول للباطل باطل وللحق حق لن أنافق أو أخاف من أحد
فالثورة من أجل اليمن وليست من أجل أحد

يمني أصيل نقي كالذهب
فلا تتباهي عليّ يا من أمتلكت بطاقة عضوية في حزب أو تبعية لأحد
لا تزايد عليّ بمجرم أو فاسد من الماضي لم يرحم لعقودٍ البلد
إياك أن تدعوني مندس أو مثير للفتن
فالذي بيته من زجاج لا يرمي بيتاً أحجاره من أرض البلد
أترك هويتك "الفوق يمنية" فالحديد لا يتكبر على الذهب
كن يمنيا خالصا، كن جزء من الذهب!
إنها ثورة من أجل اليمن..... وحسب.

د. نزار الحبشي

Monday, November 7, 2011

Hopes & Fears -London Conference on Cyberspace

I recently spoke at the London Conference on Cyberspace in a session entitled Hopes and Fears.  Here is a copy of the speech  I gave.

==
A while back, I stood in front of an armored vehicle and snapped a photo while my hand was shaking, and since then, I thought to myself, nothing will ever make me feel intimidated again.  But today, being part of this distinguished panel, I realize that is not true. 
As a blogger, researcher and activist I heavily rely on internet on a daily basis, especially since the start of the peaceful resistance movement.

I will try to summarize how social media has helped us in Yemen and in the region.
Breaking the fear & silence: living under constant fear of speaking out, there is something comforting about being behind a computer screen.  It gives a false sense of security, but enables more people to be vocal.  A professor of mine took the class once to a computer lab, and we had the same discussions we usually have inside the classroom, but in the computer lab, behind the computer screens, more people joined the discussion.  This is just one example of the psychology of being behind the computer screen.

Organizing: While the bulk of mobilization efforts in Yemen happens through word of mouth, radio, brochures and SMS services; sites such as facebook helped in organizing events on the ground.  The social and political listserves & the facebook groups on various topics, helped people meet each other from different parts of the country.  It connected people with similar interests that otherwise would have never met.  Groups were created based on different interests to discuss ways to solve many prevailing issues in the country.  During the revolution, these groups, some of which are closed groups were the hub of organizing for next day’s marches.
Spreading news: Due to lack of independent media in Yemen, where both political opposition and government media lack credibility, new media has become a valuable source of information for news.  Twitter has also become a very important source of information for spreading information to the world minute by minute.  This became even more importance since Yemen has few foreign journalists.  Twitter became a link to the outside world.  In addition, due to the lack of independent media, social media sites became valuable source of information for news.  Many bloggers felt that their role should be to provide an objective source of information for citizens and the world.

Documenting human rights violations: technology has enabled activists to better document violations and helped spread them instantaneously through live streaming, use of mobiles to photograph and videotape events, and then sending them to human rights organizations throughout the world.
Global solidarity: the online world has become an arena of global solidarity.  When I received an e-threat once on my youtube account, I took a screen shot of the threat, and posted it on twitter.  Two hours later, the person who threatened me had received numerous complaints on his/her youtube page, by people I didn’t even know.  Two days later, that person shut his/her youtube channel. 

The internet has also helped bridge the gap between the “east” and the “west”, making us all realize how close we are as human beings, and how much we have in common.
Learning and knowledge sharing: In the past, everything was controlled by government, with the introduction of internet, no one has control over what we can read, and watch.  Internet is a sea of information, that allows us to fish anything we want and at anytime.  No longer can governments block our right to access that information. 

In addition, the internet has transformed the way we do research.  How many of us open google or Wikipedia immediately when starting a research?   In countries with few libraries, the internet provides an opportunity for us to navigate mass information from our own home.  It also gives us the opportunity to visit worldwide art galleries from the comfort of our home.  Those who would like to study abroad but can not afford it, can no enroll in e-learning classrooms.
Now, I am not one to say that facebook or twitter created the revolutions that swept the Arab world.  We have been calling for change for a long time.  People are the agents of change, and the internet is one tool out of many tools such as radio and SMS that can help.  

To give you an example, if you need to go to work, you can walk, but it might take you a long time.  Now if you were given a fast car, a sports car, and also had some techno or fast music in the car, you would get there much faster, and people all around will hear the blasting music.  That is how social media and internet has helped, by accelerating the process, not by creating the change.

Of course there are many challenges to the internet.

  • The urban/rural digital divide, enhanced by the illiteracy rates means that those in the main cities have full advantage of what the internet has to offer, while those in rural areas do not receive all the benefits. 
  • Language barrier is also present.   Those who speak English have more access to what is online than others.
  • Security issues are of course of concern to those activists because many of these new technologies that help in spreading information, also help in tracking individuals.  For example, live streaming is great for documenting violations, but it also gives the exact location of the person recording the video.
  • There is a lack of infrastructure needed for fast internet in developing countries, which needs to be enhanced for citizens to be able to utilize the internet.
  • There is also a fear that internet would pushing activists from being solely on the ground grassroots activists to activists only behind computer screens.


Despite these fears and chanllegnes, I believe that the internet is a tremendous technology that has not yet been used to its fullest potential. I also believe that the benefits outweigh the challenges. Every new technology has challenges, but I have faith that our human race will continue to develop and improve this technology to the benefit of humanity and freedom everywhere.

Thank you.


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Simple ways to support Yemen from abroad

Here are a few ideas for how you can help Yemen from abroad.  These are very broad and general ideas, but any effort is helpful and much appreciated. Once the Support Yemen website is running, it will include more detailed information regarding each point.

  • Read more about Yemen, understand it, and talk to your friends about it. (ask us for book recommendations if you like).
  • Know that it's ok to say I don't understand Yemen, after all it's a VERY complicated country.
  • For people on twitter, don't RT information on numbers of deaths or injuries without a source, because that could unintentionally contribute to misinformation which could be harmful to the cause. 
  • Show a film about Yemen and hold a discussion after wards. You can invite activists to speak via skype. 
  • Write about Yemen in your blog, website or on your facebook wall.
  • Add a book on Yemen to be read and discussed in your book club.
  • Hold a march to support Yemen and pass out leaflets and information about the events in the country.
  • Circulate information from various parts of Yemen, not just the capital. 
  • Circulate local blogs.
  • Lobby your government using reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International on Yemen.  In addition, to reports by local human rights groups and independent coalitions. 
  • Link Yemeni revolution to broader issues of social equality, freedom, and justice throughout the world.
  • Circulate information about the humanitarian situation, daily life, power outages, increase in prices, and economic disaster. 
  •  Circulate as many videos and photographs as possible. 
  • Help us consolidate all websites on the Yemeni Revolution.
  • Help raise funds for local humanitarian organizations to help alleviate ongoing crisis. 
  • Help set up a photography exhibit on the Yemeni Revolution. 
  • Help raise funds for Yemeni activists to come speak at an event in your school, organization, or community.
  • Create a supportYemen group in your community and join the Support Yemen campaign.  People in Yemen can provide the information, videos, photographs, and people abroad can do awareness raising, hold events, and campaign for Yemen.  (website coming soon: http://supportyemen.org/)
In the end, I would like to thank any of you, who took a moment to help Yemen.  Our struggle is a struggle for freedom and humanity, and you are an important part of the movement.

Monday, October 10, 2011

SupportYemen: Break the Silence Video in English

Video in English highlighting some of the reasons why people went to to the street in Yemen and demands of the revolutionaries.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Wedding & 84 Funerals

 Dance, when you're broken open.
Dance, if you've torn the bandage off.
Dance in the middle of the fighting.
Dance in your blood.
Dance when you're perfectly free.
- Rumi

Six months after Friday of dignity, when 50 peaceful protesters were killed, another brutal attack began resulting in over 100 deaths and over 500 wounded.  A 10 month old baby boy was killed by a stray bullet while in his car, over one hundred martyrs, tens of bodies were shattered to pieces by mortars, and others killed and wounded by snipers on rooftops, amongst them two people I know. The gruesome images I saw made my stomach turn. How can people resort to such horrific measures against their own people.

The attacks left me shocked, horrified with uncontrollable tears. Not only because I am sad, but also because I was worried of what will become of this revolution. I worried that some people who joined the revolution solely for personal and political gains will drag the it to hell. Most people told me not to worry too much, we will deal with this at a later phase.I am not convinced.

In the midst of this sadness, anxiety and worry, we had to celebrate our cousin's wedding! As customary in Yemeni tradition, men and women have separate weddings. The bride's wedding was on Tuesday and the groom's was on Wednesday.

On Tuesday morning, instead of waking up to music celebrations for the wedding, we woke up at 3:30 a.m. by loud explosions and gun fire that continued until noon. Our windows were shaking from impact. We live around 2 km away from the Zira'ah entrance to change square. I couldn't help but wonder how the people there were feeling. Will they be ok? how many people will loose a loved one? how many children will be orphaned? how many wives will be widowed. I spent my time making frantic phone calls to change square to check up on people I know..

I called my aunt at noon to check if the wedding was still on.  She informed me that they changed the venue from the wedding hall to the house, and that it will start around 4 p.m.  The earlier the better for security reasons. She told me that the bride was crying the night before, after all, a very important day of her life was mixed with explosions, death, and injury. In addition, they lost all the money for the hall as it is non-refundable! They also had added expenses because they needed to rent a tent for the guests coming to the house.

When I got up to get dressed I felt strange. How can I dress up, put make up on, and go to a “celebration” when people are dying. Torn about what to wear, I decided to wear a black dress as a sign of mourning.

As I got there at 4:30 p.m., I expected that many people won't show up. I was surprised to find the tent FULL of women in sexy clothes, with full make up on. The singer's great voice made the room clap in unity and many women got up to dance.

As I sat there listening to the music and watching the women dance I felt that I was in the twilight zone. Naturally, my mind was confused. I couldn't comprehend how I can go from fear and depression to happiness and celebration in a short period of time. To give you a better picture, listen to this 20 second clip, the first 10 seconds is what I was hearing all morning until noon; the second 10 seconds is the sounds from the wedding in the afternoon.

The dramatic shift was hard to comprehend.  Except for myself, everyone seemed to naturally make a quick switch in mood. The women took breaks and talked about the ongoing violence, many recapped how hard it was for them to leave the house, but despite that they insisted on coming anyways. The bride and the family surely appreciated that.

At first, I judged them, how do they have it in them to dance when people are dying?!! how can they not think about the people giving up their life for change?? Then, I remembered something I read somewhere that suggested that in war torn countries, nightlife thrives. Despite the war, people always partied at night. I found it odd at that time, but I now finally understand how that can happen.  In the midst of anger, frustration, fear and sadness; dancing becomes a great way to eject all these feelings from your body. I myself love to dance, so I understand the power of it.

When I accepted that, I was finally able to celebrate one of my favorite cousin's wedding in an appropriate manner, but at the same time remember the martyrs who's faces will never be forgotten. For them we will keep the peaceful movement alive, and for them we will continue the struggle.  For them, we will also live, so that we can honor their memory in every place we go.

By the end of Tuesday night, there were 84 deaths, and at least one wedding that I knew of.  We don't know how long this conflict will last, so as hard as it is, we must make life happen even in the midst of death, or else will become zombies walking this earth but not really living it or contributing to our cause. 








Saturday, September 17, 2011

Drawing the line between career & ethics, a personal letter to journalists


This post is a letter addressed to some journalists in Yemen. At the outset, let me admit that this post is SO trivial, especially in light of what's currently happening in the country. I blame frustration and fatigue for this piece. Nevertheless, the subject was making me upset, so I decided to write about it and hear your thoughts on whether I'm justified in feeling this way or not.

Dear journalists,

I was shocked when I found out that some of you attended a party at the palace last week. I understand that working in Yemen is different than other countries, and that in order for a meeting to take place, you have to have many informal meetings first. In addition, lunch or a qat session often count as “meetings” here. But to me, going to a party at the palace (during this time), where public money is spent to provide your entertainment, food, and drinks was crossing the line. It can not be considered a meeting, even in the very informal atmosphere of Yemen.

Of course journalists need to meet both sides, and of course you have the right to meet with the nephews and the sons of the president if you please, but a party does not constitute a meeting. (note, in Yemen, unlike other countries, it's SUPER easy to meet any top government official, so please stop showing off about how you met them, it doesn't reflect your journalistic abilities, it just reflects the friendly country you live in).

Going to a party at the palace is surely a great way to build your contact network, and a good way to make friends with the government for “protection purposes”, but isn't it against journalistic integrity to attend these parties? Surely if your bosses know they might be upset? (or at least I hope so!).In addition, where would you draw the line between what is acceptable and what is not, what is ethical and what is not.

If you were based in Libya, would you attend a party thrown by Saif al-Islam? And if you did, would you understand why the revolutionaries would be quite upset about that?

I know that socially, there are very few things to do in Yemen, and maybe it was curiosity that drew you there, but please note that your actions have consequences on your reputation in Yemen. I also hope that you can think about this action more deeply and see it from different perspectives. 

Maybe I'm too idealistic, but I also know that reality is often not black or white, most of the time things are in the grey. 


Finally, I'm sorry if I offended you, it is really not my intention.   If it was any other time, I wouldn't be as critical. In the end, you have the right to do whatever you want, and I have the right to feel anyway I want :)   To the journalists who's profile doesn't fit this description, I apologize about this post, and I obviously don't mean YOU by it. 

Sincerely,
a concerned citizen

p.s writing this out did make me feel better, so thanks!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Images from Friday of "Sincere Friday"


Like every Friday since February, thousands of pro-democracy protesters went to the street today to call for change.  As usual, they prayed Friday prayer on 60 road and a group of youth were engaged in a project called "messages to the world".  Protesters reaffirmed their commitment to peaceful resistance by hand painting on a white fabric 300 meters long.  This idea was initiated in Taiz, and is now being repeated in the capital Sana'a.  See some images from today below, and if you want to see more images click here







Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sacrifices of a revolutionary



Samir, a protester in Sana'a who has been camped at the square for seven months looked quite upset today. I asked him if like many of us, the current situation is making him depressed. He said: "a little, but it's more the personal problems".  "Like what?" I inquired. he responded:

"well, recently  my parents stopped talking to me, my wife left me and took the kids with her to the village, and on top of that I lost my job.  All of this because I've been camped at the square for seven months now.  My family and everyone in my village are pro-government.  They are upset about my involvement in the revolution.  I tried to go see my wife and kids in the village, but the sheikh of the village promised to detain me and take me to the security forces if I ever showed up.  
The revolution has to succeed or else all this was for nothing"

The revolution must succeed for Samir,  for hundreds of martyrs, for thousands of wounded, for children who lost their parents, and for parents who  lost their children. The revolution must succeed for oppression, tyranny, and injustice to end and for freedom, justice, and equality to prevail.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Freedom and Slavery, a desert awakening



After seven months of constant protests, electricity cuts, water and fuel shortage, price increases, regular political discussions, and constant worry, we decided to take a beak and sought refuge in the western Egyptian oasis of Siwa. An oasis with numerous springs in the midst of a sea of sand. It's simply a piece of heaven.

The first time I visited Siwa was in May of 2009 and I was in awe at its beauty (I wrote this piece after I returned). This month, I returned to the desert and I was struck again by the silent beauty of the sea of sand. I was also struck by the freedom I felt there.

For months, we have been struggling for freedom from oppression and dictatorship in Yemen. To be free is a human need, but are we all completely free?

Sitting on the soft sand without my "essential" items such as my phone, internet, music or black eyeliner, I realize that we are all enslaved to some thing. Whether it's the news, or to what people and society may think of us, or to fashion or or or...the list can be very long. Maybe as human beings, we tend to accumulate things because we are in search of filling that void inside us.

At the desert, I felt liberated because I was able to enjoy my days without any material possessions, instead I was connecting with my inner self. In my daily busy life, there are many external voices always hovering around me, like an annoying bee. This makes it very difficult to hear anything else or to connect with what your body and soul really need. The silence of the desert allowed me to connect to my soul. Time stood still and my mind and body took a moment to relax.

The desert not only taught me freedom but also appreciation of natural beauty. We spend so much time in front of "screens" whether it's TV, computer or a phone. I think we have forgotten how to look beyond these screens. We need to separate from that once in a while, and re-learn to enjoy nature and what it has to offer.

Appreciation of natural beauty can also be extended to our own bodies. Behind a sand dune and away from the four other people with me, I took off my clothes to go to the bathroom. I felt nervous at first but I quickly realized that I was completely alone. That 10 seconds felt like an eternity. I looked up, right, left, but no one was there except for the stars looking down at me. At the point, I smiled at the freedom of being "naked".

In the greatness of the sand dunes I also realize the insignificance of our own existence. The biggest event in my own history, the revolution, feels like a drop in the sea of sand. It's just one event out of many in this world. With time, things will change. The sun will always rise, and there will always be another day.

During this visit, I recharged by battery using solar energy. Then I became undone, I restarted, and refreshed.

For more photos of Siwa visit this page


Saturday, August 27, 2011

Some thoughts on the media blackout

There is an ongoing discussion on why Western mainstream media is not writing or broadcasting enough material about the Yemeni revolution.

I was back in the US this summer, and many people I spoke to there, did not know that the peaceful protesters are still camped at the squares. They thought that the peaceful protests were over because the media had stopped giving them a voice.

In this post I will list some of the theories that people have regarding the media blackout. I don't necessarily agree with all these points, but I would like to list them all here in order to have a discussion about it.

Theories on media blackout:

1) People just don't care about "Yemen", after all they just recently found out this country exists. Same people knew about"crazy" Qadhafi for years, and Syria was also known especially for it's link to "scary" Iran. But, Yemen..it's still brand new for media. (of course Yemen is home to one of the oldest civilizations in the world)

2) Journalists find it hard to understand Yemen due to its complicated history and various players on the ground. To them, the pro-democracy movement seems scattered and it is therefore very difficult to know who to talk to. Who is the spokesperson? Who can speak on behalf of the revolution? Etc

3) More analysis pieces need to be written to help everyone including the journalists with understanding Yemen, and yet editors are not necessarily eager to publish these analysis pieces. They are more interested in how many people died, where, and when. No depth, just fast facts. Why? Because everyone is obsessed with sending the story first, not enough people care about the quality of the story.

4) There are few western journalists in Yemen. However, there are many English speaking journalists in Yemen covering stories in all governorates. In addition, there are a lot more Western journalists in Yemen than there are in Syria, yet information from Syria is covered on a daily basis and not from Yemen. Why is that?

6) Mainstream western media is serving a specific agenda, that does not include promoting real change in Yemen. Without realizing it, western journalists repeat, like parrots, the standard government lines void of any analysis. How many times have you read the same exact information in different articles on the same day?!

7) We often hear about AQAP as the largest threat to the world, without proper investigation or analysis. Have we heard much about former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair's analysis that the drone attacks are “not strategically effective. If the drones stopped flying tomorrow, Blair told the audience at the Aspen Security Forum, “it’s not going to lower the threat to the U.S.” This is not the story the west wants its audience to hear.

Of course each one of these points needs further explanation, and I will try to elaborate on that soon in another post. No matter what the reasons are, the reality is, information on Yemen is scarce. Of course other countries in the region, like Bahrain, are suffering from the same blackout.

More importantly than why, is how can we circumvent this blackout and push Yemen and other countries in the media? We need to really push independent media to disseminate information that's missing from mainstream media.

We can't constantly blame journalists for all of this, they are trying hard to do their job, but it's our job as citizens to push them to always do their best. So with that, my advise to the journalists in Yemen is the following: if editors are refusing to publish deeper stories on Saudi's role in Yemen, the humanitarian situation of the IDPs, or the impact of drones on ordinary citizens for example, journalists should still write the story. Don't wait until you find an editor who agrees, write the story and then find an independent source to publish it if needed.

Finally, if your goal is to serve a community through writing about the truth, it won't matter if your name appears on the best selling newspaper or an independent online one.


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Songs for Change

She sang for change, hope & freedom, the Revolutionary voice of Miriam Makeba.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FP6CdNVzjC8

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The daily "boom" sound


As I've written in a previous post, living in Sana'a these days feels like sensory overload. Too much is happening, and too many sounds. Between thunderstorms, bullets, heavy artillary & fire works, it's often hard to differentiate between them all. I asked kids in my neighborhood to show me how to light a firework so I can get used to that specific sound. They only had a small type not the fancy loud one.

video

There are many different types of fireworks here. "Al-Gummally", who sells fireworks in the old city, has become famous these days for selling the best fireworks, or as my cousin said "fire weapons". He has all sorts of things form really tiny fireworks, to major independence day-like fireworks. It all depends on how much you are willing to pay. Fireworks were illegal at one point, but now that they're legal and encouraged, his business really profited. At least one business has not plummeted during this economic crisis!




Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Yemeni Macarena Dance?

Video Taken at the Square in Sana'a on August 14, 2011 at 12:30 a.m.

video


The newly formed National Governing Council, will it govern in a new way?


Today, August 17, Yemen's opposition groups met in the Grand Hall at Sana'a University, amidst tight security, for the formation of a national governing council to unite various groups in one legitimate opposition voice. The 1,000 members could only enter the Grand Hall after checking their ID's and obtaining their name cards.

video

Video of organizer handing out name cards to registered national assembly members

The Join Meeting Parties (JMP), Yemen's main opposition coalition, began circulating the idea for the governing council for a couple of weeks, and discussions have been underway between various forces. Initially, two of the largest groups outside the JMP, the Houthis and southern secessionists had agreed to join. However, at the last minute their position was unclear. Houthis announced their rejection of the council the night before due to a number of reservations including unfair representation. (for a list of reservations by the Houthis click here). The southern secessionists announced that they wanted 50% representation but it was unclear at the meeting whether they had fully rejected the council or not. Media inaccurately announced the presence of both the Houthis and the southern secessionists in the council.

Today's meeting was the first step in the forming of a legitimate opposition group that comprises many different political affiliations. More than a 1000 people gathered at the meeting today from various governorates and backgrounds. High ranking members of the JMP, independents, youth representatives, members of civil society and women's rights activists were present. For this council to be truly effective it will need to include the Houthis and the southern secessionists as they represent a large number of people and have a strong force. As stated in the meeting, the general assembly will remain open for any individual or group to attend.

Inside the Grand Hall during the National Council meeting


Structure:

With over 1000 people present, today's gathering served as the first meeting for the national assembly. From this national assembly of 1000 members, a national council was created of 143 individuals, of which 23 will serve as the executive committee, and will elect a president for the council. (click here for a list of the 143 names in Arabic)
As usual, there was lack of organization and insufficient time to have a real deep discussion on the issues. In today's large meeting, people were expected to give their comments, questions, and suggestions on a three page draft, in only two hours (since we started two hours late). It almost felt that organizers were doing this only as a formality. A more effective way would have been to have smaller working groups/focus groups meetings prior to this large meeting and then the 1,000 members can come together and discuss findings & suggestions at the meeting.
Nevertheless, it is a good first step for unification of the opposition. In addition, a group was tasked with drafting the blaws, plans, and tasks which will guide the council. Creating a process and ensuring transparency is key for legitimacy of this council.
Reactions:
A facebook survey results show that a vast majority of Yemeni facebookers strongly support this national council. While the majority of youth seem to accept this initiative as a step in the right direction, many feel hesitant about the intentions of the JMP. Some youth even rejected this idea, saying that the JMP is hijacking the revolution. Distrust between the independent youth and the JMP must be overcome for real collaboration to take place.
Three protesters at the square holding signs against the national council and in support of the previous youth led transitional council
People were feeling very tense for the past two days, especially after yesterday's speech by Saleh's and after Abdu al-Janadi, deputy information minister said that that the decision by the JMP to form a national council was "a declaration of a civil war." Nevertheless, the meeting went smoothly.
What next?
While this is a great first step, the legitimacy of this council will depend on the transparency of the group and on the internal democratic process. Many questions come to mind:
Will the national governing council govern differently than the previous government, given that many in the council members were part of the previous regime?
Will one political party be the key decision maker or will the collective group share in this responsibility? How will decisions be made?
Will there be oversight from the national assembly? how can members of the national assembly impeach members of the executive committee ?
How much collaboration will there be with people on the ground?
Finally, will the other forces including Houthis and southern secessionists be part of this council? the council needs to truly push for their inclusion in order to have a strong opposition united force.
I will say this again and again, the national council, is a great first step, but the success will depend on the way these questions are answered. The council fills me with worry, anticipation and hope at the same time. I worry that what if the independents are just used to legitimize a group that is identical to the previous regime? or could this be an opportunity to create a new democratic world?