Sanaa, Yemen—As a mob of angry demonstrators descended on the heavily guarded United States Embassy in Sanaa, many observers seemed stunned into disbelief. The breach of the embassy itself was unthinkable. And the sheer anger displayed by the demonstrators, even according to many Yemenis, was chilling. But even if a video regarded as blasphemous prompted Thursday’s events, the factors at play involve much more than a movie.
Ostensibly, what sparked the siege on the embassy were statements by a number of religious leaders—amplified by social media and word of mouth—who condemned the film and called for protests. But while many in politically contentious Sanaa seemed eager to tie the protests to a prominent figure or faction, the truth was far less simple. Most of those taking part in the demonstrations lacked any obvious signs of religiosity: rather than bearded men or tribesmen in traditional garb, the bulk of those at the embassy were young men in Western clothes, united, if anything, by their rage.
Vowing to sacrifice themselves for the honor of the Prophet Mohammed, they marched towards the embassy, and, upon arriving at the walls surrounding the compound, apparently had little difficulty overwhelming the troops guarding the building. Scaling walls, they moved to break glass, set cars alight and loot whatever they could, leaving graffiti expressions of “God is Great” and “Death to America” as testaments to their sentiments prior to being pushed out by Yemeni security forces about an hour later.
As word spread of the siege, few were surprised that protests against the video had occurred. But the logistics of the attack on the embassy compound left many Yemenis incredulous. Among the most secure buildings in the capital, the American Embassy bears greater resemblance to a fortress than the sumptuous diplomatic residences of less volatile capitals.
In the context of Yemen’s contentious political scene, it was hard to believe that the breach of the embassy merely represented a security failure.
Although current president Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi formally replaced former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in accordance with an internationally backed power-transfer agreement this February, the former president is a major player behind the scenes, as his relatives control key branches of the Yemeni Armed Forces.
Most of the troops guarding the embassy hailed from the Central Security Forces, a branch of the Yemeni military led by Yahya Mohamed Saleh, a nephew of former president Saleh. And in the wake of Thursday’s events, local observers expressed suspicions that the former president had a hand in the attack, or at least allowed it to happen.
“It’s nearly impossible to imagine that the embassy could be breached with such ease,” said one Yemeni analyst, commenting the evening after the demonstration. “It’s not hard to suspect that something beyond incompetence was involved.”
But while tensions within Yemen’s divided military may have played a contributing role in allowing for the embassy breach itself, the origins of the anti-American rage displayed by demonstrators lie elsewhere.
Thursday’s events were not solely a response to the controversial film, which few Yemenis—including those taking part in the demonstrations—have seen. Rather, the film struck a nerve in Yemen because of long-simmering resentment of American policy.
Specifically, Yemenis resent what they characterize as the United States’ persistent meddling in Yemen’s internal affairs. Even as government forces cracked down on peaceful anti-government demonstrations last year, the United States appeared reluctant to drop support for Saleh, whom American officials viewed as a key ally in the battle against Yemen’s local Al Qaeda franchise. Faced with the choice between siding with the Yemeni people and siding with the corrupt government hundreds of thousands took to the streets to topple, activists complain, the United States chose the latter. Since Saleh ceded power, resentment over the past US alliance with the former president has lingered.
Even today, many powerful opponents of Saleh claim that the United States still has not done enough to force the former president’s allies from power. One opposition politician, while condemning the siege, commented that the CSF’s failure to protect the embassy was ironic payback for Washington’s hesitation to make a full break with the Saleh family; after all, CSF Chief of Staff Yahya Saleh was once a favored US commander. At the same time, factions outside of Yemen’s political establishment have said that American reliance on traditional elites has contributed to their marginalization.
Beyond political issues, many Yemenis have expressed deep resentment over the ongoing American drone campaigns against local AQAP figures. While the Yemeni government has permitted the strikes, many Yemenis see them as an infringement of the nation’s sovereignty and a violation of the rule of law, and they bristle at the way civilian casualties are brushed off as “collateral.” Some Yemeni politicians and tribal leaders have long quietly argued that the strikes have led to a hardening of anti-American sentiment in Yemen. The recent deaths of ten Yemeni civilians in an apparent US drone strike last week further inflamed popular anger over the drones.
“Today is your day, O ambassador,” shouted the youthful crowd as it triumphantly ran through embassy property, mentioning Ambassador Gerald Feierstein by name.
It wasn’t the first time Yemenis took aim at America’s man in Sanaa. While he has been largely praised by policy makers in Washington, Feierstein, who has held his post since September 2010, is a deeply controversial figure in the country. Once profiled as Yemen’s “new dictator” by a prominent Yemeni journalist, for many Yemenis, Feierstein has come to personify unpopular American policies. The United States may have moved past its previous relationship with Saleh, providing important backing for his successor, but few Yemenis have forgotten that Feierstein himself stood by Saleh’s side, and a number of the ambassador’s apparent gaffes continue to resonate—most infamously, his characterization of the “Life March,” a 155-mile protest march undertaken by unarmed demonstrators in December, as an effort to “generate chaos.” Activists charged that Feierstein’s statement effectively gave government forces a green light to launch a deadly crackdown on the march that left nine dead.
“The American administration has to rethink its foreign policy as the world has changed. The ambassador chose to oppose the aspirations of the Yemeni people during the life march last year,” said Ali al-Kamaly, a Yemeni youth activist. “The movie was just the drop that inundated the beaker…. peoples’ beliefs, rights and lives are the true red line.”