Sunday, December 10, 2017

My Interview with Mada Masr: On Saleh’s death and the worsening humanitarian crisis in Yemen

Sana'a, Yemen - Courtesy: Abdulwahab al-Ameri

*Events have unfolded rapidly in Yemen over the last few days. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh was killed by Houthi forces on Monday, following news he was moving away from his previous alliance with the Houthis toward new ties with the Saudi-led coalition that has been fighting them, and spurring an increase in violence in the Yemeni capital Sanaa.

Mada Masr spoke to Yemeni journalist Afrah Nasser about Saleh’s death, the deteriorating humanitarian situation, and the dynamics of living outside Yemen and speaking and writing about what is happening there.

Laura Bird: Were you surprised by the news of Saleh’s death? It must have been strange to see graphic images of the leader you grew up under and opposed in 2011 posted online. How did you feel when the news broke?

Afrah Nasser: I was shocked. I always believed Saleh’s alliance with the Houthis was very temporary. He was not only an influential man, he waged about six wars against the Houthis over the past decade and he always won — he even killed the leader of the Houthis. So I expected that he was going to win, but I underestimated the military power the Houthis had, thanks to Saleh. He also miscalculated this temporary alliance and I don’t think he ever thought they would turn the tables against him.

When I met Saleh in 2011, I understood how much this man was clinched to power. He thought he was irreplaceable, unmovable, untoppleable. His death must have even been a shock to him. He never thought that a youth movement on the ground, nor the Houthis, nor the Saudis, would take him away from power. So in that sense, as someone who was affiliated with the revolution, yes, the Houthis did what we couldn’t. But at the same time, they are another face of evil, another face of dictatorship — actually, one that is more brutal and based on sectarian ideology and extreme religious views.

LB: Why do you think Saleh made the decision to switch his allegiance at this point in the conflict? Was this a strategic political move, or one made out of “concern for the worsening humanitarian situation,” as Saleh claimed?

AN: It did look like Saleh was more concerned about the humanitarian situation than the Houthis, especially the looting and corruption within Houthi circles, but I think he felt they were after him and wanted to obtain a victory over them before this happened. They were never on the same page though; the only alliance they had was a temporary one against the Saudis. We’re dealing with two gangs, basically. Neither of them have any ethics or follow any political principles. They only want to survive and are thirsty for power and will crush anyone in their way until they get power. So Saleh realised that these guys were going to take him out so they could have an absolute grip over power and tried to make his move first.

LB: What do you think the ramifications of Saleh’s death are likely to be?

AN: I’m very worried about how the Saudis will scale up their military operation. Right now the Houthis are targeting every presidential building Saleh used to have, because they want to take control of all institutions. I am expecting a major military operation to hit the whole of the north of Yemen, not just Sanaa. This is a new chapter, more bloody than what has already come. I mean, if the war has killed 10,000 people already, this will multiply that number in the coming, not only weeks, but days, hours.

Maybe the Saudis will try to invest in Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh. I mean, even the name will garner sympathy on the ground in Yemen. The Houthis have force, but they don’t have popularity among many people in Yemen. And this will be the defining clash, if they win through military force. We will see, nobody knows.

The next round totally depends on how Yemenis react — the politicians, President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, it’s really up to all of these actors in the south, whether state or non-state, and how they respond. The Saudis, the Emiratis, they can only give them the tools, but it’s up to them how they orchestrate a response against the Houthis. It will be a darker scenario. Who will lead the country? Now Saleh is gone, the state is gone, nobody is ruling.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Saleh's death, checkmate

*A political earthquake hit Yemen yesterday, as ousted Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh was dramatically thrown out of the political scene following his death at the hands of Houthis. 

In a deja vu moment, I was reminded of Gaddafi's fate in 2011, and the atmosphere at the start of the 2011 Arab uprisings as a video circulated of Saleh's dead body being dragged onto a truck by armed men.

In a country known for its deep-rooted "revenge culture", Saleh, in some senses, dug his own grave, when many held him responsible for the 2004 death of the Houthis' godfather Hussein Bader al-Din al-Houthi, older brother of current Houthi leader, Abdelmalek al-Houthi.

Voices in the video cry, "we are having revenge for you, Hussein". Murdering Hussein was only one highlight of Saleh's 33-year rule that was tainted with bloodshed.

As Saleh leaves a legacy of political manoeuvring, corruption, and chaos in the country, his death is believed to be the result of a betrayal within his inner circle, from where sensitive information about Saleh's whereabouts was leaked and a trap prepared.

In his televised speech after Saleh's death, Abdelmalek al-Houthi expressed his gratitude, "towards those 'honorary' Yemeni officials who helped us (Houthis) capture the 'traitor' Saleh".

The Houthi field and military leader, Abou Ali Alhakem reportedly spoke hours before Saleh's death, describing how Saleh's calls with UAE and KSA were tapped, which for him provided evidence of his treason.

This is neither a victory to Houthis nor a defeat to Saleh, despite his death. Both leaders are heads of an unleashed dragon that was, and is still willing for all hell to break loose. However, for the man who was well-known for being the most influential politician in the country, there is no question his death poses a greater threat to Yemen's future, and brings serious ramifications.

During the first days of Yemen's 2011 uprising, I was one of a group of revolutionaries taken to meet Saleh at his palace in Sanaa. "What do you and your friends want?" he asked. We all fearlessly replied, "We want to topple the regime. If not, change your cabinet." Our talk lasted less than 10 minutes as Saleh got up yelling, displeased with our demands, and left the room.

We were allowed to leave and went back to the protests, with Change Square determined to continue the uprising. Me, and all my friends there were born under Saleh's rule.

We have only known one president in our lifetime and never imagined the possibility of replacing him. Although Saleh was regarded as immortal after he survived a fatal assassination attempt in 2011, today we are in disbelief as for the first time, we are truly seeing a Yemen without Saleh.

Saleh's death creates an acute power imbalance as Sanaa city has been under heavy fighting on the ground and air-strikes of the Saudi-led coalition. Civilian inhabitants have been trapped and under siege over the past few days in areas of fighting where there is no food, water or medicine.

I call my family in Sanaa every hour to check on their safety, as the death toll of these recent clashes has jumped to at least 125, with 238 wounded. While civilians pay the heaviest price, the Saudi-led coalition is also paying for losing their last card in their almost three-year-long unwinnable war against the Houthis. Losing Saleh and all the intelligence support he could have provided the coalition with mean the Saudis face a great vacuum in their strategic approach to confronting the Houthis.

The Saudis will likely scale up their military operations. Heavy airstrike shelling going on in Sanaa as I write spells out a bleak scenario, with Sanaa looking potentially like another Mosul.

It seems the situation will likely have to get worse before any prospect of improvement. For a country suffering from a huge heritage of impunity and an absolute lack of accountability, yesterday's events bring the initial problem of Yemen's 2011 uprising back to the surface: The unrealised dreams of millions, that envisaged Yemen as a civil state in which equal citizenship and justice were guaranteed for all.

When Sanaa's Change Square became the focal point for Yemeni pro-democracy protests in 2011, one of the first posters to appear at the square was "welcome to the first step towards our civil state".

Today, the enemy of that dream is the extremist vision the Houthis work to impose, restoring the old Yemeni Imamate system as a futuristic political system. Our recent national memory shows how Yemenis could have dealt with Houthi invasion, as the capital witnessed many anti-Houthi protests raising slogans, such as "no for coup" and "no to armed militias".

The fate of Yemen as a united republic lies in the hands of Yemenis. Today's events are the peak of the clash between the essence of Yemen's 2011 uprising, and the Houthi insurgency - between revolutionary ideas and far-right-politics.

*Article first published on The New Arab, today. 

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Battle For Sana'a

For about 5 months now, I have been documenting on Twitter what I called a crisis & a growing division between Saleh and Houthis. Last night, indeed, the crisis hit its peak as each side's forces clashed & a sort of guerrilla war on Sana'a streets began.

This is absolutely a defining moment not only on the course of Yemen war but also in post-Yemen's 2011 uprising period. What happens next? is it the end of the war? absolutely not. Here I comment on BBC World News on that:

Speculations loom around and nothing seems clear. But what we do know for sure is that the coalition between the Houthis and Saleh starting in mid-2014 has come to an end. Now, we are witnessing the emergence of a Saudi-Saleh coalition against Houthis

One thing Saleh has mastered over his almost 4 decades in politics is Survival Politics. He's been always ready to shift alliances & turn tables against whoever as long as it served his interests. What's notable this time is that he's shifting his alliance towards the Saudis because of his concerns with the tragic humanitarian situation in the country.

In this interview yesterday (above); Saleh was clear in demanding the Saudis and Emaraties to alleviate the humanitarian plight (to open airports, to allow humanitarian aid to enter Yemen and to rescue Yemenis from suffering). Saleh has been expressing his concerns over the suffering and bloodshed in the country over the past few months, as I document in my Twitter thread. What changes now is that the Saudis & Emarties seem to be leaning towards Saleh over Houthis, and they are responding positively as shown in yesterday statement from the Saudi-led coalition.

The Saudis truly want an exit from Yemen war while not losing face. They are wasting billions of dollars in their arms deals to fight in an unwinnable war in Yemen. While Saudis' economy is crippling, they have begun looking for cheaper weapon markets; such as, in Greece

Saleh's will to negotiate allows Saudis to save face. But does that mean that Saleh is defeated? no. Saleh's political guarantee in sharing a place in the coming, in the making, Yemen's political roadmap, manifest itself in his nephew holding a vital military position

Right there, I think we are going to block zero. We are returning to post-Yemen's 2011 uprising's political reality. As if we never had a revolution. For Saleh and his circle are the problem of the beginning. All following events led us to this "lesser of two evils" situation; in which Yemenis are cornered to chose between "living in world's largest humanitarian crisis" or "Saleh" - "life under Houthis' rule" or "Saleh".

No matter what happens, for the battle for Sana'a will be bloody, I pray for protection and safety for my mother, cousins, family and friends in Sana'a living life under Houthis' barbaric bloodcraze and Saudi-led coalition's airstrikes. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

We did it! I will attend CPJ award ceremony

WE  DID  IT!  I got the visa! “We know about ur case; we got some notes from several directions,” the embassy officer told me, “am gonna grant u the visa this time as we realized the significance of the award u got.”

Right after I left the embassy, I spoke to The Take Away Radio and gave more details on the visa issue, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and my work.

I never really had faith in the power of media & public opinion as I have today. This Makes me think of people who don’t enjoy my high media profile. This is why, we need to get the tragedy in Yemen as well-known as hell so we can all help pushing an end for it!

As I left the embassy, I felt I should be happy not for getting the visa but for realizing the importance of people’s outrage in media that could bring change & make a difference. I feel in my whole career I was only being prepared for this moment. And now, the real, serious & necessary work begins.

Thanks for each one of you who helped me. Now, let’s all of us work together in getting the tragedy in Yemen more & more well-known worldwide & help in bringing an end to it.

Friday, October 20, 2017

U.S. Travel Ban Could Deny Me Attend My International Free Press Award Ceremony

When the Committee to Protect Journalists announced two months ago that I was one of the awardees of this year's International Free Press Award (IFPA), I knew I was about to undertake a bittersweet step in my almost decade-long journalism career.

The CPJ explained that, from the Arab region, they had chosen Yemen this year, in order to shine a light on the conditions in which Yemeni journalists work, and also to celebrate my reporting on Yemen, despite all the obstacles.

But in the age of US President Donald Trump's travel ban - which includes Yemeni nationals - I became increasingly concerned about travelling to the US to receive the award.

In addition to an invitation to the awards ceremony in New York, the CPJ have also organised for me to meet with State Department officials in DC, and university staff to raise awareness about violations against Yemeni journalists and the humanitarian crisis in my war-torn homeland.

While there are good reasons why I should travel to the US and join the CPJ, my two US visa applications to date have been rejected by the American embassy in Stockholm, Sweden. I am currently applying for the third time, and I am not optimistic.

Sweden became my second home after I arrived here in May 2011 from Yemen, after being invited to participate in a youth leadership training course. I left with just two weeks of luggage, thinking I'd soon be back home.

Not wanting to wake my mother before my late-night flight, I left without much of a goodbye. But as the violence escalated in my hometown, Sanaa, and I was at risk following the death threats I was receiving for my anti-regime writings during the beginning of Yemen's 2011 uprising, Sweden became the place where I had to seek political asylum.

As the conflict in Yemen continued, I remained in Sweden and continued freelance reporting on Yemen for various media outlets. In a bid to stay in contact with my family and friends in Yemen, and the diaspora abroad, I've used every channel of communication I can.

For the past six years in Sweden, I have been on constant alert, hunting my next Yemen story. While I could have put Yemen to the back of my mind, and settled down in Sweden, continuing to write felt like the most meaningful thing I could do.

Determined to expose the under-reported war in Yemen, I found that reporting from exile resembled being in a long-distant relationship, with all the love and longing that comes with geographical separation.

A year and a half year ago, I became a Swedish citizen. I could travel freely and was also enjoying living by choice in Sweden. Today, I am both Swedish and Yemeni citizen, though my Yemeni passport expired a while ago.

This makes me a privileged Yemeni in comparison to my fellow countrymen, and especially my journalist colleagues who are all trapped in war.

My Swedish passport enabled me to travel around for work until Trump's travel ban came into the picture. The proposed travel ban has gone through various iterations, but what I know for sure is that my visa applications to the US embassy in Stockholm were rejected because of it.

The first time, applying as a Swedish citizen, "you are not authorized to enter the US" was the response that came. My second application was made as a Yemeni citizen. After I made it to the interview with the embassy officer, she told me that I had failed to show my ties to Sweden and that there was no guarantee that I would return to the "foreign country" - that is Sweden - after my visit to the US.

In both applications, I was asked if I had been in Yemen anytime from March 2011 (that's when the executive order comes into effect). Of course, I had been. The application asked me to justify my visit to Yemen and I told the truth: I had a life in Yemen - family, friends and work.

I will find out by Monday if my third application has been successful. In the meantime, I want my story to help raise the profile of other Yemeni journalists, working hard to make the world understand the brutal suffering of a nation.

*My latest column published on The New Arab today.