The rise and fall and necessity of Yemen’s youth movements

Silvana Toska, Davidson College

This memo was drafted for POMEPS Studies 29,Politics, Governance, and Reconstruction in Yemen.” 

The Yemeni revolution, perhaps more so than other uprisings in the Middle East, was initially driven by students and unemployed graduates, generally under the age of 30 and not affiliated with any political parties or groups. Unlike the other uprisings, representatives of Yemeni youth continued to play an active – if not ultimately influential – role after President Saleh’s removal was ushered in by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative. From the early days of the uprising, members of the “Independent Youth” sent representatives to the National Dialogue, continued protesting in the streets, established political parties, and created effective local social movements. However, faced with entrenched political elites that maintained control over structures of power and their own lack of coherent structure, leadership, and resources, the youth movement fractured and many influential individuals were coopted into existing parties and networks. By 2014, this fracturing and cooptation had shrunk civil society and opposition space in Yemen to pre-2011 levels. After the Houthi takeover of Sana’a and the ensuing Saudi led war against the Houthi-Saleh coalition, many youth activists joined different sides of the conflict, not least because of disappointment with the outcome of the revolution and their own movement. Neither the stunning early success, nor the ultimate “failure” of the youth movements to achieve their goals was inevitable, but the latter was more predictable and remains relevant: the ability to overcome some of the problems of the broader movement will likely determine Yemen’s chance for a civic state.

How unified were the Yemen youth during the uprisings?

The Arab uprisings and the role of youth in them were described with much excitement at their early stages. The fact that the faces of many of these revolutions were young, unaffiliated individuals asking for good governance, democracy, rights, and overall progressive objectives were sufficient to legitimize their actions. What counts as youth, however, is not a strictly a demographic category, and this has implications for the nature of the movement. In Yemen, while the revolution was indeed started by groups often considered as “youth” – the 18-30 year olds – within a few weeks, more experienced activists in their thirties and forties joined the “Independent Youth.”[1] This doesn’t simply stretch the meaning of youth to mean a “metaphorical social youth,” as defined by political and social demands rather than demography, but it also stretches the concept of independence, including a vast array of individuals, many of whom are not as independent as the original group that gave the movement its name.[2] This has proven to be both a strength and a weakness. When the uprising needed numbers the most, a large base of individuals from all groups and regions of Yemen was clearly the most effective. However, when consensus, leadership, structure, resources, and coherence were necessary, a broad-based coalition of individuals with different political affiliations or inclinations was a significant obstacle.[3]

Social movements theory has long established that for a movement to be successful, it must fulfill the following criteria: moral resources such as legitimacy and solidarity, cultural resources that resonate with the population, human resources such as leadership and expertise, organizational resources including defined and intentional internal structures within the movement, and material resources such as financial and physical capital.[4] While the Independent Youth possessed the first two requirements, in fact it was the only group in the square that did so, it entirely lacked organizational resources and, unsurprising given the suddenness of events, material resources. Most importantly, while human capital was available, many of the participating individuals were sympathetic, if not affiliated, with various existing political parties. According to a survey by the Yemen polling center, 77 percent of youth activists said that they were politically active prior to 2011, and the vast majority of them were active within political parties.[5] According to activist and chairperson of Muwatana Organization for Human Rights Radhya Almutawakel, “there were many independent youth in the square, but the majority of them were Islah, or Houthi, or something else first. There was less unity beneath the surface than it seemed.”[6] There is nothing inherently problematic with this fact, but in the absence of a more coherent internal structure, the eventual unity of the movement and its very future was a difficult goal from the very start.

Youth organization, co-optation, and exclusion

Nevertheless, the stunning achievements of the youth movement must be emphasized. Within two months of the uprising, the various youth groups established the Coordination Council for Yemeni Revolutionary Youth (CCYRC).[7] They conducted daily meetings with all the independent youth groups in the square, as well as some groups affiliated with the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), and articulated a concise, 13-point document, describing their vision for the future of Yemen.[8] This was early evidence of the ability of the CCYRC to bring together groups of various ideological orientations.[9] The participation of Yemen’s formal opposition parties immediately after raised fears of the possibility of hijacking the revolution, as they perceived the Muslim Brotherhood had done in Egypt. Additionally, because the GCC countries and other international actors were looking for formal and coherent partners on the ground, the youth groups were kept out of the GCC-brokered deal. Most felt that the revolution was indeed hijacked, and the result of the GCC deal was perceived simply as a “game of musical chairs” played by the same old elites.[10] The signing of the GCC deal irreversibly splintered the CCYRC. While some groups decided to participate in the process and saw compromise as necessary, a minority choose to continue street protests, others went back to their old political affiliations, and many became apathetic.[11]

The potential for continued youth protests, and a realization of the role of youth in mobilization, led to the invitation of a delegation of 40 independent youth to the National Dialogue Conference (NDC). At the NDC, youth both functioned as a more coherent political force with leadership positions in many working groups throughout the duration of the conference, and many were further co-opted by various parties. Of note here are members of Al Watan party, established during Change Square protests in 2011 and formally registered in January 2014. Al Watan represented many of the goals of the early activists and described itself as a centrist, civil party.[12] Al Watan had 8 out of the 40 youth representatives in the NDC and wielded an outsized influence at the conference. While most of the 32 youth representatives were committed to party lines, even if formally independent, al Watan stood aside from all existing political parties. Hence, when members of al Watan started getting closer to President Hadi’s circles, they compromised their image as non-partisan mediators.[13] One of the most prominent al Watan leaders, Husam al-Sharjabi, was invited and accepted to join Hadi’s government, and two others – Rafat Al-Akhali and Gabool al-Mutawakkel – were offered posts in the 2014 government reshuffling.[14] While its reputation suffered, after the Houthi takeover of Sana’a in 2014 some al Watan members went into exile, and the party effectively ceased to exist.

How youth movements evolved and dissolved

Compared to other uprisings, Yemeni youth had a relatively larger role both in the uprisings but especially what followed afterward. Perhaps because the uprising in Yemen was a more drawn-out affair than other Arab countries, youth groups had more of a chance to try various coalitions and ways of participating in the new political sphere. In addition to new political parties, activists took their knowledge and experience of the square to their home regions for more specific, issue-oriented, movements. Of note here is the Marib Cause (al- Qadiyya al-Ma’ribiyya).[15] This was a bona-fide social movement, composed of volunteers but with a clearer goal – focused on improving the condition of their local communities – and more formal structure than the broader youth movement in Change Square. Members of the movement engaged in rallies, tribal gatherings, sit-ins, and blocking oil trucks to raise awareness of the poverty of the region.[16] These protests were sustained and effective enough that, by January 2014, President Hadi met with representatives of the cause and established a committee that would address their concerns. Members of the Marib Cause felt that the committee was unduly dominated by JMP representatives, but the Houthis took over Sana’a and reconfigured government institutions before it could achieve anything. Many members of the Marib Cause demobilized, while others joined the Houthis whom they saw as fighting for similar goals against the central government.[17]

Similar fate awaited members of two other movements – Shiba and al-Jawf – as well as other, less formal, ones.[18] There are many factors for this fracturing and even collapse of many of these movements. For one, these movements lacked both structure and resources. To finance their actions, many had to fall back to old networks, many of which went against the goals of the movement. There was also revolutionary fatigue, given the fact that political elites failed to fulfill the movements’ demands even when they took note of them. Finally, lack of employment and increasing poverty further pushed youth activists to two opposite actions: demobilization or taking up arms. The ensuing war and insecurity ensures that no effective mobilization of youth will take place as long as it continues.

To be sure, protests and mobilization have not entirely died out. Both in Taiz and Marib youth groups have organized protests against the war, albeit of a much smaller scale than previous ones.[19] The nature of mobilization, however, has mostly switched toward the two things that are most immediately needed (and feasible): providing volunteer humanitarian assistance and documenting crimes on all sides of the conflict.[20] Nongovernmental organizations that report on human rights abuses and that were formed after the war – such as Muwatana and Wujud – have attempted to overcome some of the problems of early mobilization by creating organizations comprised of a more formal structure and ensuring that activists working with them are completely independent as political inclinations could hinder accurate reporting on the conflict. So far, Muwatana has been effective in highlighting abuses in areas where no other observers can go.

Looking to the postwar future

Like many events during the Arab Uprising, Change Square not only completely altered youth politics in Yemen and introduced new actors, but it also reinforced old problems, most notably the idea that independent political actors could be co-opted into existing parties. It is perhaps inevitable that in the turmoil that followed the GCC-brokered deal many youth would turn back to their old political affiliations. In the last two decades of ex-President Saleh’s rule, any position of relevance in the country – including government employment at the lowest level – was given as part of patronage politics: there was more to lose by independence than by strategic political affiliation. Many of these affiliations have hardened as a result of the war, while others irrevocably broken as a result of disappointment with the behavior of each side. Thus, a “true” independent and broad youth movement may be a harder goal that it seems at first. However, the fact that many were willing to bracket their political affiliations – albeit temporarily – during Change Square protests is one of the most important outcomes of that period.

When the war eventually ends, the country will be left with political elites that have been involved in committing serious crimes against their own people. The question of what role youth activists played in the uprisings, where they succeeded and where they failed is not merely academic: the future of a civic state in Yemen depends on the possibility of them overcoming both their own internal issues, and becoming coherent enough to withstand pressure existing elites. While some of the youth groups lost legitimacy due to alliances and co-optation during the uprising and afterward, as an abstract category, youth movements and their potential transformation are still widely seen as the only legitimate future for Yemen. As social movement scholars have debated for decades, the fulfillment of the movement’s goals will depend on its ability to establish formal organizations with clear aim and leadership, and ability to use established networks without becoming a part of them. And perhaps there is one potentially progressive outcome that has arisen out of the disastrous war: as the need to oppose completely delegitimized political actors becomes ever greater, a window of opportunity for alternatives forces may open.

[1] Nearly 50 percent of the Independent Youth were above 31 years old. See Mareike Transfeld, “The Youth Movement and Its Activists,” Yemen Polling Center, Policy Brief December, 2013.

[2] For this definition of youth, see S. Philbrick Yadav, “Antecedents of the revolution: intersectional networks and post-partisanship in Yemen.” Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism. 11(3) 558.

[3] Interview with Ibrahim Al Mothana, Sana’a, August 2012.

[4] See for example Mc Adam, Tarrow, and Tilly, Dynamics of Contention, Cambridge University Press, 2011.

[5] Mareike Transfeld, “The Youth Movement and Its Activists,” Yemen Polling Center, Policy Brief December, 2013

[6] Interview with author, December 3, 2017.

[7] Atiaf Z. Alwazir, “Yemen’s enduring resistance: youth between politics and informal mobilization,” Mediterranean Politics, 21(1), 2016, p. 173

[8] Interview with Rafat Al Akhali, August 2017, Sana’a.

[9] Atiaf Alwazir, “Yemen’s Independent Youth and their Role in the National Dialogue Conference: Triggering a Change in Political Culture, Comments, 23, August, 2013. (Berlin: Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik(SWP)

[10] International Crisis Group, Yemen: Enduring conflicts, threatened transitions. Middle East Report 125, July 2012.

[11] Interview with Ibrahimm Al Mothana, August 2012, Sana’a

[12] Interview with Husam al-Sharjabi, August 2012, Sana’a

[13] Interview with Radhya Almutawakel, December 3, 2017.

[14] Rafat al-Akhali accepted the position, while Gabool al-Mutawakkel declined.

[15] Nadwa al-Dawsari, “Marib Youth and Political transition in Yemen,” Atlantic Council, accessed 29 November 2017.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Alwazir, 2016, p. 179

[18] Interview with Radhya Almutawakel, December 3, 2017

[19] Sultan, Maged (2017) Taiz youth: Between conflict and political participation. Middle East Centre Blog (08 Jun 2017). Blog Entry. Available at:

[20] Interview with Radhya Almutawakel, December 3, 2017; Email interview with Nadwa Dawsari, November 23, 2017.