From hope to hunger: Yemen's forgotten uprising

Anti-government protesters destroy a vehicle during a protest outside Sanaa University, in Yemen, on Feb 22, 2011.
Anti-government protesters destroy a vehicle during a protest outside Sanaa University, in Yemen, on Feb 22, 2011.PHOTO: AFP

DUBAI (AFP) - Death, destruction and starvation have obliterated the aspirations that propelled a 2011 uprising in Yemen, with the hopes of the country crushed by war and the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

As the Arab Spring gripped the region, thousands of Yemenis took to the streets of the capital Sanaa on Jan 27 that year, demanding that President Ali Abdullah Saleh step down, while loyalists staged their own counter-protests.

Shockwaves from the popular movements shaking Tunisia and Egypt were quick to reach Yemen, long the Arabian Peninsula's poorest country and surrounded by the rich Gulf monarchies.

"The people want the fall of the regime," the protesters chanted, eager to shrug off Mr Saleh's iron-fisted rule.

Mr Saleh had likened governing Yemen to "dancing on the heads of snakes", but nonetheless had remained in power since 1978 while resentments smouldered.

"For 50 years, there had been political under-representation, social inequality, poverty, corruption, and identity struggles," said Mr Maged Al-Madhaji, a witness to the uprising and now director of the Sanaa Centre for Strategic Studies.

In the beginning, the demonstrations were peaceful and spontaneous, said activist Yasser al-Raini, who at the time was a coordinator of youth groups.

"The revolution brought together all sections of society to combat tyranny and injustice, and to build a new Yemen in the spirit of partnership and without excluding anyone," he told AFP.

In a country where there are enough guns for everyone to have their own, the movement, Mr Raini said, remained peaceful until Mr Saleh's forces opened fire on protesters in March.

Cradle of the revolt

A decade later, Yemen is engulfed in a bloody power struggle that erupted in 2014 between the government of President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who control the capital Sanaa and most of the north.

The internationally-recognised government was unable to stop the insurgents, prompting the 2015 intervention of a Saudi-led military coalition.

Today, millions of Yemenis are on the brink of famine with the economy destroyed and schools and hospitals in tatters, while the relentless Houthi campaign for more territory grinds on.

According to the United Nations, more than three million people have been displaced and close to 80 per cent of the population of 29 million is in need of some form of aid for survival.

While the goals of the 2011 movement were to unify Yemenis, the Red Sea state is more fractured than ever.

According to Mane al-Matari, another leader of the uprising, it was Mr Saleh's desire to remain in power and to pass the mantle to his son Ahmed, who commanded the Republican Guard, that "unified Yemenis" in January 2011.

The following month, Mr Saleh promised reforms and vowed he would not run for office when his term ended in 2013, but the move only emboldened his opponents.

A turning point came on March 18 when Mr Saleh's forces opened fire at protesters, killing at least 52 and leading to the defection of dozens of politicians and soldiers.

Sanaa University, where a sit-in was staged, became the cradle of the revolt - as was Tahrir Square in Cairo and Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis.

10 years on

After that, some political parties joined the movement, while the heavily armed Houthis bolstered their presence amid the chaos.

"The young revolutionaries had no political experience. That's where the parties and those who mastered the tool of politics came into play," Mr Raini said.

Mr Saleh was badly wounded in a June 2011 bomb attack on his palace and taken to Saudi Arabia for treatment. A year later, he agreed to step down.

But in 2017, he was assassinated by the Houthis, with whom he had formed an alliance in the hopes of returning to power.

"The people just wanted a new way of being governed, but the revolution was appropriated by political parties who corrupted it," said Madhaji.

In recent years, there has been an outrage at the near famine conditions that stalk the country.

Aid groups on Sunday (Jan 24) warned that conditions could grow worse, after the Trump administration designated the Houthis as "terrorists", and have urged US President Joe Biden to remove them from the blacklist, saying it could put millions of lives at risk.

Among those struggling is 10-year-old Ahmadiya Abdo, who weighs just 10kg and lives in a camp for the displaced in northern Hajjah governorate.

"The child lost her father years ago and lives with her mother and brother in a house made of straw," one of her relatives told AFP.

"She suffers from severe malnutrition but cannot go to the treatment centre at the local hospital because they don't help anyone over the age of five. She has nowhere to go."