The 2011 Yemeni uprising opened up new political spaces of contention against the existing structures of power. A main driving force behind the uprising was the “Independent Youth”, a movement that consisted initially of students and unemployed graduates under the age of 30, but who were later joined by older activists not affiliated with any political party. The progressive demands of the Independent Youth – which included good governance, civic state, and socio-economic rights – and their detachment from the political elites helped label them as agents of democratic change and lent the group some legitimacy as a political movement.
However, the youth movement did not possess the power to transform the entrenched political system, as members of the old regime remained in power and the status quo was maintained. The high hopes awakened by the protests soon vanished after traditional political elites hijacked the uprising and excluded Yemeni youth from participation in politics. Prior to the conflict, the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) provided the youth and other politically marginalized groups, such as women, with opportunities to represent themselves and push for reforms. Yet, these opportunities have now diminished during the conflict. The high level of insecurity, political fragmentation and the de facto authorities crackdown on political opposition was followed by a complete closing off of the political space. Against this backdrop, the question arises of whether there is still a room for bottom-up politics in Yemen.
Is there still room for bottom-up politics?
Bottom-up politics emphasizes that forms of engagement to promote political change can be found locally, outside established centers of political activity. In Yemen, however, political activity has been largely limited to old and new political elites and tribal actors who rule by patronage and violence. Any form of political mobilization or opposition that emerges today is met either with co-optation or fierce suppression by the authorities, especially the Houthi de facto authority in the North. Hence, this environment has not been conducive to the development of new political parties or organized social movements that challenge the existing political order. This bleak fate of popular mobilization was epitomized by the experience of al-Watan party, which was established by youth activists during the 2011 uprising and formally registered in 2014. Al-Watan – which espoused ideals of transparency, inclusion and justice – revived hope in the ability of popular mobilization to transform the political environment. Yet, the newly-formed party was not invincible to co-optation by the Hadi government, and it soon perished after Houthis’ takeover of Sana’a.
Faced with these challenges, activists turned towards alternative, and more innovative, forms of decentralized mobilization. The activism that emerged during, and in response to, the 2015 conflict might not reflect a clear form of political mobilization, rather it is best understood as “a creative engagement reflecting imagined connections, practices and communities.” Hence, although the recent social movements do not conform to the rules of conventional politics, and even when they do not form for strategic political purposes, their activities can still have political significance. The inherent power of these movements lies in their ability to establish popular spaces, defined as “those arenas in which people join together, often with others like them, in collective action, self-help initiatives or everyday sociality.” It is through these spaces that people can challenge existing power structures and initiate transformative processes.
Aid provision is one of many forms of decentralized mobilization. Following the work of Laura Ruiz de Elvira (2018), the shift of many activists towards humanitarian relief during the conflict should be understood as a prolongation of their previous revolutionary activism. The activists’ shift towards an area deemed apolitical was a strategic response to continue developing their social networks, leadership skills and framing capacities while avoiding the severe restrictions imposed on political activities. That could explain the proliferation of humanitarian organizations and relief grassroot movements during the conflict and the accompanying decline of organizations working on human rights and democratic governance. Activists engagement in humanitarian relief has since been taken as a sign of the fall and demobilization of the youth movement that emerged during the 2011 uprising. However, this narrative misses the political significance of the activists’ humanitarian action embodied in its opening of popular spaces as a possible way to achieve participation and, consequently, transformation of the structures of oppression.
Seen in Taiz: Humanitarian relief reshapes revolutionary activism
The Taiz-based Qafilat al-Tahadi (Resilience Caravan) is one of these humanitarian initiatives. At first, founders of this initiative organized themselves around the political objective of spreading awareness of the NDC outcomes. However, soon after the war started, the team of 65 young women and men shifted its focus towards humanitarian relief, which has become one of the most pressing issues faced by the country. This initiative sough to break the siege imposed since 2015 by Houthi forces on the city of Taiz by delivering medicine and food to those in need. Members of this initiative, and other humanitarian activists in general, distance themselves from partisan and ideological agendas, partly because of their discontent with traditional political actors, and partly as a way of protection from attacks by the multiple armed factions that control different territories and check points.
Despite their claimed neutrality, however, the motives behind the activists’ humanitarian commitment reveal a clear politicization. The nature of humanitarian action during the war is different than the charity work that prevailed in the country before 2011 (most of all by Islah party members), and which was mostly led by religious groups and framed as religious obligation. Grassroot activists of today maneuver a repressive and dangerous environment where they might be targeted by a sniper’s bullet, shelling, or airstrikes, or where they might be detained by armed groups. They also carry out this work despite a lack of funding from international organizations, where they often depend on modest local resources. What pushes grassroot humanitarian activists to do this work is a sense of patriotism and a duty to re-build their country and provide for their communities when the government, the de facto authority and local authorities, have failed to do so. Hence, their activism entails a political consciousness and awareness regarding structures of oppression as they seek to aid and empower the marginalized, those forgotten and oppressed by warlords and political elites. Any prospective political mobilization is contingent on this rising consciousness that people’s grievances are political in nature and that the current political elites are to blame.
The role of the Yemeni diaspora
Humanitarian relief activists are only one part of a plethora of diverse social actors who play a role in shaping Yemeni communities during the conflict. Members of the Yemeni diaspora have contributed significantly to social aid networks at home. By virtue of being outside the direct reach of repressive authorities, diaspora actors have more freedom to engage in politics and influence policymaking around Yemen at an international level. Similarly, Yemeni organizations and individuals working in the medium of arts and culture have also explicitly and implicitly encouraged political engagement and provoked instances of collective action, contributing to the changing political dynamics of the conflict. The political significance of these loose forms of collective action might not be immediately apparent, but it can contribute to generating a cultural transformation that precedes political mobilization.
 Ansar Allah in Sanaa, the Southern Transitional Council in Aden and Islah-related forces in Taiz, to mention some of them.
A. Alviso-Marino (2017). The politics of street art in Yemen (2012–2017). Communication and the Public. 2(2):120-135. doi:10.1177/2057047317718204