Yemen: Thinking outside the AQAP box

Pro-democracy demonstrators in Yemen have caused al-Qaeda more damage than Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government ever did.

Protests led by young people are challenging both al-Qaeda and traditional Arab rulers [EPA]

Young protesters taking to the streets of Yemen have caused al-Qaeda more damage than Ali Abdullah  Saleh’s government, with all its counter-terrorism allies, has ever managed. The notion that change can only be achieved through force, power and violence has been refuted once and for all. With peaceful protest, the youth of Yemen has reunited the shattered streams of Yemeni society in a brave and determined call for democracy.

Nevertheless, after years of economic crisis, months of national unrest and weeks of intensifying clashes, Yemen is currently in no better shape than its wounded president. Fears of a security vacuum and economic collapse are gradually becoming a reality on the ground, and the poorest Arab country is inching towards becoming a failed state. Among regional neighbours and international allies fears are growing about the country that is classically viewed as a safe haven for al-Qaeda and the homeland of its strongest “franchise” AQAP, or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

In reality, however, the Yemeni regime has been exaggerating the threat from AQAP and exploiting fear to draw crucial financial support from the international community, particularly after the US cut its funding for Yemen to $4.6 million in 2006. That year, twenty-three al-Qaeda suspects suspiciously escaped from a Yemeni prison, and since then al-Qaeda has been increasingly portrayed as a looming bogeyman to get funds from the international community. President Saleh, like many of his counterparts in the Arab world, has implicitly asserted the need for countries to ally with authoritarian regimes as a sole resort to tackle the nightmare of extremist movements, all the while taking advantage of this narrative to repress Yemen’s people and bury their dreams of a free democratic state. Even following the recent events in the South of Yemen, some army generals accused the president of deliberately surrendering provinces to “terrorists” and using the elite CT unit, which has received hundreds of millions dollars of support, in irrelevant conflicts in Sadaa and, more recently, in Sanaa.

With the government receiving abundant military support, lacking legitimacy and maintaining poor relations with the local communities in areas where extremist groups operate, the counter terrorism policy continues to be a Sisyphean task. The regime’s narrow-minded strategy has been largely ineffective and in many cases caused more harm than good, with serious economic repercussions.

All the options in Yemen are exceptionally challenging and there is no doubt that in the current state of instability and uncertainty, there is no ideal solution; however, achieving the best future for Yemen will require “thinking outside Al-Qaeda box,” as former US Ambassador to Sanaa Barbara Bodine once stated.

Yemen is suffering from grinding poverty and a challenging combination of high unemployment and a youth bulge, with 70 per cent of the population under the age of 25. Forty per cent of Yemen’s 23 million people live on less than two dollars a day. One third of the population face chronic hunger. Unemployment stands at an estimated 35 per cent. Oil exports are in decline, hard currency is running out in the banks and the local currency is becoming critically devalued. There is a need for at least two billion dollars in the next six to twelve months to keep basic public services running. Although the international concern is largely focused on al-Qaeda and the security threat, the real untold story is one of devastating famine and humanitarian crisis. Food, water and fuel prices are skyrocketing and a collapsing economy is at the heart of every other problem the country is facing.

Perhaps the economic and social aspects alone do not explain the uprising in Yemen, but they are a crucial part of the cause.

Spending time in Sanaa’s extensive change square has become a daily ritual for me and thousands of other young people. There we share our ambitions and thoughts of a better future. I cannot forget my friend Mohamed’s words during our last meeting in one of the square’s innumerable tents: “I lost my dignity, hope and dreams and I will not return home until I get them back.” He was an unemployed university graduate who spent the past couple of years trying to find a job that does not even meet his qualifications. A few days later, Mohamed was shot dead on the Friday of dignity – the name given to the day when snipers opened fire and killed 52 peaceful protesters – leaving his aspiration for millions of other youth to fulfill. He is but one example of the millions of Yemeni youth who have lost everything and for whom life has become so miserable that dying honorably has become a blessing.

Extremist groups and al-Qaeda pose an undeniable challenge to Yemen, which needs to be tackled. Drones and air strikes, however, will never be a silver bullet in a context where extreme poverty and hunger prevail. Immediate and comprehensive action on issues across the spectrum, rather than focusing solely on security dilemmas, is essential if the people of Yemen are to be given the future they deserve.

Ibrahim is a 22 years old youth activist, writer and a community worker from Yemen. He is a youth ambassador for the Arab Thought Foundation and the youngest member of its Advisory committee.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.