The Show Must Go On

A comedian gets ready to film a new series of his pro-revolution television show, poking fun at the Yemeni government.

Filmmaker: Mike Healy

Humour is a serious business in Yemen.

In a country where illiteracy is high and official news is deemed untrustworthy, political satire poking fun at Yemeni officials has mushroomed since the country’s ‘Arab Spring’. And making fun of Yemeni politics has become something of a national hobby.

At the the forefront of it is Mohammed al-Ruba’a, who is a comedian, TV producer and presenter of Against the Tide which broadcasts regularly on the opposition channel Suheil TV .


By Mike Healy

In general, tensions have eased in Yemen since the deposition of President Ali Abdullah Saleh following Yemen’s ‘Arab Spring’, also the time when satirist Mohammed al-Ruba’a’s TV studio was destroyed by the regime’s army.

But the fact that al-Ruba’a is now making a third series of his popular pro-revolution television show, poking fun at the Yemeni government, suggests that the trend to criticise the country’s leaders publicly is set to continue.

Thousands of people have died during the Arab Spring uprising in Yemen – according to the government’s official figures – but considering the fact that Yemen has an estimated three guns per person and has already seen its fair share of conflict; it is perhaps amazing that it managed to escape the degree of death and destruction that now engulfs Syria.

The uprising in Yemen started in the same way as it did in Syria, demonstrators took to the streets to protest against their authoritarian leader and government forces fired on the protestors. Much of the centre of the capital Sana’a still bears the heavy scars of several months of fighting, while the regime tried desperately to keep a grip on its power.

But the difference between the two was the fact that Yemeni tribes are so well-armed and used to tribal squabbles and regional conflicts meant that, unlike most Syrians, they were aware of the danger of allowing the violence to escalate, so most were keen to avoid this.

Other factors also played a hand; the influential Yemeni Army General Ali Mohsen defected to the revolutionaries, taking his army with him. And regional and international governments also played an important role in negotiating a relatively peaceful end to Saleh’s rule.

Despite a mix of Shia and Sunni Muslims in Yemen, any conflict between the two has largely been limited to the Houthi insurgency in the north.

Mohammed Al-Ruba’a satire as well as other popular satirical programmes played their part in educating Yemenis too, despite the country’s high illiteracy rate and a firm government control over its media.

Al-Ruba’a believes the Arab Spring has set the country on the right path but that the revolution will take a generation to achieve its goals. Many Yemenis agree with him, while others who backed the Arab Spring at the beginning withdrew their support when the political parties jumped on the bandwagon.

Meanwhile, some Yemenis either resisted the uprising from the start or supported President Saleh. So what began as a united revolution with shared goals to reform a corrupt regime, seems to have splintered into Islah-backed Sunni activists on the one side and Shias from the northern Houthi tribe o the other.

However, one question remains: is Yemen better off after the Arab Spring? And there is no consensus on the answer.

During the revolution, groups such as the Houthis, al-Qaeda and southern separatists took advantage of the instability the country, to make gains, sometimes by force. And even after the revolution, deposed President Saleh and his inner circle remain powerful figures in the country.

Personally, I did not notice much difference since my last trip to Yemen in 2009. The people were as friendly as ever and I was able to film openly in the streets, even though my fixer warned me not to leave my hotel without him because of the risk of kidnapping.

Due to the country’s economic problems, some see kidnapping a Westerner, as way to make a quick buck, with Americans and British abductees likely to get them a higher rate when sold on to al-Qaeda. Outside the capital, it is not wise to be on the roads at night as gangs have been known to set up checkpoints to prey on passers-by.

Yemen still faces huge political and economic problems but taking an optimistic point of view, at least al-Ruba’a and others have changed the attitude of Yemenis towards their leaders. They are now accountable to a population that is free to criticise them publicly, and if they can do it with humour, then there seems to be hope for the country.