When my friend was deported from Yemen, it took me down the rabbit-hole of how national security decisions are made, writes Farea Al Muslimi
Close to midnight on May 8, my roommate, an American journalist called Adam Baron, received a phone call. It was from the National Security office in Sanaa, asking him to come to their office the following day to fill out some papers for his residency application so that he could continue working officially as a journalist in Yemen.
The next morning, we went down together to be greeted by an officer and escorted into an office with the title “Director of Surveillance and Deportation” on his desk. I grew uncomfortable. A few minutes passed in silence. The officer returned and demanded Baron’s mobile phone and passport. “You are no longer welcome in our country,” he announced
The officer asked me to go book a flight for Baron, adding that they would detain him in a holding cell until I returned with the ticket so that national security could transport him to the airport and deport him.
I couldn’t believe it. I insisted there must have been a mistake. I asked the question I would ask a hundred times in the subsequent weeks and months: Why was he being deported? The only response was that the decision was non-negotiable.
Once Baron was in the holding cell I started calling Yemeni officials I knew from years of political activism and journalism. I still believed the issue, like most things in Yemen, could be resolved if the right person intervened. Hours passed and my face flushed red. The officer laughed with paternalistic arrogance. “Wow what a big difference,” he said mockingly. “You are so different from when you are on TV. Where has that confidence, eloquence and calmness gone?”
“Don’t think you have a voice,” another officer, listening to our conversation, said. “Decisions are still taken in the same old places.”
That remains the most accurate statement I have heard about the state of Yemen’s government today. While I – like many other Yemenis – was originally optimistic about Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the man who replaced Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s autocratic leader of 33 years, in 2012, it has become increasingly clear that the “new order” in Yemen is a carbon copy of the old one, albeit with a different face.
Deportation isn’t the worst thing that can happen. And it certainly isn’t among the worst things happening in Yemen. But what is worrying is that so little has changed since the time when our former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, had Yemeni activists and journalists jailed and sometimes tortured to death.
This latest incident was just a reminder that Yemenis and foreigners who criticise the way the country is run are still powerless in front of a deeply entrenched machine of corruption and nepotism.
Several hours after Baron was detained, I received a call from one of my contacts. He told me to go to a house where a high-ranking security official was chewing qat. This official was most probably the one who had ordered Baron’s arrest, and he was probably the only person who could reverse or at least explain the decision.
I arrived at about 6.30pm and made my way to a room where a dozen of some of the most powerful men in the country were seated. My contact had already placed Baron’s documents in front of the official. But the man didn’t so much as look at them. The conversation rolled on with no regard for my presence.
After sitting silently for two hours, the awkwardness of the situation grew increasingly difficult to ignore. The official received several phone calls, some to do with Baron’s case. His phone would ring, he would look up at me briefly without uttering a word. He sat smoking, casually resting the left side of his body on a plush cushion. It was almost the image of an intelligence officer one would expect to find in a movie. Fighting my own feelings of impatience, I tried to assure Baron by text message that he would get out tonight, urging him not to waste the battery on the phone I had smuggled into the prison for him.
Around 8.30pm I took advantage of a pause in the conversation to explain to the room why I was there. The official took a single look at the papers laid out in front of him. “He has to leave the country,” he replied curtly. The decision was not solely his, he said, and the matter was now out of his hands.
When I asked him if he could tell me why Baron was being deported he simply replied: “It is our business, and no one can interfere in it.”
The official did, however, agree to release Baron from prison on the condition that he left the country as soon as possible. I agreed. He said I should wait for a call from his staff, and that Baron would be temporarily freed to make travel arrangements. It was over. Baron would have to leave, but at least he was out of jail.
This episode is not just about the deportation of a good friend and colleague, nor about the regular harassment other activists get from the security services.
Rather, each one of those issues cuts through the rhetoric around the highly touted “Yemen model” of replacing the head of state while leaving the pre-existing state apparatus largely untouched and seeking to reform it slowly over time.
While ostensibly allowing for a “smooth transition”, the flip side of the model is that the aims of the 2011 revolution that prompted Yemen’s political transition have been discarded at best and trampled upon at worst.
Those in power are more or less the same people who were in charge before 2011. And they have no intention of ever allowing substantive reforms.
To many of us it looks as if the government’s real priorities are not making long-term investments in education and infrastructure – but, rather, using drones against suspected terrorists and deporting international journalists and harassing Yemeni ones.
In the Hadi era, the authorities have a new weapon to silence dissent. Whereas former president Saleh was forced to reckon with international opinion when he suppressed his political opponents, Mr Hadi is able to cast them as “enemies of the transition”. This designation is rarely questioned. He recently labelled participants in protests demanding an end to the now-frequent 20-hour long power blackouts in Sanaa as “traitorous”.
Driving back from the airport after Baron was deported, I noted one of the many giant posters praising the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), a 10-month series of talks held in 2013 and 2014.
“The NDC is the change with the least cost” it read. Like most government propaganda, I had rarely paid attention to it.
But recently, as the number of posters seems to increase in direct proportion to the increasing corruption of the establishment, they have taken on a new meaning to me.
Instead of being a statement about the ease of the transition, they point to its total lack of substance.
The changes brought about by the NDC are indeed very cheap. With the transitional authorities substituting long-term reforms for drone strikes, media censorship, election-blocking, and in effect ending accountability behind the slogan of “the transition”, I worry that the costly sacrifices and high hopes of the Arab Spring may soon be lost. If, in fact, they are not already.
Farea Al Muslimi is a Yemeni activist and writer
On Twitter: @AlMuslimi