The Impossible is Possible in Yemen
Motorcyclists denied their right to work in Yemen engaged in a symbolic funeral procession for the main Yemeni political parties. It may have been an apt analogy: the multi-party system may be dead. The democratic institutions established over fifteen years ago in Yemen may shrivel up and blow away without anyone noticing. The country may sink further into chaos as it slowly implodes and the oil runs out.
But do not place your bets just yet. Nationalism in Yemen is alive and well. In a region widely lacking habits of regular transition of executive authority, Yemen may become among the first to achieve popular empowerment through democratic processes. There’s a Presidential election coming in September.
The nature, character and history of Yemen make it the most likely Middle Eastern nation to evolve politically without external stressors. The last chaotic fifty years of Yemeni history were defined by people committed to the nation. Yemen, in existence since pre-Islamic times, has already been a leader in the new age of participatory legitimacy in the Middle East if only by absorbing the rhetoric and forms of democracy. With the unity of North and South Yemen in 1990, the Yemeni people came to a consensus for democracy and since have internalized the legitimacy of its underlying premises.
The failure of democracy to thrive in Yemen has been attributed to political tribalism. The Yemeni political system operates from the top down whereby elites from nearly all important power centers are co-opted by the regime, trading patronage for loyalty. As a result, many local and national leaders do not advance local and national interests as defined by the population but rather advance regime interests onto their constituencies. Much dissatisfaction in Yemen comes from the failure of the government to implement and follow its own laws. The new Yemeni revolutionaries are those who seek to advance the rule of law, the equality of citizens, and the duty of representatives and constituencies to operate in the national interest.
The Yemeni opposition has turned from negotiating with the regime to negotiating with the people. The days of trading editors for buildings have apparently passed. The opposition is demanding a fair election, starting with a non-biased electoral commission, a linchpin of the process. At worst, the opposition by contesting the election may force important incremental changes on the political process. At best, they’ll win.
In the 2003 parliamentary elections the opposition parties received nearly half the votes (but only a quarter of the seats). The main hurtle for an opposition candidate in the current presidential election may be having enough time to inspire the trust of the nation and develop a bond with the voters. Moving itself beyond criticism, the opposition has advanced a reasonable reform platform which advocates centering more authority within Parliament to decentralize executive power, enabling badly needed political and economic reforms. Parliament refused to empower itself.
Dominated by the ruling party, over two thirds of the members of the Yemeni parliament are Sheiks, Sheiks in business, or the sons of Sheiks. It is this parliament that must approve the candidacy of the opposition candidate. Reformers within the GPC are continually stymied by their own party and are threatened when they speak out.
Like the regime, some Yemeni political parties are tribal in nature, undemocratic in practice, and operate from a top down authority system. At the last GPC conference, the forms of democracy were in abundance as delegates voted for predetermined candidates, except for those who were appointed. The GPC said at that time that it will nominate president Saleh as its candidate although President Saleh has repeated stated he will not nominate himself.
If President Saleh stands by his pledge to step down from the presidency after 28 years, he would empower Yemeni citizens and all Arab peoples through out the Middle East. His action would mark a defining moment in modern history. It would be a source of pride for the Yemeni people and would define Saleh forever as a great statesman who deferred power to progress and modernity.
But even that would not be enough. Additionally President Saleh would have to intervene to enable a free and fair election by ending the harassment of journalists, opening the broadcast media to the opposition, and ensuring the impartiality of the electoral commission and other governmental institutions like the military.
The military leadership is dominated by President Saleh’s relatives. In the last election, the military and security forces were instruments of intimidation and enforcement for the ruling party. Yet the military may be infused with enough nationalism, patriotism and strength to stand apart from the election and allow the process to proceed neutrally. In this election, the choice for Yemen’s warriors is whether they will protect the powerful or the voters.
The US and EU are taking a strong stand with Belarus, condemning its unfair presidential election and subsequent crackdown on protesters. The Yemeni people deserve this level of international support as well. All people have a right to freedom from intimidation in making their political choices, and international election observers are sorely needed in the villages as well as the cities. The US, which exerted a great deal of international public diplomacy in the run up to the Egyptian presidential elections, is silent regarding the upcoming Yemeni elections, possibly because the major parties have not announced their candidates yet.
If Yemeni patriots in all regions, political parties, institutions and civil society are to coalesce, they need not only international support, they need popular support. Analysis has shown that only popular pressure that can force reform on an authoritarian regime. As the symbolic funeral procession shows, some citizens are demanding that the parties function democratically and their representatives represent them. The Yemeni people are already agents of modernization, and have generated demands for equal rights in the work place, free speech, the participation of women, and the advancement of human rights. And if they demand a fair election now, they can set in motion a century of freedom for themselves and the entire region. That would require quite a bit of heroism as the authority can be quite brutal, but Yemenis are known for their courage.
Can a Parliament full of Sheiks reject political tribalism, can a president return power, can a loyalist Cabinet speak for the people, can the military defend the citizens, can the opposition lead, can the partisan media take a national view, can the electoral commission refrain from endorsing a candidate, and can a nation mobilize itself from pure frustration? Yes, it’s possible in Yemen.
(Article published Arab News, Saudi Arabia, and in Yemen by al-Wasat (Arabic), and our buddy al-Khaiwani at al-Shoura, also in Yemen by News Yemen, and by my French buddy Pierre at Middle East Transparent.)