Earlier this month, I spent some time in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a. Last year I spent four months covering the pro-democracy movement that has forced the three decade old despot, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to hand over power to his deputy and current vice president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. After months of camping out in cities all over the country, and of withstanding brutal reprisals sponsored by government forces in attempt to suppress the movement towards democracy, the people of Yemen may have yet to receive an answer to their calls. On Tuesday, Yemen saw it’s first election in 33 years, without having President Saleh on the ballot.
As I drove through the streets of Sana’a, there were clear indications of change– but not the kind of change I had expected to see. The portraits and billboards of President Saleh, that once covered the streets of Sana’a are now replaced with portraits of Hadi. Signs of democratic change? I thought not- and neither did the thousands of Yemenis that took the streets that week calling the election a fraud and claiming it is a renewal of power for the corrupt system they’ve been fighting against for the past three decades. Here is a video of a demonstration opposing the election in Ta’iz province:
Hadi became acting president in November 2011 after President Saleh signed a deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the UN envoy Jamal Bin Omar; a deal suffering major setbacks as Saleh refused to sign on many occasions, each time choosing to level last minute additional conditions. His failure to sign the deal to relinquish power not only had everyone question it’s viability, but also allowed activists to spotlight Saleh’s attempts to cling to power.
Here is a video mash up posted on YouTube by user ‘UnknownYemeni‘ which was made for an English audience. The video was dedicated to President Saleh, “a remarkably steadfast individual” (using “Hot N Cold” by American pop star Katy Perry). This video caused quite a stir and was shared widely through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. It became everyone’s anthem to underscore Saleh’s inconsistencies :
According to the GCC and all those who supported the drafting and brokering of this deal, it was meant to avert civil war and lawlessness. The demands of the people remain unmet however, and the deal seems to have ignited further instability. It not only grants Saleh and his family immunity, but sponsors an election that critics claim is nothing more than a political stunt to ensure that the regime remains in power and allows Saudi Arabia to keep their unwavering hand in control of Yemen’s future.
Voter Education As A Step Towards Political Participation
Although many lacked faith in the elections, some groups are used it as an opportunity to promote voter education. Democratic practices are new in Yemen; non-governmental organizations are using this time to invest in educating the general public on the significance of political participation.
One of the most effective forms of outreach was through the use of video. This is due to a number of reasons, one of them being the challenge of having a high illiteracy rate in Yemen. The most effective way to share their message was to share it in a video with their targeted audiences. The UNDP’s Voter Education Campaign in Yemen has produced a number of videos targeting specific audiences with the objective of promoting electoral awareness. To learn more about the initiative, click here. Their instructional video is part of a mini series aimed at educating voters on how to vote and is one of the first times video animation has been used in this context:
This video encourages women to participate in the election as a means of protecting human rights and taking part of the building Yemen’s new democratic society. This video was targeted at a gender specific audience and included messages that would appeal to women in Yemen:
In this video, popular Yemeni artists were invited to collaborate in one song titled, “Together, We’ll Build It” that was used to further promote the message of political participation. By having a group of idolized and prized artists sing about a better Yemen and include messages of unity and rebuilding a better future, many Yemenis were left feeling proud and ready to do whatever was necessary to work together. Last week I went to see my mother who has always been a hardcore Saleh supporter, and to my surprise, she was watching the music video which was being aired on Yemen State TV. She was smiling and singing along. Saleh was gone, yet she was standing there the happiest she’s been all year. So I asked her, “Mom, you know Saleh is gone and this is a song celebrating new possibilities without him right?” She looked at me and said: “I never supported Saleh. All I wanted was stability” :
Not everyone is optimistic as my mom. Many continue to push for change and understand change won’t come easy. After a year of sacrifice, they argue it’s important to remain cautious. The fight for change never ends. Pro-democracy activists produced a video using the same song. The video starts with President Saleh, Vice President Hadi, their opponents Hamid Al Ahmar and defected General Ali Mohsen Ahmar (both whom are part of the opposition and whom activists argue are attempting to hijack the revolution for their own interests) — carrying signs reading: “Our appointment is on February 21st to gain power.” This video mocks the electoral process and portrays the election as a means of acquiring power through the more corrupt non-democratic method of stealing, hijacking and sharing power:
On the eve of election day, I had an interesting Skype discussion with surgeon, political activist and video blogger Hamza Alshargabi. I decided to follow up with Hamza post-election for his take on what some are calling a major step towards democracy. He shares the same skepticism as many others do:
For more videos from Hamza, visit his YouTube channel “Late Night Surgery.”
Without combating corruption and injustice, instability is inevitable. And we’ve all come to accept that freedom comes at a cost. We must all sacrifice. The videos I’ve seen coming out of Yemen have helped me better understand the different voices coming out of Yemen. Yet, there is still one that remains the most overpowering, and it’s the voice of change. Although I can understand my mothers fears of instability, I don’t share them. My fear, is that this voice begins to be overshadowed by voices that exploit fears of people like my mother. My hope is that so as long as we use platforms and tools like video and social media, that voice cannot be lost.
What to learn more about the Voter Education Campaign in Yemen ?
The Voter Education Campaign had embarked on an ambitious advertising campaign. One part of the campaign was to disseminate short banner ads and flashes- short video recordings through the internet and mobile phones. By the end of the campaign they were hoping to have over 8 million viewers, a number they haven’t reached yet. This is in large part due to their assessment in this part of the campaign. Yemen has a low internet penetration and consistent power outages lasting most of the day will be a contributing factor to why they weren’t able to reach their goal. One part of the campaign that worked more effectively was taking the campaign to their target audience. They had also launched a mobile advertising campaign where they posted their ads on public transportation all over Yemen (Click here for more).
Raja is with WITNESS on a one-year assignment as our Middle East and North Africa Program Associate. She works to ensure that video is used effectively to take advantage of the critical moment of transition in the region. Most recently she was in Yemen covering the revolution as a media stringer and photojournalist. Read her previous posts on the blog here.