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 caf├ęs 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 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

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.”

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