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Yemen’s state-funded thugs

President Ali Abdullah Saleh has played up the threat of al-Qaeda in Yemen to receive military aid f

One Friday in February, after the noon prayers, a straggle of Yemeni students and activists met in front of a small roundabout by Sana'a University and marched in solidarity with Egyptians who were frustrated with Hosni Mubarak's refusal to resign. Fewer than 20 people took part in this protest in Yemen's capital city; only two were women. Many carried pictures of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the late Egyptian leader and symbol of Arab nationalism. They called on the youth to awaken, and for the fall of Mubarak.

They passed throngs of people who ignored them or looked on bemused, carrying on life as usual and buying khat, the mild, stimulating narcotic that nearly all Yemenis chew. One onlooker asked another who the man in the picture was; a traffic policeman spat out that the demonstrators were sons of whores and nobodies. A Yemeni Red Crescent car followed them. I asked one of the first-aiders why they were there. "For them," he told me, gesturing at the protesters. A lone policeman on a motorcycle and two sanitation trucks full of young men with sticks and rocks also followed.

Abruptly, more security forces arrived. Some had clubs. The trucks, each holding at least 20 men, pulled up, ready to attack the demonstrators, who scattered. But Tawakul Karman, a leading female activist, smiled and shouted, "Down, down with Ali [Abdullah] Saleh!" - the president of Yemen since 1978.

The country Saleh rules is the poorest of the Arab nations. It is an uncomfortable amalgam of North and South Yemen, which were united in 1990. In the north, he has been fighting his own Zaidi Shia people, who seek autonomy, bombing their villages, displacing thousands, and then attacking the displaced civilians. In the south, too, he is at war with secessionists.

Saleh delegates control over much of Yemen to tribal sheikhs whose loyalty is tenuous. The country's powerful Saudi neighbours are deeply involved in its internal affairs; their money has purchased officials and helped to spread Wahhabi Islam. The president has used members of al-Qaeda to battle his domestic foes, yet he has also played up its threat to extort money from the Americans, who see the Muslim world only through the prism of the "war on terror".

As in Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain, Washington has had a close relationship with Yemen's dictatorship through the crackdown on terrorism. Barack Obama increased military assistance for Yemen from $67m in 2009 to $150m in 2010. Documents released by WikiLeaks showed that the US-backed Yemeni security forces, which were supposed to be fighting al-Qaeda, were targeting Zaidis instead. I have seen evidence suggesting that they are also fighting southerners, journalists and students.

Al-Qaeda is marginal in Yemen, its activities amounting to little more than the failed Underwear Bomber attack in 2009 and a couple of package bombs that failed to detonate last year. Yet action against it has provided a pretext for suppression of dissent. Terrorism might be a primary concern of the US government and the global media, but it is far from the biggest problem facing Yemenis.

Broken promises

On 2 February, in response to the revolt in Egypt, Saleh promised not to run again in 2013 (a promise he made and broke before the 2006 elections). He also said that his son would not succeed him.

In Sana'a, as in the rest of the Arab world, it was not the establishment parties that started the revolution, but the youth. On 11 Feb­ruary, the night Mubarak resigned, thousands of Yemeni students, academics, activists and citizens gathered at the university roundabout. They shouted: "One thousand greetings to al-Jazeera!" They wanted the powerful satellite network to focus on them, as it had on the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

As the demonstrators grew in number, they gathered in Tahrir ("liberation") Square, Sana'a. Most of it was blocked off by security forces and the tribal factions with which they were col­laborating. At least ten army trucks carrying dozens of men dressed as civilians soon arrived. Hundreds of reinforcements carrying sticks, knives, automatic weapons and pictures of Saleh turned up, too. These were the balataga, thugs paid by the state to crush dissent.

In a series of skirmishes, the balataga charged the youth, forcing them to flee, then sang, banged drums and danced. It was a symbolic victory: the regime had no intention of letting them occupy Tahrir, unlike in Egypt. "This is the problem," Karman told me. "They send these balataga with their knives. Since the Tunisian revolution, we have organised 11 demonstrations. The revolution is getting bigger. The [balataga] occupy Tahrir so we can't take it, but we will sleep there one day."

Big sticks

By this time, Karman had been arrested twice. Her brother, who was close to the regime and recited poetry at official events, got a phone call from Saleh. "You have to control your sister and put her under house arrest," the president said, adding an Arabic expression: "Whoever splits the stick of obedience, kill him."

“This threat and the arrests empowered the human rights movement and strengthened my will," Karman told me. She was aware of the WikiLeaks revelations about state security. "The national security bureau was founded after 11 September to fight terrorism in Yemen but it fights journalists and human rights acti­vists. It oversees terrorism instead of fighting it."

By mid-February, people from outside the activist network were joining the demonstrations. Among them was a mechanic, Muhamad Ali al-Muhamadi, who told me he did not belong to a political party and did not own a television. “I joined because I am against the regime," he said. "Humans are born free and are not animals to be guided by a stick."

On 12 February, Muhamadi joined more than a thousand demonstrators at the university. The balataga attacked them with daggers, clubs, axes and stun guns. Muhamadi was stunned several times.

The next day, there were larger protests in the capital where security men took pictures but schoolchildren and those in traffic cheered and waved. At least 20 demonstrators were beaten with batons and many were arrested. The journalist Samia al-Aghbari was attacked by guards who threw her to the ground. Her head hit the kerb and she lost consciousness. One security officer loaded his rifle to intimidate men trying to protect Karman. Others were stunned electrically, including Mizar Ghanem, 31, a student leader.

“We first came out on 16 January," he said. "Our first activity was to support the Tunisian revolution and call for the fall of the regime in Yemen. We are a peaceful youth and student revolution." This time, they could not reach Tahrir, so they renamed the square in front of the university Taghir, meaning "change".

By 16 February, the protests had spread even further. Hundreds of judges were protesting in front of the ministry of justice and new demonstrators had come out in response to a call by the student union. Police trucks dropped off dozens of balataga, who attacked the crowds with stones, chains and clubs and fired gunshots into the air. Policemen in plain clothes attacked the students. Amir al-Gimri, a medical student who is lame in one leg, was unable to escape. Police and balataga attacked him, calling him a traitor and spy, slapping his face and throwing him to the ground. They beat his head and legs with clubs as he lay helpless.

French leave

In the two months since the Yemeni protests began, the regime has responded as aggressively as other Arab dictators. But the people's fear seems to have gone and I feel that Saleh's days are numbered. That Friday in February, I was sitting in a taxi when a young man at an intersection threw a leaflet through the window. Youth organisations were calling for peaceful demonstrations on 17 and 18 February, it said.

It was 3pm and already the driver's mouth was full of khat. I asked him if there would be any demonstrations today. "He [the president] has to go," he said, "like in Egypt."

I fired questions at him. Did he expect a mass uprising in Yemen? "There has to be one," he said. How will Saleh go? "In a revolution." Does everyone think like this? "Yes." What about the army and security forces? "When there is a revolution, there is no fear." But what can you do when Tahrir Square is full of government supporters? "We'll remove them," he said, smiling and gesturing forcefully. "He has to go, to Saudi Arabia or France."

“God grant you victory," I said as I left. He smiled a big, green-toothed khat grin.

The demonstrations continue to grow, forcing the opposition parties to take a harder stance against the government and leading to defections of major tribal leaders. Meanwhile, the silence from the White House on the regime's abuses makes it likely that a post-Saleh government will be far less friendly to the Americans.

With the earthquake in Japan distracting the world's attention, the state forces intensified their crackdown over the weekend of 12 March, killing at least seven and injuring hundreds more. In a pre-dawn raid, the youth demonstrators camped by Sana'a University were ambushed with live automatic rifle fire, electrical stun guns and a gas that caused convulsions. The regime is now expelling the few remaining foreign correspondents covering the protests.

Still, there is hope here that Saleh's rule is near an end. Already, the optimistic chant is: "After Gaddafi, oh, Ali!"

Nir Rosen is the author of "Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America's Wars in the Muslim World" (Nation Books, £20.99)

This article first appeared in the 21 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The drowned world

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood