Islah under fire
by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 1 June, 2001
NEWLY reshuffled government in Yemen has jumped head
first into a conflict with the main opposition party, Islah, over
plans to incorporate religious institutes into the state education
Infuriated by the move, Islah MPs
- including Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar, who is parliamentary Speaker
as well as the party’s leader - boycotted a vote of confidence
in the new government.
Sheikh Abdullah sent a letter to
parliament saying: "I refuse to preside over parliament
sessions which will focus on discussing the government programme
because it includes the abolition of religious institutes."
A statement by Islah said:
"The government's decision is aimed at undermining an
institution which is one of the greatest achievements of the
revolution and of Yemeni unity. It is aimed at altering the Yemeni
people's identity and destroying its religious and moral
In reality, the move has little to
do with either religion or education but is almost certainly an
attempt by the ruling General People’s Congress to further
consolidate its hegemony over Yemeni politics.
The institutes - basically Qur’anic
schools - developed in northern Yemen during the 1970s, mainly as
a bulwark against the spread of Marxist ideas from the south. They
were allocated a relatively generous budget and many existing
schools converted into religious institutes with government
Saudi Arabia, via the Islamic
University in Medina, also supported the institutes - probably in
the hope of steering northern Yemen away from Egyptian, Syrian and
By the 1990s, the institutes were
widely regarded as a recruitment and propaganda vehicle for the
Islah party. Selection of teachers remained outside government
control and many arrived from Egypt, Sudan and Syria, employed
more for their religious views than their teaching abilities.
In 1992, following the unification
of north and south Yemen, parliament passed a law integrating the
institutes into the state system. The government at the time was a
coalition between the northern GPC and the formerly-Marxist Yemen
Socialist Party which had ruled the south before unification.
Although the law never received
presidential approval, under the constitution pertaining at the
time, it became law automatically after 30 days.
It was not, however, implemented -
mainly because the GPC saw the Islah party (which combines radical
Islamic and conservative tribal elements) as a useful ally in its
growing quarrel with the socialists.
In 1994 the quarrel developed into
a full-scale war in which northern forces controlled by the GPC
routed the socialist forces with help from Islah. Islah then
became junior partner in a coalition with the GPC which ruled
Yemen for the next three years.
The 1997 parliamentary election
delivered a massive victory to the GPC. Islah won 53 seats out of
301 and, because of a boycott by the socialists, became the only
significant non-government party in parliament.
Nevertheless, the GPC continued to
expect a degree of co-operation from Islah and made clear that it
could close the religious institutes if co-operation were not
forthcoming. As a result, Yemenis often doubted that Islah was a
true opposition party.
The question now is why the GPC
has finally decided to carry out its long-wielded threat.
The most likely explanation is
that it is connected with the violently-contested local elections
last February, in which Islah presented a serious challenge to the
GPC and accused it of cheating (MEI 645). Those elections, in
retrospect, may be seen as the moment when Islah became a
fully-fledged party of opposition.
Incorporating the institutes -
there are thought to be about 400, with a total of 250,000
students - into the state system will undermine Islah activities
at grass-roots level.
Other theories are that it may
have a connection with the improvement in Yemeni-Saudi relations
started a year ago by the border treaty, or that it could be a
result of American pressure to clamp down on Islamist elements in
the wake of the attack on USS Cole in Aden harbour last October.