Violence Returns To Yemen After Arab Spring Success

Old regime elements and al-Qaeda are both interested in fostering violence and widening instability as the Middle Eastern nation tries to stay on path to democracy.

A Yemeni soldier checks a car in Sanaa, Yemen, on May 6, 2014 — Mohammed Mohammed/Xinhua/ZUMA
A Yemeni soldier checks a car in Sanaa, Yemen, on May 6, 2014 — Mohammed Mohammed/Xinhua/ZUMA
François-Xavier Trégan

SANAA — With a movement of his hand, the soldier orders the driver to stop. Abdel Ghani Ali al-Waji complies and rolls down the window. The soldier points a flashlight at his face, casts a quick glance inside the car and gestures for him to move along.

"These check-points are useless," al-Waji grumbles. "They're always at the same spots, everybody knows where they are, and nobody will search a car occupied by women. And there aren't any police dogs to detect explosives."

For this man, who used to be chief of Sanaa’s detective unit, the army taking charge of the Yemeni capital’s security had no positive effect. "No neighborhood is safe these days. The police have even lost control of some of them, and they’re now open to criminals and terrorists," al-Waji says. "Coordination and communication are bad, it's really not very professional."

Indeed, in recent weeks, Sanaa has seen a sharp rise in violence. On May 9, five soldiers were killed in an unprecedented assault blamed on al-Qaeda against the Presidential Palace. The same day, a bomb killed 11 police officers near the British and Qatari embassies. Four days earlier, a Frenchman in charge of the security of an European Union delegation was slain in the diplomatic district Hada. On April 21, two Yemeni officers were shot down by commandos on motocycles.

Attacks of this kind are nothing new. In 2013, more than 70 soldiers were killed, most of them in Sanaa, in similar circumstances. In early February, two British people were abducted in the center of the capital, as well as a German in the old town’s suburbs. As of today, eight foreign citizens are still captive, including a Saudi diplomat, held since March 28, 2012. As a consequence, all Western diplomatic missions in the capital are in a state of high alert.

And yet, in the post-Arab Spring state of affairs, Yemen is considered something of a success. For ten months, a wide "national dialogue" gathered around the same table the main political leaders and representatives of civil society to lay the foundations of a new democratic and modern governance. Still, elements of the former regime are suspected of fueling chaos through armed groups in order to derail the national unity government.

Al-Qaeda stronghold

Meanwhile, the Yemeni army, assisted by U.S. drones, has been registering important victories against al-Qaeda in its strongholds in the south and southeast of the country. But the terrorist organization has adjusted to the new firepower its up against, and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula instead plays the guerilla warfare card. It strikes boldly where it sees an available target, like it did on December 5, 2013 when a commando attacked the Defense Ministry’s hospital, killing 52 doctors, nurses and patients.

All diplomatic staff are now barricaded in fortified housing estates. They travel in convoys, in armored vehicles, always carrying a weapon and keeping one eye on the rear-view mirror. Before starting the engine, agents of intelligence services check twice under their cars. As for politicians, they avoid as much as possible to leave their homes. Since 2011, the year of the revolution, Sanaa’s security situation has continued to deteriorate.

A Yemeni soldier searches evidences after a roadside blast targeted an army bus in Sanaa, Yemen, on May 5, 2014 — Mohammed Mohammed/Xinhua/ZUMA

"During the youth uprising, the authorities focused on politics," laments Abdel Ghani Ali al-Waji, the former police chief. "Criminals and terrorists groups had no trouble taking root in big cities. Everybody should have worked to make sure Sanaa was a city without weapons."

Experts from Safer Yemen agree. Launched in 2012, this private security agency just published a very detailed report on abductions of foreign citizens in Yemen since 2010. "Since the beginning of the revolution, they were mostly of a tribal nature, so as to obtain a ransom or demand the liberation of somebody. The motivations are now clearly political," reckons Nabil al-Shafari, chief of Safer Yemen’s operations. "Some in the Yemeni elite are unfortunately involved. First, they select their victims, depending on their nationalities or their jobs, and then they pay criminal groups to kidnap them and transfer them to al-Qaeda. These abductions, without extremist religious motivations, are used as a way to pressure and intimidate."

Source of suicide bombers

Still driving, Abdel Ghani Ali al-Waji continues on his nightly itinerary in the capital. In the Museik district, not far from the U.S. embassy, he stops his car abruptly. "Look!" he says, pointing at a group of youngsters with long hair in battledress. "We see a lot of others like them in Abyan (a region in southern Yemen, one of al-Qaeda’s strongholds.) The group can easily recruit in this poor neighborhoods, abandoned by the state and left without any police protection. Most of the kamikaze that perpetrated the latest attacks came from here."

Further north, in the district of Guraf, he warns: "If a sectarian conflict should break out, it would start here." "Here" is where Salafists and Houtis live. The latter, Shia rebels in a long and open conflict against the central government, have left their province of Saada, near the Saudi border, to gain territory right up to the edge of the capital. Many suspect that they are using it to stash a large arsenal.

After violent fights and a 100-day siege, they drove the Salafists out of their training camp in the northern town of Dammaj. With no apparent tensions, until now, the two arch enemies live in the same neighborhood, each justifying their weapons stockpile in the name of the "Yemeni tradition."

Al-Waji tries to stay positive nonetheless. "If he’s free to act, the new Interior Minister might be able to make things better," he says. As soon as he took office on March 7, Abdou Hussein al-Tarb was indeed patrolling anonymously in the capital to catch officers sleeping on the job. Rumor has it that he disarmed a dangerous biker by himself, and that he recruits officers single-handedly. Whether true, exaggerated or made up, the heavily broadcasted achievements of the new Minister are already known up and down the country. The population now wants to see results.

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January 22-23

  • Navalny saga & Putin’s intentions
  • COVID’s toll on teenage girls
  • A 50-year-old book fee finally gets paid
  • … and much more!


What do you remember from the news this week?

1. Which two words did U.S. President Joe Biden use about possible scenarios in the Russia-Ukraine standoff that upset authorities in Kyiv?

2. What started to mysteriously appear on signs, statues and monuments across Adelaide, Australia?

3. What cult movie did U.S. rocker Meat Loaf, who died Friday at age 74, star in?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? 🇬🇧 👱 💬 💼 ❌ 🥳 🦠

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]


Toxic geopolitics: More than ever, we need more women world leaders

The world is watching the Russian-Ukrainian border. Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening an invasion finds an ally in Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi, united against their common enemy: the United States. Back in Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden — marking his first year in power with painfully low approval rates (higher only than Donald Trump’s) — sends his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, to Kyiv to reassure President Volodymyr Zelensky who worries that France’s Emmanuel Macron might undermine Ukraine. And we haven’t even mentioned Xi Jinping!

It’s an endless theater of world leaders beating their respective chests — and they have exactly one thing in common: they’re all men. It’s by now a decades-old question, but worth asking again: What would happen if women, and not men, were running the world? Would there be less conflict, more prosperity? More humanity?

In 2018, the World Economic Forum released a study that showed that “only 4% of signatories to peace agreements between 1992 and 2011 were women, and only 9% of the negotiators.” The report shows that in several conflict zones in the world in recent decades, citing Liberia, Northern Ireland and Colombia, women have been instrumental in achieving peace.

In Colombia, where 20% of peace negotiators for the 2016 peace treaty were women, Ingrid Betancourt, herself a victim of the 50-year conflict, has announced her candidacy for the May presidential elections. Differently from previous bids, where she focused on fighting environmental abuses and corruption, Betancourt now is putting gender issues at the center of her political agenda. Bogota daily El Espectador questions whether the former hostage will be able to ride this important political wave, with feminist movements flexing their muscle around the region demanding more rights.

In Italy, next week’s elections for the head of state are monopolized by infamously misogynous former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is hoping to be elected for the seven-year, honorary function. There is no official candidacy, but Berlusconi’s name and that of current Prime Minister Mario Draghi are the two getting the most attention. Italian feminist writer and intellectual Dacia Maraini writes in La Stampa that, yes, the very fact of electing a female president will be progress for the country — and by the way, there are plenty of women qualifed for the job.

There was also a woman politician making the news this week for actually getting elected: Maltese conservative politician Roberta Metsola, became the new European Parliament President after the death of Italy’s David Sassoli. And yet the election of the first female president of the EU’s legislature since Nicole Fontaine in 2001 has been widely criticized by female politicians — primarily for Metsola’s stance against abortion rights. "I think it is a terrible sign for women's rights everywhere in Europe," French left-wing member of the European Parliament Manon Aubry told Deutsche Welle.

The women who have risen to power in history (Margaret Thatcher, anyone?) don’t necessarily make the case that gender is the silver bullet to fix politics. Still, after watching all the toxic masculinity on the world stage this past week, we can rightfully demand fewer men.

Irene Caselli


• Record-breaking online concert of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand”: More than 100 musicians from around the world will take part today in a performance of Mahler’s epic 8th symphony consisting of 1,200 elements, including a double chorus, children’s choir, a full orchestra and an organ. The event is a culmination of a year of work; all artists recorded their parts in isolation besides the children’s choir. Tickets can be purchased here.

Yearly Japanese festival will set a mountain on fire: Today, the grassy hillside of Mount Wakakusayama in Japan will go up in flames as fireworks go off in the background as part of celebrations for Wakakusa Yamayak. The origin of the festival isn’t totally clear, but might relate to border conflicts between the great temples in the region or to ward off wild boars.

• New insights into antiquities taken by the Nazis: Scholars are looking into how German forces during World War II looted artifacts such as on the Greek island of Crete. Nazi officials pillaged these valuables for their own personal gain, but many were also destroyed, which is why researchers around the world are hoping to gain greater insight into this often overlooked aspect of German occupation.

Exhibition of Beirut’s restored artwork: The Beirut Museum of Art has inaugurated the exhibition “Lift” featuring 17 paintings by Lebanese artists that had been damaged by the port explosion in 2020, and have since been restored as a result of a UNESCO initiative.

The world’s first vegan violin tunes up: Berries, pears and spring water are just some of the natural ingredients relied on for the construction of the instrument by English violin-maker Padraig O'Dubhlaoidh. Traditionally, animal parts like horsehair, hooves, horns and bones are used, especially to glue pieces together. The £8,000 instrument is sure to be music to some animal lover’s ears.


One year ago anti-corruption lawyer and politician Alexei Navalny was detained in Russia, marking the effective end of domestic opposition to Russian president Vladimir Putin. In the time since, more than half of the former coordinators of Navalny's headquarters fled Russia. Even Navalny's name is forbidden: Putin never says his name, calling him "this citizen."

At the same time, Navalny’s imprisonment and the de facto end of the opposition have changed Russia. The fear of persecution, the lack of alternatives and the total censorship and propaganda have caused Putin's ratings consistently downward.

An aging leader with no successors, no enemies and dwindling popular support is finding it increasingly difficult to explain why he must continue to rule forever. In such a situation, there’s nothing quite like an external threat to fuel the raison d’être of the authoritarian regime. In Putin’s eyes, the perfect threat right now is NATO expansion, and the perfect enemy is its neighbor Ukraine and its attempts to join the military alliance. Whether Russia's president is ready to engage in a real war is the great unknown, but its aggressive and uncompromising foreign policy — like his disposing of Alexei Navalny — is the latest legitimization of his increasingly absolutist rule now into its third decade.

Read the full story: What The Alexei Navalny Saga Tells Us About Putin’s Intentions On Ukraine


Íngrid Betancourt spent more than six years as a prisoner of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) terror group in Colombia, an experience that is sure to play a role in her recently announced presidential campaign. Betancourt, who is 60, is running as part of the Verde Oxígeno and is the only woman in the Centro Esperanza Coalition (CCE), a centrist alliance.

Betancourt could be a boost for the coalition and embody its goals of transforming, overcoming polarization and, as its name indicates, giving hope to Colombia. In particular, the centrist candidate who in the past has been largely focused on anti-corruption and environmental protection, has said she will make women’s rights a cornerstone of her campaign.

Read the full story: Ingrid Betancourt, A Hostage Heroine Reinvented As Feminist For President


A growing number of studies around the world show that COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions have prompted a disproportionate increase in mental health illness among teen girls. These include rising suicide rates among adolescent females in the United States, Germany and Spain and a higher prevalence of anxiety and eating disorders in Israel. But why are women being disproportionately impacted?

There’s a range of reasons. In India, for example, young women had increased difficulty accessing education resources when schools went online and shared a disproportionate burden of household tasks as opposed to their male peers. Around the world, social media also played a significant role; without access to in-person socialization and hobbies, young people spent more time online, often comparing themselves to others, impacting feelings of self-worth. The situation is particularly dire given the challenges of accessing mental health support resources during the pandemic.

Read the full story: Why The COVID-19 Mental Health Crisis Is Hitting Teenage Girls The Hardest


Norwegian mobility company Podbike has announced that Frikar, its four-wheeled enclosed electric bike, will soon hit bike lanes on home turf. The futuristic-looking vehicle does require the user to pedal, which powers a generator and drive-by-wire system that keep the Frikar running — with a speed limited to 25 km/h.


“Mãe De Bolsonaro” is the top query on Twitter in Brazil, after news that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s mother Olinda Bonturi Bolsonaro had died at age 94.


Photo of the new President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

New President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola

Philipp Von Ditfurth/ZUMA

London’s legendary bookshop Waterstones Gower Street tweeted a photo of a letter from an anonymous user confessing to having forgotten to pay for their books some 48 years ago. Owing approximately £100 ($136), adjusted for inflation, they had sent through £120 ($163) to make up for their tardiness. Touched by the kind gesture, the bookshop reciprocated by donating the money to the largest children’s reading charity in the United Kingdom.


Dottoré! is a weekly column on by Mariateresa Fichele, a psychiatrist and writer based in Naples, Italy. Read more about the series here.

Bucket of tears

I’ve been thinking and thinking about a patient of mine since yesterday. His name is Giovanni.

Psychiatrists, you might not know, are quite often asked the same unanswerable question: "Why does one become insane?”

When I was younger, I searched and searched for an answer, losing myself in scientific explanations about synapses, neurons and neurotransmitters.

By the end of my studies, I’d realized that the only thing that was clear was that I’d been clutching at straws to justify my work and give it a semblance of scientific dignity. In the years since, I’ve forced myself, in defiance of the authority of my position, to reply with a laconic but honest: "Sorry, but I don't know."

So when Giovanni asked me that same question, he was not happy at all with my answer. “Dottoré, how’s it possible that you don't understand why I became crazy?”

When he tried to ask me again one day, I tried a different response:

"Giová, do you cry?"

"No. Why?"

"Imagine that the tears that you don't shed, that you force yourself not to shed, because that's what you've been taught to do, all end up inside your heart. The heart is an organ that pumps blood, which brings nourishment and oxygen to the whole body. But over time those diverted tears accumulate to the point that the heart begins to pump them instead of your blood. Slowly your body becomes sick, but the part that suffers the most is your brain. Because tears don't contain oxygen and nourishment, just sadness."

I expected a reaction to this fanciful explanation, but instead Giovanni kept quiet and eventually left.

The next time I saw him, he said: "Dottoré, I've thought about it. I know you told me about the tears to make me feel better, but maybe you’re right. Because sometimes I feel that I have a lake, more than a heart. But it takes a very powerful pump to pump out all that water, and my heart alone cannot do it. And now that you've explained to me how I became crazy, can you also tell me if I'll ever get better?"

"Do you want another story or do you want the truth?”

"This time, I’d rather have the truth!”

"The answer is always the same then. I'm sorry, Giová, but I don't know this either. But I can tell you one thing for sure. I'll help you slowly, slowly with just a bucket. Because the truth is, not even I have that pump."


• Italy's parliament will convene Monday to begin the process of voting for a new president to succeed Sergio Mattarella for a seven-year term.

• Qualification games for the 2022 FIFA World Cup will be held from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2 for South, North and Central America as well as Asia. Argentina’s national team will not be able to rely on superstar Lionel Messi, still recovering from COVID-19.

• Next Thursday will mark 100 years since Nellie Bly died. The American journalist is known for her record-breaking 72-day trip around the world in 1889, inspired by Jules Vernes’ book Around the World in Eighty Days

Keep reading... Show less
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