It is easy to forget how quickly outsiders’ ideas about places like Yemen changed during the early days of the Arab Spring uprisings that began a decade ago—and how quickly those new impressions faded when the uprisings did not deliver rapid transformation.
Such short memories are proving costly for Yemeni women, who gained a place at the political table during and after the 2011 protest movement that ousted then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s autocratic regime, only to be shunted aside amid the violent conflict and international indifference that has plagued the country since. With a cease-fire deal reportedly in the offing in Yemen, international attention is currently focused on the men who have turned the country’s six-year civil war into the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. Yet to create the best chance for real, sustainable peace in Yemen, negotiators must heed women’s calls to be brought back into the political process.
The revolt that began in 2011 in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest state, came as a surprise to many foreign observers who viewed the country as a socially conservative backwater. Here, on live television, in a country The Guardian once labeled “the worst place on earth to be a woman,” female activists were fronting a protest movement alongside hipsters in skinny jeans and reformist sheikhs. They were unapologetic in their calls for the ruling elite—almost entirely older men, who had used a toxic mix of violence, corruption and patronage to stay in power for three decades—to step aside and allow a new, more equitable and inclusive order to take shape.
Many among Yemen’s ruling elite, of course, saw things differently, and wasted no time in launching a counterrevolution. On March 18, 2011, tens of thousands of demonstrators amassed around the country for an event they called the “Friday of Dignity.” At the site of the day’s largest rally, near Sanaa University, in the nation’s capital, plainclothes gunmen opened fire on participants who had just finished their midday prayers, killing an estimated 45 people, including three children. The massacre transformed what for two months had been a largely peaceful uprising into a bloody intra-elite power struggle. One faction of the armed forces, as well as tribal militias previously allied with Saleh, split from the regime, ostensibly to support the protesters, pitting rival military units and tribesmen against each other on the streets of Sanaa and other big cities like Taiz.
In late 2011, the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council brokered a deal to stop the fighting and convinced Saleh to step down. This triggered a United Nations-designed transition that was to end with democratic elections. Between 2012 and 2014, the U.N. oversaw a political process that made space not just for the ruling elite, powerful tribes and political parties, but for youth, civil society groups and women. Women’s groups negotiated a 30-percent quota for women’s participation at the National Dialogue Conference, a 13-month series of intensive talks over the country’s that were meant to inform the contents of a new constitution.
The dialogue delivered an aspirational if imperfect blueprint for a fairer and democratic Yemen. But as this vision developed on paper, the transition process succumbed to a power struggle. Exploiting growing popular anger over governance failures in the country, Houthi rebels backed by Saleh-aligned forces overran Sanaa in the autumn of 2014. They then chased Saleh’s successor, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, to the southern port city of Aden. An air strike on the presidential palace in Aden triggered a military intervention led by Saudi Arabia, which saw the Houthis as an Iranian proxy. The Saudis predicted the war would be over in a matter of weeks; instead, it escalated and continues to this day.
Against the backdrop of Yemen’s collapse and the similar descent of the Syrian and Libyan revolutions into chaos, idealistic ideas about democracy and human development in the Middle East that diplomats and other foreign officials might have shared in 2011 have faded, giving way to a weary resignation about the region. A kind of common knowledge has emerged in some diplomatic circles, and among observers in Western capitals, since 2011: The Arab Spring uprisings’ inability to survive the violent counterrevolutions that followed them somehow proved that inclusive politics were foreign to places like Yemen, despite the costs so many Yemenis were willing to pay to achieve a more equitable future. The best outcome women and other groups can hope for, such thinking goes, is that the men with the guns can be convinced to stop the shooting and restore a rejiggered version of authoritarianism.
Throughout the war, women-led organizations have tackled challenges that the U.N.-led process has often ignored or glossed over.
Still, as recently as 2015, U.N. efforts to broker an end to the spiraling conflict were aimed at resuming an inclusive political process as quickly as possible. Six years on, expectations for an end-state have shifted dramatically. Today, the U.N. and most diplomats working on Yemen are focused on trying to broker a cease-fire between the Houthis, the Saudis and Hadi’s government, in the hope that this will create an opening for Houthi-Hadi talks over a deal that would end the war conclusively.
Yemenis often ask whom, exactly, such a peace would serve. Women are especially worried about a narrow two-party deal. There are as many influential women in Yemen with as diverse a range of opinions as there are armed and political factions, but they agree on one thing: that the two sides may be headed toward a political settlement in which women will have no voice. They rightfully worry that this could lead to their permanent exclusion from politics and that Yemen’s future—and theirs—will be shaped without their input.
Yemen, of course, badly needs a cease-fire and a return to politics. The war has cost an estimated 250,000 lives and has precipitated what the U.N. says is the world’s largest humanitarian crisis; U.N. officials warn that the country could soon experience the worst famine the world has seen in decades. But the current narrow negotiating focus will only go so far toward averting an even deeper humanitarian crisis. Stopping the shooting, after all, is not the same thing as building a sustainable peace. In the event that a cease-fire is brokered, recent history suggests that both the Houthis and the Hadi government will look for any excuse they can to backtrack on the agreement, while local groups left out of negotiations are likely to cause as much trouble as possible to earn themselves a seat at the table.
Lasting peace and stability tend to come from the ground up. For this reason, the time has come to bring a wider range of players into the mix, not just armed groups and political parties but also local advocates for peace and stability, especially women who can provide perspectives needed to ground the national process in local realities. Hitherto excluded from the peace process, they could play a valuable role in sustaining a cease-fire, by working to build peace locally.
Throughout the war, women-led organizations have tackled challenges that the U.N.-led process has often ignored or glossed over. They have negotiated the release of political detainees and prisoners of war, acted as mediators in efforts to reopen roads around Taiz city, and lobbied for the reopening of the international airport in Mukalla, in southeastern Yemen. In 2015, women in Marib governorate, currently the site of intense fighting, negotiated the handover of government facilities by Saleh allies to local authorities after anti-Houthi forces retook the area from the Houthis. This is exactly the kind of work that will need to be done in the event that the main parties agree to a cease-fire.
Women’s and local groups’ support for a political settlement cannot be taken for granted, especially if they are called upon to help implement a deal they feel excludes them. As we argue in a new Crisis Group report, the U.N. Security Council should introduce a quota for women’s participation in the U.N.-led political process, insisting that all of the parties that come to the table include a minimum number of female delegates. The U.N. envoy, Martin Griffiths, and his team should also build on their current informal outreach to women’s groups, as well as to unarmed but influential local civil society organizations, by setting up a parallel political track that brings these entities into the national-level process.
At a minimum, the U.N. should say how and when it will include such groups. It should also explain what mechanisms it would put in place to protect women’s rights both now and after the war ends. From their side, women’s groups and other civil society actors that feel they have been left out of U.N.-led efforts to end the war should seize on the recent uptick in global interest in Yemen and the Biden administration’s focus on negotiating an end to the conflict to press for their meaningful inclusion. Without that, one can only doubt the prospects for successful peacebuilding in Yemen.
This article is part of a regularly occurring series of briefings by analysts of the International Crisis Group.