How the Houthi threaten the future of a civil society
Originally published by Public Seminar on January 9, 2024
A destroyed building at Yemen’s Taiz University in April 2016. Credit: akramalrasny / Shutterstock
After nine years of war, Yemen remains the world’s worst humanitarian crisis,” a United Nations report asserted earlier this year:
An estimated 4.5 million people—14 percent of the population—are currently displaced, most of whom have been displaced multiple times over a number of years. Two-thirds of the population of Yemen—21.6 million people[—]are in dire need of humanitarian assistance and protection services. The risk of a large-scale famine in the country has never been more acute. Tens of thousands are already living in famine-like conditions, with a staggering 6 million more just one step away from it.
The cause of this suffering is an ongoing civil war between Yemeni government forces and the Houthi, a Shia Islamist political and military organization that in 2003 adapted the official slogan “God is great, death to the U.S., death to Israel, curse the Jews, and victory for Islam.”
For almost nine years, the Houthi have controlled the capital city and much of northern Yemen. Since the outbreak of the 2023 Israel-Hamas war, the Houthi have begun to fire missiles at Israeli cities and cargo ships traversing the Red Sea, disrupting international trade as a result.
At the same time, the people of Yemen are struggling to meet their daily needs and secure a minimally decent life for themselves and their families, as the Houthi withhold salaries and channel most of the nation’s remaining resources—taxes, zakat, customs—to finance their military efforts.
The war has also resulted in a systematic dismantling of the country’s educational institutions.
As the Houthi replaced the internationally recognized government of Yemen, dismissing it predictably as illegitimate and manipulated by Western forces, they dismantled the nation’s academic institutions, imposing a coercive educational regime with an ideologically-driven curriculum on instructors at every level, from primary schools to universities. Under Houthi rule, academic institutions began firing educators and university professors who tried to resist, denouncing them as hypocritical munafiqun (false Muslims). Students responded to this crackdown by abandoning their education and joining military campaigns to fight in the nation’s interminable civil war.
According to a 2022 UNICEF report, over 2,900 schools and universities in Yemen have totally been reduced to ruins. The few buildings still standing are now being used for purposes unrelated to education. Given these circumstances, UNICEF reports, approximately 2.4 million children, between 6 and 17 years old, have been deprived of access to education, and another 8.5 million are at risk of dropping out.
Meanwhile, the Houthi militia’s repressive regime has silenced scholars, stifled intellectual discourse, and infringed upon the fundamental principles of academic freedom. These were rights in theory enshrined by the first Constitution of the Republic of Yemen, adopted in 1999—but in practice repeatedly threatened by a succession of Yemeni governments, even before the Houthi seized power.
Since 2018, Scholars at Risk (SAR) and other Human Rights organizations have been documenting an escalating number of violations that have had a devastating impact on Yemeni academic institutions. Some recent examples:
On January 25, 2020, Dr. Hamid Aqlan, the president of the University of Science and Technology, Sana’a, fell into the clutches of Houthi militia. What makes this tragedy even more harrowing is that, as of the moment of writing these lines, Dr. Aqlan remains incarcerated, with his family left in a state of anguished uncertainty regarding his well-being and whereabouts. Despite multiple valiant attempts to establish contact with Houthi militias in a desperate bid to obtain information about his status, Dr. Aqlan’s family has been met with a wall of silence.
On February 2, 2020, Houthi militants launched a targeted incursion into a lecture hall at Sana’a University, where they subjected sociology professor Ali Baalawi to an assault. The attack seems to be linked to accusations of him criticizing the appointment of a dean to the Faculty of Arts, a relative of a military commander, purportedly lacking the requisite qualifications. Following the incident, Baalawi was swiftly expelled from the campus and reportedly prohibited from re-entering the university premises.
On September 1, 2021, there were accounts of an incident in which students from the College of Medicine at Ibb University, along with the university’s vice-president, were purportedly assaulted physically during a celebration organized to welcome a returning classmate.
On January 20, 2022, the administration of Sana’a University, led by a newly appointed vice-chancellor loyal to the Houthi faction, reportedly enlisted Houthi forces to quell a student protest taking place on the university’s campus. During this incident, student demonstrators were reportedly injured and an undisclosed number of them were detained.
On August 13, 2022, Houthi forces entered the campus of the Faculties of Arts and Education at Thamar University, using force against university personnel in their efforts to gain control. Six months later, on February 14, 2023, the university’s administration took disciplinary measures against six students, ostensibly in response to their participation in on-campus protests.
In April 2023, University World News brought attention to the profound challenges facing Yemen’s higher education system, emphasizing its ongoing deterioration amidst the conflict. The article highlighted a staggering reality: between 2020 and 2021, more than 76 schools and universities had been damaged or destroyed, rendering them incapacitated. (Data portal Trace Attacks on Education notes that this number is likely an undercount.) In some 185 attacks, armed groups abducted, injured, killed or otherwise harmed students and educators. Still more students found themselves unable to pursue their studies amidst the extensive impact of the conflict on the educational landscape in Yemen.
The plight of Yemen’s academics, who are being starved, imprisoned, and even killed, is a testament to the dire state of academic freedom in the country. As we look to the future, it is crucial that the international community does not forget the plight of Yemen’s academics when the time comes to rebuild the country’s educational institutions.
The restoration of academic freedom in Yemen is not only a matter of justice but also a prerequisite for the country’s recovery and economic development. And a recommitment to the fundamental principles of academic freedom should be at the forefront of these efforts.
Dr. Abdulgaleel Ahmed is a visiting research scholar at Harvard University and a member of the New University in Exile Consortium.