Ba‘d al-yawm...

...Crowds were celebrating in the streets, as indeed they were in all Yemen's major towns. The concrete-filled barrels at check-points on the border between North and South had been rolled away and crowds chanted ba‘d al-yawm ma ‘ad baramil, after today, no more barrels!

Those lines come from the anthropologist/historian Paul Dresch's description of Yemen's Unification Day, May 22, 1990. I thought of this description one night back in July when, driving past the President's Mosque in San‘a, it occurred to me that there are far more "barrels" in Yemen today than there were before unification.

A single militarized border between two states has been replaced by a heavily militarized single state, militarized not against outside enemies but against its own citizens. Today in Yemen, no one can drive from one city to another without stopping at multiple checkpoints. Inside the cities, police and Federal Security forces are omnipresent.

Today the news and the Tweet-o-sphere were full of reports of the tremendous success of the Gulf Cup Tournament in Aden. I should know, as I contributed to Yemen's PR victory by noting these stories on the YPP's own Twitter feed and Facebook page (and again here, just now). Of course, Yemen deserves a bit of good news, and a bit of positive coverage in the world media. As I noted on Facebook, this was the first time I've ever heard a non-Yemeni Arab say anything positive about Yemen. But the narrative of these cheerful stories is a bit sad, and very revealing. Most of the articles revolve around two points:

  • Yemen hosted an international event and nothing got blown up;
  • security was overwhelming, but everyone had a great time.

The underlying assumptions are that there would have been terrorist attacks at the tournament had the government not provided adequate security, and that, to put it simply, the South is crazy and unsafe without thousands of soldiers all over it. The conclusion that a rational reader would draw, then, is that an overwhelming and "proactive" domestic security posture (or, in South Yemeni dialect, an occupation) is totally justified and a good thing for everyone involved. Just look how much fun those Saudi tourists are having! And hey, what was the threat that all of those soldiers were protecting us from, anyway? Al-Qa‘idah? Secessionists? Most foreign reporters don't know, and didn't bother to find out.

A few happy stories about football might do a lot to legitimize the central government's repressive policies towards the South. What President Saleh wants, after all, is to associate the Southern Movement with AQAP in the minds of his allies. By depicting an amorphous danger in the south and crediting the government with defending people against it, the press has helped him accomplish this goal. His security measures—which have repeatedly failed to defeat actual threats—have been congratulated and welcomed by the international community, while southerners who complain of northern aggression have been discredited.

After today, more and more barrels.