Tribal interests trumped the grassroots tenor of the revolution in Yemen. But this fragmented country is slowly attempting to reduce the power of tribes and the caste system in everyday life.
Life in Yemen is difficult, but it is especially so for the Muhamasheen, a minority group in Yemen excluded for their African heritage. Proxy conflicts between the Houthi rebels and government forces have left swaths of the populations destitute, while a slight reorganization of state structure following the Arab Spring failed to liberate the most marginalized segments of society groups. Amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, Yemen’s faltering health care system could add to the difficulties the Muhamasheen face. Ongoing conflict since 2015 and Saudi bombings have decimated the Yemen’s health infrastructure, leaving internally displaced populations such as the Muhamasheen most at risk. As such I argue that the Arab Spring failed to ameliorate conditions for the Muhamasheen because the uprisings and their sequelae did not disrupt the kinship and tribal structures of power that are at the heart of the Muhamasheen’s exclusion. Their Afro-Arab status otherizes them from the majority Arab population, and displaces them from the genealogic, tribally based patronage networks through which they might otherwise improve their social standing.
The Muhamasheen, otherwise derogatorily known as al-Akhdam or “the servants,” occupy the bottom of Yemen’s supposedly abolished tribal caste system, by virtue of not belonging to a tribe. As such, the equalizing force of the Arab Spring left them behind, and they continue to live in squalor in the outskirts of Yemeni cities such as Aden, Taiz, and Hodeida, typically working as trash collectors, janitors, or sanitation workers. Exact figures for the Muhamasheen population remain unknown, due to a dearth of research and inconsistencies between official and unofficial figures. However, most sources indicate that there are between 500,000 and 3.5 million Muhamasheen living in Yemen. Regardless of exact population, there is no doubt that the Muhamasheen are subject to severe discrimination and have been regarded as the “untouchable” class. In Yemen, the Muhamasheen clearly occupy the bottom of the social and economic hierarchy.
The Muhamasheen have historically pushed for liberation and economic equality. They were active participants of the 1962 revolution that ended the official role of tribes in the government. As late as 2005, Yemen submitted a report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination characterizing the country as homogeneous with a negligible proportion of Yemenis of African descent. This description obfuscates the oppression of the Muhamasheen by emphasizing the relatively small space they occupy in Yemen, despite a lack of accurate demographical data. Furthermore, the government seeks to minimize its own role in the plight of the Muhamasheen by implying that the conditions the Muhamasheen face are purely due to economic causes—just another impoverished group in an already impoverished country. However, the tacit role that tribes have continued to play in the Yemeni government, along with a lack of change in Muhamasheen social status, makes clear that the Muhamasheen’s continued squalor is due to their lack of access to tribal patronage networks.
By the time of the Arab Spring, many Muhamasheen had internalized the discourse surrounding them and their place of subjugation in society. As a result, many did not envision the path towards justice manifesting through broad change or through a mass movement, because it was historically clear that wider Yemeni society would not support them.
The intuition of the Muhamasheen proved to be correct as the Arab Spring revolutionary movement progressed and evolved in Yemen. Following initial popular support, tribes and corrupt officials quickly appropriated the movement, wishing to preserve their place in society when it became likely that President Saleh would be outed. Furthermore, the General People’s Congress Party (GCP), the ruling party headed by Saleh until his overthrow, was heavily opposed by the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), which itself was an alliance between the Islamist Islah party and the Yemeni Socialist Party. As the opposition movement gained momentum, many tribes and tribal actors within the government began to support regime change via the JMP, specifically through the Islah side of the bloc. As a result, tribal influence within the revolution quickly overtook any grassroots bent the movement once had. For example, Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmad, leader of the powerful Hashid tribal confederation, also eventually became the leader of the JMP. As the revolutionary movement developed, it became clear that only tribally influenced opposition parties had the patronage and political networks needed to sway the outcome of the revolution in their favor. Because the Muhamasheen do not belong to these tribes, as the grassroots tenor of the Arab Spring disappeared they were again excluded from the primary avenues through which they could incite change.
All this is not to say that the Muhamasheen gained nothing from the Arab Spring. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-led transition plan meant to facilitate regime change and end the rule of President Saleh also created a new space for free public dialogue. As a part of the transition plan, Yemen initiated the National Dialogue Conference in March 2013, a forum designed to involve all segments of society in rebuilding governance and societal structures post-Arab Spring. Many Muhamasheen were optimistic about this new space, and public figures openly claiming Muhamasheen descent began to emerge into the Yemeni political space. One such example is Nu’man al-Hudeyfi, a key participant of this conference and president of Yemen’s National Union for the Marginalized. At the conference, Al-Hudeyfi drew attention the Muhamasheen’s poverty and exclusion from society based on their skin color, qualifying his people as a discrete ethnic group whose struggles stem from the caste system and ethnic discrimination in Yemeni society.
Yemen, while still embroiled in conflict and therefore deeply fragmented and disjoint, is slowly attempting to reduce the explicit power of tribes and the caste system in everyday life. While the revolution of 1962 and the 2011 Arab Spring did not manifest a new government no longer operating via a tribal caste system, the revolutions brought awareness and sparked dialogue that could move Yemen in a new direction. Although the Muhamasheen still do not enjoy the benefits and societal recognition being part of the caste system provides, there is still hope for the future. As activists like Nu’man Hudeyfi use the momentum of the Arab Spring to spread awareness of the Muhamasheen’s plight, a new space is created for the Muhamasheen to have their voice heard outside of the tribal and caste system.
Nicholas Wade studies political science at Yale University.
Cite as: Wade, Nicholas. 2020. “How the Arab Spring Left Yemen’s Muhamasheen Behind.” Anthropology News website, December 14, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1555