Is There Any Hope Left for Yemen?

On the night of March 25, Saudi Arabia began a bombastically named air raid campaign, Operation Decisive Storm. The Saudis want to pressure the Houthis, the Shiite tribal community who have overrun much of Yemen, to negotiate with our former president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who fled last month for exile in Riyadh.

As the shelling of infrastructure and the killing of civilians continues, Yemen is coming apart. Hunger is pervasive; major cities have become ghost towns. The bombing campaign will not resolve our four-year-old political crisis; it will only erode any modicum of national cohesion left. When the intervention ends, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula will step into the vacuum left by the chaos and by the government’s weakness, especially in southern cities like my hometown, Taiz.

There is no shortage of people to blame for Yemen’s catastrophe: the sectarian, tribalist Houthis, who seized the capital in January; Mr. Hadi, who led an incompetent government and is now supporting our northern neighbor’s effort to turn us into a Saudi protectorate; and his vindictive, irrational predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was forced from power in 2011 but refuses to step aside.

These culprits have effectively made Yemen the battleground between two great external powers, Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. Yemenis today are more divided than they ever have been.

The pro-intervention side claims that the legitimacy of Mr. Hadi’s government must be upheld, and that the Houthi assault on the government must be stopped. The other side presents itself as the defender of national autonomy, even though it was the Houthis who sought Iran’s military and financial help and thereby helped to turn Yemen into a proxy for a regional struggle against Saudi Arabia.

Like other democratic activists, I am in a third group — one that has been rendered nearly invisible. We reject external military intervention absolutely. We also reject the Houthis’ coup and their vengeful campaign against Yemenis in the north and the south. Our brief hope for a peaceful democratic transition, after Mr. Saleh officially ceded power more than three years ago, has given way to despair.

For three decades, Mr. Saleh ruled with an iron fist. (The president of North Yemen since 1978, he stayed on as president after the country was reunified in 1990.) His media controlled the public sphere, and he used it to distort perceptions of nationalism and to steer national sentiment away from its true object — love of country — toward himself. He made the army an agent of his will.

Our hopes soared after Mr. Saleh left Yemen for medical treatment in the United States in early 2012. Unfortunately, the transitional government under Mr. Hadi was grossly mismanaged. Weak institutions and rampant corruption were worsened by the executive branch’s stranglehold on power and its crippling of the legislative and judicial branches. Various factions — tribes, military, clergy — fought for powers; some manipulated the threat of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to harm their rivals. The powerful ignored what most Yemenis desperately need: better education, basic health care and relief from grinding poverty. International and regional players — not only Saudi Arabia and Iran, but also the United States and Qatar — have used Yemen as a stage to play out their struggles.

Some say that Yemen is so broken that intervention from the outside is the only solution. I disagree. Our society is divided, and the internal tensions created by political factions are severe, just as in Iraq, Syria and Libya — other countries that are described in the West as “failed states.” But the Saudi-led bombing campaign, which has the support of countries like Egypt and Pakistan, won’t solve anything.

Any solution to the political crisis in Yemen has to come from the international community pressuring both Saudi Arabia and Iran and pushing them toward negotiations that will lead them to some sort of mutual understanding and stop them both from making the Yemeni situation worse. Meanwhile, the Yemeni political parties have to participate in producing a political solution based on internal understandings and with international sponsorship.

The crisis in our country, which is being ripped apart, is nothing but a manifestation of a larger global struggle. The United States and the European Union cannot look away. They have an interest in preventing Yemen from becoming an even more dangerous base for Al Qaeda and other militants. The Saudi bombing campaign will only worsen the threat of terrorist violence.

Yemen is on the verge of collapse. Saudi Arabia, under the pretense of protecting Sunnis, is trying to pick up the shattered pieces of Arab nationalism. I fear that the Saudis will not realize the folly of their intervention until it is too late. The Shiite Houthis, in partnership with Mr. Saleh, the former president, have lots of ammunition and will to fight.

The international community must take stock of its responsibility in fostering this crisis. For ordinary people here, and in countries like Iraq and Syria, who are just trying to survive civil war, terrorist groups, the collapse of any meaningful government and the consequent humanitarian crises, the outside world seems like a usurer, trading our blood as if it were a commodity like oil.

Bushra al-Maqtari is a human rights activist and a novelist. This essay was translated by Ghenwa Hayek from the Arabic.

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