The above question was posed by Dr Mustafa Aqeel, a Qatar University historian who chaired and presented the fourth and final normal panel session of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies Symposium on Yemen. The Symposium, held over the 18 and 19 February, 2012 at the Doha Sheraton in Qatar. The meeting's second day of deliberations focused on the social aspects of the Yemeni revolution, and presented the findings of primary research into the composition of the Yemeni revolutionaries. Expressing his wish that a new, post-revolutionary Yemen would be unshackled from both "side-daggers and qat" [a traditional stimulant chewed around the southern tip of Arabia and the Horn of Africa], Aqeel allowed the panelists, to present their findings to the ACRPS audience.
The first to speak was Abdelkarim Ghanem from Yemen, who explained to the audience how the tribal nature of Yemeni society was something of a hindrance to the political and economic advancement of the country, drawing a link between tribalism in many rural areas of Yemen (a country where 71% of the population live in rural areas, according to Ghanem), illiteracy and poverty. Making matters worse was the way, according to Ghanem, that many of the class of tribal sheikhs and notables were co-opted by ousted President Saleh in his efforts to dominate the country. Of course, such an image of the country contrasts with the idea of tens of thousands of peaceful, young demonstrators pushing for democracy, and on facebook, to boot.
Except that, according to the second speaker, Dr Yahya Al Ruwee, the Yemeni revolution had nothing to do with facebook and Twitter. "The main driving force for the spread of the revolution was the accumulation of greivances on the part of the Yemeni people for a very long time, and not the use of social media", said Al Ruwee. Going further, Al Ruwee pointed out how, in fact, Yemen had one of the lowest rates of computer ownership or smartphone use, both regionally and globally; in a written contribution by the speaker, the number of internet users in Yemen was reported to be only around 12% of the population (in 2010). This low figure itself compares to only 0.22 of 100 Yemenis who were using the internet in 2001.
Also speaking at the fourth session were Majed Mathhaji, who discussed theprevious political and social marginalization of the youth of Yemen, and Jamal Mulaiki, a Yemeni researcher who presented his findings from a survey of youth protetros in Yemen, conducted amongst those in public squares. Mulaiki discussed the inherent difficulties in trying to obtain a reliable sampling of opinions in a highly charged, politicized environment, a point which was later commented on in the question and answer session following the speakers.
Opening up the final part of the two-day meeting was ACRPS General Director Dr Azmi Bishara, a well-known Arab public intellectual and commentator, who remarked that "It would be wrong to think that social scientists should postpone their efforts for decades until it comes time to write the history ... we can focus on what is happening right now, instead of waiting to look back on [these events] with hindsight." Dr Bishara picked up on the relationship of the mass popular movement in Yemen, which had ousted long-time dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the country's wide array of well-organized political parties: "It is strange and somewhat paradoxical that of the Arab countries which witnessed revolutions [that Yemen which is] the poorest of these countries, should have the most developed political landscape. This is happens to be the case, that we find Yemen's political landscape to be more 'developed' than other countries."
Recognizing the potential role of political parties, Dr Bishara contented, was the only way forward if Yemen were to develop a healthy and active political climate, one which could nurture the country's economic development and nurture substantial political debate and reforms. Dr Bishara contrated this to what he see as kind of ambiguous sense that "the youth do not need a leadership" a position which, he contented, was widespread amongst the scores of Yemeni political activists with whom he had had dealings going back since the past year. The reason for this kind of frustration with traditional political structures, said Dr Bishara, was clear: It was the unwillingness of Yemeni parents to see their children die and watch cynical political leaders come to power: "Nobody wants to die so that a particular person, somebody who lives and breathes ... can reach a position of power. People die for other, more noble reasons ... for ideals of freedom and the fight against corruption."
Pointedly, the first person to speak after Dr Bishara questioned the very identity of the Yemeni popular revolt: "The Yemeni revolution is closer to a form of political reform than a revolution ... Ali Abdullah Saleh will get to go back to Yemen, and with immunity!" said Dr Naveen Massad, a participant at the meeting and a Cairo University lecturer. Disagreeing with Dr Massad was the Yemeni philosopher Qaderi Haidar, who said that he "could not agree with the suggestion" that "what happened was Yemen was not a revolution...it [is a revolution] and is still underway". Yet Haidar had his own share of pessimism and foreboding to bring the table, this time about the future representation of the South, which had united with the North of Yemen only in 1990, Haidar spoke of how opposition to the terms of the unification had been brutally crushed by former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 1994:
"We need to go back to the war of 1994, which was a dirty war; there was a real destruction of the South ... although I agree that we are one Yemeni people ... but what happened was that no political lessons learned from the experience ... what we see is the reproduction of a type of statehood which reproduces a kind of medieval Sultanate ..."
This was something which Dr Bishara was able to elaborate on: "If we do not acknowledge some of the mistakes which were made in our joint Arab history, there will be no way for us to move forward ... we need to admit past mistakes." This, said Dr Bishara, also went hand-in-hand with the need to form strong, cohesive national identities, and was not antithetical to such aims: "How do we create a sense of nationhood and citizenship without a common historical narrative: Was the war of 1994 a war for reunification or something else? I think this is something where efforts at community reconciliation, in a spirit of honesty, might play a role."
Bring the meeting's two days of discussion to an end, ACRPS General Director Dr Azmi Bishara articulated a question which had been on the minds of many attending the meetings at the Doha Sheraton: "Why did the revolution not spread to other countries?"... "nobody could possibly say, in my opinion, that the Arab Revolutions have come to an end; in fact I believe that the revolutions are continuing. It is also my personal opinion that no one country is protected from this wave."