Libya and Yemen – actually different places.

And to top it off, they’re 2100 miles apart.
(Please note: This is the third map I’ve posted, because they’re all wrong in some way. Here, Palestine should be listed next to Israel, but is completely ignored. Apparently it’s really hard to find up-to-date, non-exclusionary maps of MENA online).

This week the US lost an apparently highly skilled and much-loved diplomat to the vagaries of violent extremism and a weak central government, and, possibly, the failure of the Foreign Service to adequately protect its Ambassador in the face of terrible upheaval (including “a string of assassinations [in Benghazi] as well as attacks on international missions”).

The Libyan people responded to this horrific turn of events in a genuinely moving way, many spontaneously demonstrating in support of the United States and expressing their sorrow over Ambassador Chris Stevens’s murder. Signs read “Thugs and killers don’t represent Benghazi or Islam” and “USA: We are sorry. We are sad.” and “Sorry people of America this is not the behavior of our Islam & Prophet.”  Words of condolence and statements of grief came pouring out, from the government to journalists to folks on Twitter and Facebook — these Libyans share our loss, and they wanted to make sure we know that they have no affection for those Libyans who attacked our consulate, ostensibly in reaction to an offensive film about the Prophet Muhammad (though signs are emerging that the attack may have been planned well in advance [UPDATE 9/16/12: US Ambassador to the UN says the attacks began spontaneously; the President of Libya disagrees).

Today, on the other hand, hundreds of Yemenis stormed the embassy in the capital city of Sana’a, in reaction to that very same offensive film.

You see, it turns out that Arabs and Muslims are as many and varied as any other set of humans.

Many Libyans hold the United States in affection and high regard, because America helped them gain their freedom from a terrible tyrant. We didn’t roll in and push people aside, we helped the people already there to do what they wanted to do. Their new government is weak and (as the recent turmoil clearly indicates) not entirely well established, but Libyans can look behind and look ahead and see the potential for better — and that’s thanks to us. That’s why Libya has the highest approval rating for the United States in the Middle East and North Africa outside of Israel.

On the other hand, as Jeremy Scahill reported for The Nation in February, this is what we’ve been doing in Yemen:

[In the spring of 2011], rather than fighting AQAP [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula], US-backed units—created and funded with the explicit intent to be used only for counterterrorism operations—redeployed to Sanaa to protect the collapsing regime from its own people. The US-supported units exist “mostly for the defense of the regime,” says [Abdul Ghani al Iryani, a well-connected political analyst]…. President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, acknowledged late last year that the “political tumult” has caused the US-trained units “to be focused on their positioning for internal political purposes as opposed to doing all they can against AQAP.”

…Even as demonstrations grew against the Saleh regime, US officials praised his government’s cooperation. “I can say today the counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen is better than it’s been during my whole tenure,” Brennan declared in September.

But US counterterrorism policy is extremely unpopular in Yemen….

By last summer, the Obama administration had begun construction on a secret air base on the Arabian peninsula, closer than its base in Djibouti, that could serve as a launching pad for expanded drone strikes in Yemen. The September [2011] drone strike that killed US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki was reportedly launched from that new base, which analysts suspect is either in Saudi Arabia or Oman, both of which border Yemen…. The Americans have also provided real-time intelligence, obtained by drones, to Yemeni forces in [the hotly contested province of Abyan]. “It has been an active partnership. The Americans help primarily with logistics and intelligence,” [Gen. Mohammed al-Sumali] says. “Then we pound the positions with artillery or airstrikes.”

…Some of the unilateral strikes have killed their intended targets, such as the CIA attack on Awlaki. But others have killed civilians—at times, a lot of civilians. And many of these have been in Abyan and its neighboring province of Shebwa, both of which have recently seen a substantial rise of AQAP activity. President Obama’s first known authorization of a missile strike on Yemen, on December 17, 2009, killed more than forty Bedouins, many of them women and children, in the remote village of al Majala in Abyan. Another US strike, in May 2010, killed an important tribal leader and the deputy governor of Marib province, Jabir Shabwani, sparking mass anger at the United States and {then-President] Saleh’s government. “I think these airstrikes were based on false intelligence from the regime, because that is the nature of the contractor,” [opposition leader Mohammad] Qahtan charges. “The contractor wants to create more work in return for earning more money.”

…The October drone strike that killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, a US citizen, and his teenage cousin shocked and enraged Yemenis of all political stripes. “I firmly believe that the [military] operations implemented by the US performed a great service for Al Qaeda, because those operations gave Al Qaeda unprecedented local sympathy,” says [Abdul Rezzaq al Jamal, an independent Yemeni journalist]. The strikes “have recruited thousands.” Yemeni tribesmen, he says, share one common goal with Al Qaeda, “which is revenge against the Americans, because those who were killed are the sons of the tribesmen, and the tribesmen never, ever give up on revenge.” Even senior officials of the Saleh regime recognize the damage the strikes have caused. “People certainly resent these [US] interventions,” Qirbi, the foreign minister and a close Saleh ally, concedes.

For the United States, the most serious question that lingers over Yemen after [President] Ali Abdullah Saleh is: Did US counterterrorism policy strengthen the very threat it sought to eliminate? “It was a major fiasco,” Iryani says of the past decade of US counterterrorism policy in Yemen. “I think if we had been left alone, we would have less terrorists in Yemen than we do now.”

(Note: This is only a small portion of a truly excellent piece of reporting. I highly recommend that you read the whole thing – click here).

And just to be clear: President Saleh may have resigned last November, but his family and cronies still retain a firm grip on power — which is why Yemenis are still protesting.

So it turns out that Yemenis and Libyans are autonomous actors, human beings who respond to others in a manner that reflects their relationship with those people.

There are, of course, many, many differences between the two countries, not least Libya’s much higher level of education and much lower rate of poverty, and all the complex, domino results that such factors create in two societies that are already very different. The position of women, life expectancy, the function of tribal alliances — all of these play different roles in each country.

But one simple thing may still be said: Help a nation topple a tyrant and reclaim their own power? They’ll probably like you. Help a tyrant kill his own enemies and then allow his power base to stay in control? The people he ruled might not like you so much. To the tune of an 18% approval rating.


  1. DustinBT

     /  September 13, 2012

    There’s a great article on Yemen in the September 2012 issue of National Geographic. I highly recommend it to anyone wanting to learn more about there culture. Being Nat Geo, it doesn’t delve too far into the politics of it all, but if you have a basic understanding of the politics you will see it in the writing.

    And thanks for the post Emily. Good overview of the two countries differences. It’s also important to note that Italy controlled Libya until the WWII, which had a pretty big effect on their culture.

  2. CitizenE

     /  September 13, 2012

    World here. Listening. Getting back to you.

  3. It occurs to me that ordinary American citizens should be out in the streets as well, protesting a film that demeans an important religion. If we really stand for tolerance and peace, that means we need to stand up to hate when we see it. And not just hate directed against us. Thanks for the clear and concise post about these events.

    • rebornjumpman

       /  September 25, 2012

      That is fair, but then who decides which religion to stand up for? No secular circles are ever going to stand up and protest the demeaning of the Christian faith which happens on a nearly daily basis. Just something to consider.

      • It isn’t about standing up for any particular religion. It’s about making it clear that intolerance and identity based hatred are not a part of mainstream American culture and it isn’t what most of us agree with. It’s about making it clear that fairness and respect for others are important American values. When we are silent, it looks like we agree with the hatred being espoused by this film, and that condolences and apologies are a bunch of empty words from politicians. They aren’t, as far as I can see. I don’t know anyone who believes it’s acceptable to mock and belittle someone else’s religion. And, yet, if only I know that and my friends know that, and it isn’t made public enough that it’s known across an ocean, well, it doesn’t help much.

  4. Good post. It taught me a lot I wasn’t paying attention to before.

  5. Great post! No wonder why it was on Freshly Pressed 🙂

  6. Musarat Ali

     /  September 17, 2012

    Reblogged this on #musaratali.

  7. Really interesting. Nice comparison of two different policies. I don’t think enough people know about what’s going on in Yemen.

  8. sofiapolo

     /  September 17, 2012


  9. Excellent post it really taught me a lot ………:)

  10. please note……..south africa and zimbabwe are also different places…………sorry but americans just do seem to notice………..some us dude was trying to tell usd that we have trillion rand notes in south africa the other day……..we dont…….well not yet in anycase…lol.

  11. Most insightful.

  12. awesome post! the truth is these two countries are more than very different.. And the news always show us the worst of the situation( like they only showed the Libyans who killed the ambassador and never even showed the Libyans who were actually affected and sad over that).. As humans we need to stop generalizing. The truth is the film which started all of this affected everyone in a different manner. Thanks for sharing.. 🙂

  13. Good post, we need to make a distinction and know who to help. I’ve posted something about the events in Libya too. Thanks for given all the interesting info though.

  14. And some Muslim dictators are quite happy about the distraction: – although it also says a lot about the priorities of the “man in the Arab street”. Sad.

  15. Really great post. Well-written, very intelligent and informed. If only more people understood some of these concepts…especially those making the decisions. I’m very happy your post was freshly pressed – it’s well-deserved, so congratulations!

  16. You summed it up well in the last two lines…
    Playing with the lives of the civilians and then labeling some of them as those who never ever give up on revenge sounds really unfair to me… I think no matter how stable or powerful a country is, it shoudn’t be allowed to intervene in another country’s affairs…
    There are many rulers out there who are not particularly liked by a good majority of people in their country, they rule for a period, ruin as much as they can and leave… pretty sad!.. but intervention is worse, as it doesnt leave matters just there… feelings and worse even, lives of millions are affected, it literally becomes a battle between nations… individual identities get lost in these… relating to these two countries ,an American in Yemen will not be a person, will be an American and vice versa… there would be some form of resentment among the two, if the government of one has pissed off the other… and how many times will he stand up and speak for his innocence and that he didnt have a part to play…. somethings will change…
    I hope things change for the better though, i hope there is peace..and love
    Congrats on being freshly pressed, I would not ve been able to see such an enlightening post otherwise.

  17. This was quite intriguing. You’re very well informed.

  18. free penny press

     /  September 17, 2012

    What a great post.. Thanks for the lesson and congrats on being Freshly pressed. Well deserved!!!

  19. jeremiah757

     /  September 17, 2012

    Thanks for the positive outlook on Libya. It is gratifying to see the Libyan people standing with America. The president of Libya said today that the tragedy there was a premeditated attack, by foreign agents.

  20. Very well written and most intriguing. Even little ole me can understand what you are blogging about. Thank you for making it understandable! 🙂

  21. Reblogged this on thepowerofwords and commented:
    Insightful, powerful … all of the above and more.

  22. Very interesting. Nice to get a view that isn’t necessarily politically correct. I am now following this.

  23. Great post!
    It is diffcult to judge the protests from the outside, especially with the lack of related issues reported in the media. The protests cannot be seen as a single event, but has to be seen in relation to past events and the past attitudes/behavior of the USA towards the powerplay in the Middle-East.
    Keep it up!

  24. Good post, I hope tens of thousands of people read it! 🙂

  25. jumeirajames

     /  September 18, 2012

    Yes, uneducated people here are the same as in America – easily swayed by propaganda. The difference here is that people know the news is given to them with an agenda attached, many people in America think their news is free from influence. That’s a lot more dangerous.

  26. Suerb piece of writing – and entirely factual, as well as readable & rich in information. I remember we knew about Yemen for a while when I was working in Saudi Arabia. To some extent the same game was played by the ex-president of Uzbekistan, at the very least to have USA and GB look the other way while he got rid of the opposition, something documented by the GB ambassador, who then found himself without a job.

  27. Well said, well written! Makes me even happier to be an American! Sometimes we can forget how fortunate we are to be living in the United States. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed! Great post!

  28. I just know that they are all Aribic countries.

  29. amracu871012

     /  September 18, 2012

    This is a really great post. Thank you for taking the time to write it! And congratulations of being “freshly pressed!”


    Thank you so, so much for coming and commenting and everything!

    WordPress chose this post almost literally the moment that I disappeared from the internet for two days because of the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana. Sorry to have been absent! But I’m back now, I promise. (Until the next Jewish holiday, at least).

  31. cantabarrister

     /  September 19, 2012

    Very interesting article; it is worrying how some commentators in the US and Europe occasionally lapse into seeing Muslims and Arabs/North Africans as some homogenous group.

  32. I finally got around to reading this. Great article. I’ve lived in Lebanon and the UAE, and as an American I’ve gotten an interesting look at how different peoples who speak the same language (well, more or less) and who have similar religious traditions can have very different views of the world and of my country. I hope everyone can understand that “those people over there” are just as human as we are and have the same motivations and goals.

  33. Current Size 00.01

     /  September 20, 2012

    Unbelievable that so many people dont know this

  34. rebornjumpman

     /  September 25, 2012

    Drones are a bad idea anyway you look at it. It removes the deterant of human risk and blurs the line regarding international law.

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