Since the commencement of Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference in 18 March, authors and commentators have produced thousands of articles, posts, and analyses on Yemen, its revolution, and its unknown future. Most, though, have ignored Yemen’s “virtual” revolution – the blossoming of its vibrant social media community. Far from the halls of Sanaa’s posh Movenpick Hotel that play host to the conference, Yemenis online are doing some talking of their own… and their prolific commentary may offer hope for Yemen’s future.
An integral factor in uprisings across the Middle East, the use of social media tools to mobilize citizens and rapidly share information has been widely documented in countries like Egypt and Tunisia. Much less attention has been paid to smaller, peripheral countries like Yemen, and with a reputation as a bastion of tribal conservatism and illiteracy, most may not have envisioned Yemen riding the rising tide of internet activism in the region. The prolific writing of Yemenis young and old, however, has ignited social media sites, giving the world a moment-by-moment, authentic picture of this momentous period in Yemeni history. In this revolution, there is no longer a need for polished media experts and pundits to pontificate on Yemeni political life – its people are doing the job for them. Those wanting to experience Yemenis’ revolutionary spirit need only to visit Facebook and Twitter, where thousands of users shed light on mindsets of Yemen’s diverse population, or Yemen’s discussion forums, where members discuss all facets of Yemeni politics, social, and military affairs.
Without a doubt, this phenomenon contrasts sharply with internet connectivity statistics released by the International Telecommunications Commission. In their reports, Yemen’s internet use per capita ranks among the lowest in the Arab world. Despite this ranking, Yemeni social media stands strong among its peers: activity on Yemen’s Facebook pages surpasses that of its more “plugged in” neighbors like Bahrain, Jordan, and the UAE. The Yemeni Council, a Yemen-focused discussion forum, is one of the most active discussion forums on the Arabic-language internet. Yemenis choose from a selection of different forums dedicated to the country’s tribes and provinces – a phenomenon unique to Yemen. Connectivity statistics prove that this media revolution doesn’t necessarily represent an increase in the number of internet users in the country, but rather an increase in the direct channeling of political attitudes and free expression of opinion previously absent in Yemen and much of the Arab world.
While political developments have paved the way for the resurgence of freedom of expression in Yemen, technological developments have allowed it to flourish. Learning from their Arab cousins, Yemenis are harnessing social media to communicate their views as never before. No event better illustrates this phenomenon than the advent of the National Dialogue Conference, which sparked a rise in activity across the Yemeni social media universe[i]. Throughout the opening weeks of the conference, Yemenis offered their opinions on every facet of the Dialogue’s progress.
Bringing together leaders from across Yemen’s fractured society, the National Dialogue is an ambitious initiative. The conference consists of nine working groups, each focusing on the issues most critical to Yemen’s future: The Southern question, the status of Saada province, national reconciliation, state building, good governance, the armed forces & security, independent & social issues, rights & freedoms, and national development. While few Yemenis would disagree that these issues represent the most difficult obstacles on the country’s path to progress, conversations from Yemeni social media paint a more detailed picture. In these discussions, the Southern question and Saada province, in addition to the conference’s lack of youth representation, emerge as the three main stumbling blocks most important to Yemenis online.
The Southern Question
Dialogue or no Dialogue, the relationship between Yemen’s north and south consistently generates the highest levels of discussion online. With a civil war and years of armed clashes between government forces and Southern separatists in the country’s rearview mirror, tension between these two formerly independent nations is as tangible in the virtual world as it is on the ground. One hub of such tension is the Yemeni Council, where users of every political affiliation follow the workings of the National Dialogue with intense focus. The southern question has dominated the site, especially among southerners themselves, who often point out their passionate rejection of any southerner participating in the conference. These users claim that southern participants are “oblivious” to insincere government initiatives - “They’ve been bitten by the same snake, time and time again.” Most southern-focused discussion forums echoed such criticism, such as users on the Gates of the South, who listed names of what they called the “Gang of clones that will participate in the name southerners.” Not to be outdone, users on forums and Facebook pages affiliated with the separatist Southern Mobility Movement accused participants of colluding with the so-called Yemeni “occupation” regime, urging complete separation between the Yemeni government and southern provinces.
The vast pessimism of many southern users toward Yemen’s intentions and its ability to solve the southern question contrasts with the views of conference participants, who seem optimistic that there is still plenty of time for progress to be made. In the closing statement of its first session, National Dialogue staff confirmed the importance of keeping “Doors of communication with all facets of the peaceful separatist movement open,” in addition to calling for the formation of additional mechanisms for greater communication. These statements may find welcome ears with the minority of southerners online who called for greater integration with the north. Their commentary offered an embrace of the Dialogue, pointing out the objective fact that injustices committed against the southerners deserve realistic and immediate solutions.
Among Yemenis’ main criticisms of the National Dialogue Conference is its perceived lack of youth representation. At the start of proceedings, Dialogue Secretary General Ahmad Bin Mubarak offered a hopeful explanation of the rationale behind the distribution of seats at the conference. Mubarak noted that 50% of participants will hail from the north and 50% from the south; among those, 30% will be female and 20% youth. Many Yemenis online viewed these numbers as misleading: among the conference’s 565 delegates, independent youth activists were granted only 40 seats. The majority of the remaining seats were granted to blocs of established political parties, some of which are linked to the shooting deaths of innocent demonstrators during Yemen’s revolutionary protest movement in 2011. Critics argue that despite their leadership at the forefront of Yemen’s protest movement, independent youth activists are underrepresented at the conference, leaving their voices to be drowned out by those of more numerous and established political elites. One place where youth voices are surely heard, however, is on Yemen’s popular Facebook pages. Users on pages like the Second Page for Yemen’s Change Revolution and Yemen Eye News were highly critical of the allotment of seats given to the independent youth. The official page of Nobel laureate and youth activist Tawakkul Karman, Yemen’s most followed Facebook page with over 370,000 “likes,” mocked the proportion of independent youth represented at the Dialogue, labeling it a “decoration” and urging UN envoy Jamal Benomar to admit that the Dialogue falsely represented the revolutionary contributions of youth activists. These youth-oriented pages’ sharp criticism of the Dialogue’s seat distribution was praised by thousands of readers, but with seventy percent of Facebook members in the Arab world aged 15 to 29, users on these pages have already created a dialogue of their own.
With six wars fought against Yemeni government forces in the last ten years and continuous calls for autonomy in Saada province, it should come as no surprise that the actions of the rebel Houthi movement generate high levels of conversation in Yemeni social media. Reflecting the increasing sectarianism and anti-Iranian sentiment across the region, the Houthis’ role in Yemen is one of the most polarizing issues among Yemenis online. The Houthi movement, known officially as Ansar Allah, operates a sophisticated social media outreach program, including discussion forums, a number of official Facebook pages, and pro-Houthi activists on Twitter. While significant, these Houthi controlled outlets often act as an echo chamber of pro-Houthi views - the place for real debate is Yemen’s most popular Facebook page and discussion forum. The majority of users on these sites diligently condemn the Houthis, citing traditional grievances such as claims of Houthi collaboration with Iran, assaults on fellow Yemenis, and sectarian arguments against an increase in Houthi autonomy. Houthi users respond by condemning the Yemeni government’s alliance with America and defending Houthi militant operations as self-defense against an oppressive national government. Despite the polarized rhetoric on both sides, however, there are reasons for optimism: a growing minority of users articulates nuanced views on the Saada issue. Many users on youth-oriented, pro-revolution Facebook pages, for example, refuse to offer wholesale condemnation of the Houthi movement, despite provocations from page administrators. Instead, these users defend the Houthis’ right to express grievances at the National Dialogue and criticize attempts to condone violence against them.
Among Yemenis Online, Marginal Events Go Viral
There is little doubt that issues like the status of southern Yemen, Saada province, and adequate youth representation will dominate the National Dialogue for months to come. Observations online, however, prove that this may not be the case in the social media universe. From the first day of the conference, spikes in conversation demonstrated Yemenis’ rabid following of the National Dialogue down to the smallest remark. Often, the most popular subjects of conversation were those that reflected Yemen’s divisions, such as the expulsion of Huthi representative Ali Naser Al-Bukhaiti on the first day of the dialogue. Users even vigorously debated the word choice of Yemeni president Abd Rabo Mansur Hadi’s scolding of Al-Bukhaiti. Users were similarly divided when commenting on conference spokesperson Amal Al-Basha’s sharp confrontation with tribal chief Sadeq Al-Ahmar over the role of women in the conference. Other events early in the Dialogue created widespread agreement among users, perhaps offering hope for the future of the conference. Much of this consensus commentary centers around Yemenis’ desperate desire for the rule of law and their disdain for tribalism, such as when users swiftly condemned Yemeni strongman Sadeq Al-Ahmar’s assault on a Yemeni soldier, or when they lamented repeated attempts of tribal sheikhs to carry weapons into the Dialogue hall. Thankfully for Yemen, violence that threatens to derail the Dialogue, such as an assassination attempt on Houthi representatives, has also drawn the ire of the majority of Yemenis online.
Signs of Hope
Now that the first session of Yemen’s National Dialogue has concluded, many followers of the conference will no doubt claim that despite the vast effort, the Dialogue has thus far accomplished little. The conference’s critics, however, cannot deny the Dialogue’s one unprecedented achievement: a far cry from bloody revolutions elsewhere in the region, Yemen’s feuding factions have come together peacefully, under one roof, to acknowledge the country’s problems and attempt to move past them. This monumental accomplishment is being replicated online, where Yemenis prolifically discuss the country’s most contentious topics. Despite their strong disagreements on issues mentioned above, visitors to Yemen’s most popular social media sites express their desire for lasting peace, government reform, and an end to corruption.
On a daily basis, Yemenis online are encouraging their fellow citizens to rise above traditional affiliations for the benefit of the country. Yemen’s challenges are immense, but if the sentiments of Yemenis online offer any reflection of the Dialogue participants themselves, there are strong reasons to be optimistic about the country’s future.
[i] In this report, the authors analyzed dozens of Yemeni social media sites, focusing on Yemen’s most popular political discussion forums and Facebook pages. Among these pages are:
• The Yemeni Council (discussion forum)
• Gates of the South (discussion forum)
• ‘Awaleq Forum (discussion forum)
• Southern Mobility Movement/Herak Forums (discussion forum)
• Youth of the South (discussion forum)
• Yafa’ Tribal Forum (discussion forum)
• ‘Awaleq Youth Forum (discussion forum)
• The Second Page for Yemen’s Change Revolution (Facebook page)
• Coordination Council of Yemen’s Revolutionary Youth (Facebook page)
• Yemen Eye News (Facebook page)
• Sahafah Net (Facebook page)
• Official Page of Tawakkul Karman (Facebook page)
• Manbar Cultural Network (Facebook page)
• Media Office of Abdel Malik Badr Al-Deen Al-Houthi (Facebook page)
• Ansar Allah News Network (Facebook page)
• Official Page of Ansar Allah (Facebook page)
• Ali Al-Bukhaiti (Twitter page)
*The writers are specialists in social media analysis