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Interview with Munir Daair: “But would Yemen be proud to have us as its citizens?”

Munir Ali Daair

By Jihan Anwar

More than two years after the Arab Spring’s opening movements, the extent and nature of some of the resulting changes have becoming increasingly evident. While many Yemenis are divided between feelings of pride and dissatisfaction in response to the results of Yemen’s Youth Revolution, Munir Ali Daair, prominent Yemeni business man, entrepreneur and philanthropist, provides fresh and engaging perspectives on the Arab Spring as a whole, as well as Yemen’s own significant part in it.

In an interview with the National Yemen, Daair analyzed the unique characteristics of Yemen’s revolution and discussed some of the most critical issues which surfaced following the revolution.

There was never a real revolution in the Arab world before those which took place in 2011. All there had been were violent, bloody armed insurgencies and coups. The youth in the Arab Spring brought about a real revolution, at least for the Arab world.

The reason why the Yemeni uprising was successful, and had the sympathy of the international community, was that it was peaceful. No weapons were allowed during the protests. Peace and the determination to carry on the demonstrations unarmed turned out to be the best weapons.

The very dynamics of revolutions have changed. The Arab rulers witnessed something which had never happened before; they were taken aback by the ‘peaceful’ implications of the uprising. Had the revolutionaries been armed, the regimes would have felt that they had the legitimacy to eliminate the insurgencies – as had happened in the past.

Despite the fact that Yemen is ranked second globally in gun ownership after the United States, traditional norms regulate the use of weapons. For example, if two men are having a discussion and one of them touches his Jambiya [traditional dagger] in the midst of the argument, this will  be seen as a sign of disrespect, and shame will fall upon the man who did it. To make it up to the other side, he’d have to publicly apologize and offer a sheep or a bull.

Although the types of brutal conflicts that are now raging in Syria were expected to take place in Yemen, the fact that the Yemeni revolution continues to be mostly peaceful despite the very heated discussions and brinkmanship, is a major surprise for the pundits who thought we will have a blood bath.

In fact, parties tried several times to provide Yemeni protesters with artillery weapons, and even the government had tried to provoke the protesters into violent reaction, which would have made it possible for the government to justify the killing of revolutionaries; yet the latter never succeeded in this. Yemenis have a long history with weapons, but the revolutionaries made the conscious decision to not use them; this is what made the peaceful revolution all the more remarkable.

Also, technology contributed to the success of the Arabic Spring. One of the main factors was that people who were ‘recruiting’ for the revolution weren’t limited to the physical surroundings of the group which was calling for the upheaval, as it had been in the past; then, the revolutionaries’ call could reach the whole world. In fact, there was a cascading effect, in which people who had been silent and oppressed for decades under their regimes felt inspired after witnessing and receiving chronicles of events taking place in neighboring countries.

The second advantage of technology, a consequence of the first point, was the real-time reach of news. This gave the international community the ability to be a witness and almost take part in the revolution, despite the fact that it was taking place any number of miles away from them. All this translated into international public pressure and close monitoring of government leaders’ actions and decisions.

What was also outstanding was the way that the youth were able to engage and include previous generations which were who were also fed up with the regime but could not do what the youngsters were doing; the revolutionaries were able to inspire them.

Now, as the date of the National Dialogue approaches, the subject of the southern issue is rightfully considered to be the most important subject. In truth, the dialogue has already started in a way in every home and street. This dialogue is not between 565 people, but more than 20 million. All of us are part of this dialogue.

For Ali Abdallah Saleh and Ali Salem AlBeidh, unity was a political vehicle they used to escape from the political mess they created for themselves in their backyards before the unity. The unity was a tactical move for them, not a strategic plan for the country. That is why they could not survive together for more than 4 years before driving the whole nation towards a bloody civil war.

During Saleh’s rule the only solution for the southerners was to disengage from the Saleh regime. I believed in disengagement at that time because I could not imagine any other solution under the Saleh regime. Many southerners realized that no solution, no concern, no interest could come from a regime governed by Saleh to address the Southern people’s grievances.

But that regime, Saleh’s regime, has fallen. So in reality, we have become disengaged from that regime! Of course, remnants of it are still present; it was barely a year ago when exceptional changes took place. It will require time to expunge the network which was established over 33 years; though it may be slow, the process will be irreversible.

No southerner actually wants separation from the north. What they want is separation from a government which mistreated them and exploited their resources. And this is what happened. That government has crumbled and is gone, so there’s now no valid reason for separation. I mean, those who still want to disengage, I ask them, “disengage from whom”? What is needed now is to work together to fix the problems that were created by the regimes of the past, the problems created by Ali Saleh and Ali Salem and the whole south-north regimes of the past.

Of course, there may be youths claiming that they want separation from the north; but the question to ask is: ‘Did this opinion come as the result of an informed decision or was it rather a position found in frustration? Have they truly analyzed the problem and concluded that separation was the best solution?’ Chances are, they had just been reeled in by clever propaganda. No decision should be taken while in a state of anger, no matter how justified the feeling’s presence is.

Moreover, many of these youngsters have not seen the reality of life under the regimes of the north and south in the past and seen what we, the older generation, saw. They have not experienced the blunders,  humiliation, deprivation and cheating perpetrated by the socialist regime in the south, when we couldn’t neither travel or even own a small plot of land. The government owned us. Meanwhile, the party leaders had a special shop where they could buy all the things that the population was deprived to have.

So, stop romanticizing about this period, you haven’t seen what we saw.

I think what would help is if President Hadi, who has done an impressive job on several issues, engaged with the southerners more. He should take confidence building measures. He must assure people in the south that now all of us have a real opportunity to finally build the country we aspire to. We don’t need to break it, we need to build it. This should be his message again and again, while taking real tangible steps that demonstrate his seriousness.

The Hirak movement and the followers of Al Beidh do not have a strong argument, they have strong resources. That’s all. And they are making use of these strong resources to play on the emotions, anger and frustrations of people in the south. And this is a very powerful tool. They are trying to stir people’s emotions – their anger and vengeful feelings – for what happened during Saleh’s rule.  They are trying to stir people’s emotions of anger and revengeful feelings for what happened during Saleh’s rule. Secession promoters amplify and fuel those emotions through media, organizations and strong financial resources.

As a southerner who favors unity, I can say that we haven’t lost the argument; we just haven’t been able to express it as much as the secessionists have. After all, we do not have foreign supporters like the Beidh camp has. But we have the logic and the argument and we are willing to challenge anyone in the Beidh camp who claims to want a separation to a public debate.

And we will not involve any northerners.. A debate between two groups of southerners on the issue of the south’s future, anytime, anywhere, with the only condition that it should be public. When the southern issue is discussed it’s usually behind closed doors, between politicians. Where are the people? Where are the citizens that are supposed to take part in the decision making? So, let’s have a public debate and let the people be directly engaged. We will then see if the Beidh camp has legs to stand on about the future of the south.

It’s ironic that one of the individuals who was responsible for the killing of 14 thousand people in 10 days in 1986 calls himself the ‘President of Southern Yemen’ and plans to regain his ‘rule’. Who elected him president?

No investigations of the January 1986 genocides have been launched. Moreover, the people who committed those crimes are not only free, but are now present on the political scene with demands that southerners should be given their rights… while their own hands haven’t dried from the southern blood they have shed. Talk about crocodile tears!

Yemen needs to change from a nation in which it is allowed to murder thousands of souls anywhere without accountability, to a nation in which every Yemeni life is sacred. For me it’s a matter of principle, if ever as much as one single hair of a Yemeni is touched, the culprit must be held responsible and brought to justice. No more open season on Yemenis. The life of a Yemeni is sacred and there’s no compromise on this. Yemenis must be respected inside Yemen and outside Yemen. That is the Yemen we must call for.

Political games and schemes are ‘normal’; what cannot be seen as acceptable is the playing of political games with people’s lives and livelihoods hanging in the balance.

To the people who are threatening Yemen’s security and stability – with their hand on the trigger, threatening to blow us all up if they don’t get their way – I would like them to realize that they are putting their own futures at risk. As Yemenis, we either rise together or fall together.

Taking a country to the edge of the cliff requires brinkmanship. Taking a step back from the brink requires leadership.

It’s undemanding to declare that we are proud of Yemen…but would Yemen be proud to have us as its citizens?