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The “Yemen Model” as a Failure of Political Imagination

  • Stacey Philbrick Yadav (a1)

In The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen offers an interpretation of the biblical Good Samaritan according to which the Samaritan stops not because he recognizes the need of his neighbor, but because through the act of stopping he enters into a neighborly relation. Practice similarly helped to constitute neighborly relations for Yemeni activists who forged new solidarities through their experiences during the eleven-month uprising of 2011 and its aftermath. Yemeni activists across the political spectrum—from Marxists to Islamists to liberal constitutionalists—have remarked that late nights spent in the squares writing slogans, making posters, and preparing and serving meals fundamentally altered their sense of self in relation to differently situated others. Rather than articulating a single national(ist) project, however, many activists speak of solidarities made in difference, or what political philosopher Iris Marion Young described as “a relationship among separate and dissimilar actors who decide to stand together, for one another.” These solidarities resulted in new and concrete forms of activism, which the formal transitional process has severely undermined. The experiences of Yemeni activists stand as an important reminder to scholars to attend to the intersection of formal and informal in our analysis of the politics of the Arab uprisings.

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1 Sen Amartya, The Idea of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009), 171–72.

2 This essay draws on participant observation at workshops conducted between May 2011 and October 2012, as well as interviews and correspondence with partisan and independent Yemeni activists from across the political spectrum. Workshops were conducted under Chatham House rule, whereby statements may be characterized but not attributed to individuals.

3 Young Iris Marion, Responsibility for Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 120.

4 For an authoritative overview of the multiple crises facing Yemen on the eve of the uprising, see Boucek Christopher and Ottaway Marina, Yemen on the Brink (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2010).

5 Ibrahim Muthana, correspondence with author, 4 January 2013.

6 Erica Gaston, “Process Lessons Learned in Yemen's National Dialogue Conference,” United States Institute for Peace, 7 February 2014,, pp. 7–11 (accessed 2 October 2014).

7 Atiyaf al-Wazir, correspondence with author, 4 January 2013.

8 Muthana, correspondence with author.

9 Ala Qassem, “Five Barriers to Youth Engagement, Decision-making, and Leadership in Yemen's Political Parties,” Resonate Yemen and Saferworld, 5 December 2013,, p. 5 (accessed 2 October 2014).

10 On Obama's most recent discussion of the NDC as a model for Syria and Iraq, see White House Office of the Press Secretary, “Remarks by the President on the Situation in Iraq,” 19 June 2014, (accessed 2 October 2014).

11 Abaad Center for Studies and Research, 7 August 2014, (accessed 2 October 2014); United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Somalia and Yemen: Urgent Action Needed to Prevent Worsening Crises,” 2 July 2014, (accessed 2 October 2014).

12 Carapico Sheila, Political Aid and Arab Activism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 45.

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International Journal of Middle East Studies
  • ISSN: 0020-7438
  • EISSN: 1471-6380
  • URL: /core/journals/international-journal-of-middle-east-studies
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