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Realignment of Yemen’s identity politics

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OPINION by Afrah Nasser – As a blogger on human rights issues in Yemen for the past six years, I am stunned by the growing polarisation in the country. To take an even-handed stance for human rights is either viewed as an act of treason or as a sectarian bias.

If you criticise the Arab coalition air strikes and the Houthi forces, the supporters of both camps accuse you of supporting one side over the other. It’s us or them, both sides maintain; no middle ground.

Throughout my activism, it was easy for me to remain in that middle ground due to my mixed Ethiopian-Yemeni background.

Today, I perceive how people’s definition of their identities in Yemen – whether in line with tribal, sectarian or class-based affinities – is realigning itself along with the new political order.

Divided and ruled

Although Yemen’s complex political, social and cultural structures have managed to function as a fluid equilibrium on the surface, there have always been chronic identity tensions.

Until Yemen’s 2011 uprising, these identity tensions were influenced by two major factors: the unification in 1990 and the aftermath of the civil war in 1994, resulting in major rifts between north and south.

Some contend that one of the causes of the tensions was former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s forced seizure of the lands in the south, leading to discontent among southerners over his rule.

Another likely cause was when southerners realised that the new oil finds in the south that formed more than 40 percent of Yemen’s reserves back then would have supported South Yemen’s smaller population if they had not been seized by the north.

Furthermore, during my personal observations in the country, there was a feeling in South Yemen, particularly among “de-tribalised” people, who felt that they should (re-)define themselves as tribes to be taken seriously by the new ruling system in the north.

Saleh’s approach to leadership further complicated identity relations. His leadership was based on divide and rule and his tactics on prioritising the survival and benefit of his own family and tribe, deepening the rift between disparate groups and undermining the idea of a Yemeni national identity.

For instance, prior to 2004, Saleh used to support the Islah party against the Houthis and vice versa. Even during Yemen’s 2011 uprising, Saleh endeavoured to fragment the anti-government protesters by arguing that the mixing of male and female protesters was un-Islamic.

Cards redealt

In today’s context, as the country engages in one of its bloodiest civil wars, there is a realignment taking place simultaneously on two levels: a reconfiguration of power and identities.

Firstly, it is fuelled by the new reality where yesterday’s adversaries are today’s allies. After enduring six wars between 2004 and 2010 that led to the death of their founder-leader at the hands of Yemeni security forces under Saleh’s rule, Houthis have formed an alliance with their old oppressor, Saleh.

Considering that Saleh used to be Saudis’ ally in the fight against Houthis’ revivalist movement for Zaydism through those six wars, today he is turning the tables, siding with Houthis not only to fight the Saudi-led coalition, but also to crush those who helped oust him in 2011.

The reconfiguration of identity relations is perhaps the most troubling one – it shows itself as the violence on the ground has been mobilised based not on simple binary distinctions, but rather, on a complex and ambiguous process.

While Yemen’s biggest richness in diversity is its people and needs to be celebrated, in the light of the civil war, it has become the base of multifaceted local cleavages.

For instance, in Arabic media, there were reports on Houthi-Saleh militiamen calling the southerners “The Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) supporters” to strip them of their “Yemeniness” in order to justify killing them.

This has caused a great polarisation where southerners in Aden and Taiz mainly cheer for the Saudi-led air strikes against the Houthi forces, whereas people in Sanaa feel political allegiances based on ideological and class agenda.

Since Sanaa has become the headquarters of Houthi rule, locals point out that the capital city tends to exhibit animosity against the Saudi-led coalition and the south – not only because it’s moving in line with Houthis’ stance, but also because of the historical tensions between the north and the south.

Long-standing tensions

The rise of the Houthi movement represents a major reconfiguration of identity politics in the country.

As people are pushing themselves into a new formalised identity group, viewing what’s at risk for them in the violence, they find it difficult to identify with others who used to be of like-minded groups. And yet, they engage – consciously and subconsciously – in a continuous process of negotiating differences and antagonisms at the social and political level.

Thus, the concept of a “Yemeni nation” is being redefined.

While the prospect of witnessing a comeback of two Yemen(s) is debatable, it’s certain that the country’s north will look completely different.

The longer the war drags on, the greater the polarisation.

One can argue that this has been the case since 2007, with the emergence of the secessionist movement – which by itself showed that no civil nationalist identity exists in Yemen. Still, I would argue that it’s been the case since the unification in 1990, when a combination of nation-building and the integration of the north and the south has been nothing but a failure.

The current realignment is more significant than the revolution itself in 2011, which only proposed a new desultory reality.

Yemen is being transformed through a drastic change, where Yemen’s agencies in the private and political spheres are under transformation as well.

Afrah Nasser is a Yemeni award-winning journalist and blogger based in Sweden since 2011.

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