Breaking daggers

This week and last have brought few if any real developments in Yemen. Daily life for most Yemenis gets harder day by day, as water, fuel, and money run out. Politicians continue to bicker and play for points, and the remnants of the regime continue to lash out at their enemies. At present, we can see the regime using a few different kinds of violence. There is the violence of deprivation, experienced by people all over the country. In Arhab, Nihm, and Ta‘iz, Republican Guard units launch artillery barrages against civilian neighborhoods. In Abyan artillery is complemented by air strikes and ground attacks. In Lahj and 'Aden, it seems that regime agents may be responsible for sporadic, random incidents of gunfire and the like. In this post, I'm less concerned with detailing such acts of violence than with looking at the motivations behind them.

Essentially, I want to look at the regime's use of what anthropologists call "symbolic violence," what political scientists would refer to as "signalling." The best academic treatments of symbolic violence in Yemeni society can be found in Shelagh Weir's A Tribal Order and Steve Caton's Yemen Chronical. The basic point they make, in reference to uses of violence among Yemen's northern tribes, is that in the tribal context a violent act is usually intended primarily as a means of communication. This does not mean that the violence isn't "real," that people don't get hurt; rather, it means that the primary function of such violence isn't to harm or to kill, but to signal an intention or a demand.

To give a basic example: if a tribesman feels he has been wronged in some way by another tribesman, he may attack his enemy in a public place, where neutral bystanders will be present. He does this because tribal law, 'urf, forbids "ganging up" and requires bystanders to intervene in such a situation. He's not attacking because he wants to hurt or kill the other man, but because he wants a third party to mediate and provide him with redress for his grievances. The same principle applies to bigger acts of violence within the tribal system, even pitched battles or prolonged wars between tribal factions. People are hurt and killed in such events, but the violence always retains a symbolic and communicative dimension as well.

For most of Yemen's history, violence between the state and other segments of society has tended to follow these precepts as well, though some rulers have been more willing than others to use extreme force to subdue unruly subjects (Ahmad ibn Yahya Hamid al-Din, the last real Imam of Yemen, was one such ruler, and his violent tendencies were a big part of why he inspired the overthrow of the imamate). But violating the social norms of symbolic violence is also a symbolic act. 'Ali 'Abdullah Saleh is a legendary violator of tribal law and social order; and much like Imam Ahmad, Saleh's crimes against these norms are directly responsible for the fact that he's now in a hospital bed covered with burns. And I believe that we can see in each of his crimes--each of his unacceptable uses of violence--a clear message to his opponents.

I'm not going to go too far back into the past in this blog post, because I tend to get a bit wordy as it is, but suffice it to say that the civil wars of 1994 and 2004-2010 were marked by excesses intended to send certain messages to Saleh's enemies and to outside observers. Here I'm just going to look at some of the regime's uses of violence since the start of the 2011 revolution--using two specific but representative examples--and what I think they mean.

On a number of occasions, forces directly answerable to the president have committed acts that are flagrant violations of Yemeni social codes of honor and decency. One that comes to mind, from mid-April, was the kidnapping of four female medical volunteers on their way to Change Square in San‘a. This one doesn't take much explaining: male security forces--maybe soldiers, maybe paid thugs--physically grabbed and abducted women, and not just women, but women doctors. Just in case violating Yemeni social codes wasn't clear enough, the act violates international laws, or at least norms, about the protection of medical aid providers in a conflict zone. This incident came a month after the Change Square massacre, at a time when the youth and other protesters were demonstrating their strength and resilience with great effect and the movement was drawing in new tribal and political allies by the minute.

The regime's intended message with this abduction was clear: Saleh and his security forces would make no consideration for decency in their campaign against protesters; they would combat the revolution without any concern for honor. In fact, the abduction signals clearly that regime intended to fight dishonorably. This message, I believe, was entirely deliberate. It was intended to intimidate, and to signal (especially to the tribal factions of the revolution) that the regime was not interested in an honorable process of negotiation or mediation.

In the tribal/traditional system (non-tribal segments of society, like sadah and qudah, historically adhere to the same system), all negotiation and mediation is based on a recognition of mutual honor. Although it seems like a strange thing to do, the regime's goal was to do the opposite of what warring parties are supposed to do: the regime sought to demonstrate that it was without honor, and thus could not be bargained with. The regime pursued the same tactic throughout the Sa‘dah wars of 2004-2010.

This message was sent most explicitly on the morning of May 23, when Saleh's forces shelled the home of Shaykh Sadiq ibn 'Abdullah al-Ahmar, the paramount leader of the Hashid confederation. To attack the private home of such a man, without provocation, is one of the most shameful crimes that one can commit. This, and the fact that attacks on al-Ahmar's compound were launched while a mediation committee was present (seriously, Saleh?), sent Saleh's message in the clearest possible terms: the regime was not interested in coming to terms. The revolution would be crushed, not negotiated with, and not mediated away. I should note that it was Imam Ahmad's assassination of Shaykh Sadiq's grandfather and uncle that swung the bulk of Hashid's weight behind the Republican movement last century.

While such acts of violence are reprehensible, and especially disgusting within the traditional Yemeni frame of reference, Yemen has certainly been overshadowed, in terms of the ferocity of its regime, by Syria, Libya, and, I believe, Bahrain. The regimes in these countries have shown no mercy and no restraint in attacking their opponents, and they have the military capability--for now--to demonstrate this lack of restraint. In Yemen, however, we've seen what looks like a greater level of restraint. Yes, there have been terrible and costly attacks on unarmed protesters, most clearly the May 29 Freedom Square massacre in Ta‘iz. But it could all have been much worse (though maybe not in Abyan. Things seem to be almost as bad as they can get there). So we have a regime that signals no respect for rights or for laws, but security forces that fail to destroy the regime's enemies. What accounts for this gap?

I argue that it is, in fact, the inability of Saleh's security forces to crush the revolution that necessitates such extreme symbolic violence. Saleh, and now his son Ahmad and nephew Yahya, knows that his men just aren't up to the task. The Yemeni military has never been a reliable institution, and its commanders know that if the Republican Guard and the Central Security forces are pushed too far, they will disintegrate. This is why these forces now favor artillery barrages and other indirect applications of force. Since May 29, there has been no ground assault against protesters, and I get the feeling that none of the regime's commanders would feel confident in ordering such an attack. So, the symbolic demonstrations of ferocity were intended to scare the regime's opponents precisely because the regime knew it couldn't match such symbolic acts with real, effective violence.

And for the record, it didn't work. But the violence expended in the effort has been only too real for thousands of Yemenis.