Rumblings from a distant outbreak of democracy

Rumblings from a distant outbreak of democracy

by Brian Whitaker 

Originally published in The Guardian, 4 January 19 92

WHEN Yemenis go to the polls later this year [1992] in the country's first multi-party elections they will do more than choose a new government. The election, which will mark the final stage of transforming Yemen into a fully democratic state, is likely to cause vibrations throughout the Arabian peninsula - a region where parliaments, if they exist at all, have limited power, where "consultative councils" with appointed members the preferred alternative, and where cabinet meetings tend to be family gatherings of brothers, uncles and cousins.

This dramatic political change in Yemen is actually the by-product of another process: unification. Although it has been known as Yemen since early Islamic times, throughout most of the country's history the mountainous terrain, with thousands of isolated villages, has prevented any kind of single, centralised control. Since the British left Aden in 1967 Yemen had been two states: the Marxist (and partly secularised) south which depended for its survival on aid from the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc, and the north where more traditional Arab-Islamic values held sway.

While dreams of unity became an essential part of the political rhetoric on both sides, for years the mutual incompatibility of the two systems prevented anything being done about it. What eventually brought the two sides together was a rapid decline in Soviet support for the south: aid fell from from $400 million in 1988 to $50 million a year later. Having lost its funds and its political raison d'être, the south began to see union with the north as the only practical option.

Unlike the two Germanies, Yemeni unification, proclaimed in May 1990, was more of a merger than a takeover - though the south, with only one-fifth of the north's population, was clearly the junior partner. The northern president, General Ali Abdullah Salih, became head of state and Ali Salim al-Baid, secretary-general of the southern Socialist Party became vice-president.

A new constitution was approved by a referendum and a transitional power-sharing parliament set up, combining members of the old northern Consultative Council with those of the southern Supreme People's Council, plus 31 new members nominated to represent previously banned opposition groups. There are 10 women MPs

The parliament has more power than most in the Arab world and its televised debates attract huge audiences. It is, however, only a temporary body, allotted a 30-month lifespan to oversee the details of unification and prepare for elections.

When Yemen opted for a multi-party system few could have imagined just how multi it would become: today there are 41 parties, including Ba'athists, Nasserists, religious factions and individual sheikhs with a personal following. However, only three of these are large enough to be considered important: the General People's Congress (GPC), the Socialist Party and Islah ("Reform").

The GPC is not quite a political party in the normal sense; before unification it was an umbrella organisation designed to incorporate all the various political forces in the north. Since then some elements, notably Islah, have left to form their own parties.

The GPC's policies are based on its 1982 charter which the assistant general secretary, Yahya Mutawakkel, describes as reflecting "Islamic, national and modern views". The party's attraction, he says, is that "we are not fanatic in the Islamic area and not leftist. We have a very good history." Also, he adds, "The president is party chairman. He has influence."

The Socialist Party, which formerly ruled the south, is developing its programme for "a centralised government of law and order, equality, modernisation, democracy and freedom". It lays special emphasis on removing "abnormal privileges" and helping the unemployed and those on low incomes.

One of its attractions over the GPC, according to Djarallah Omar, a member of the central committee, is that "our renewal/modernisation programme is more defined and determined, for example on the status of women".

There have been suggestions that the party, following the example of east European communists, might change its name. The idea is controversial, Mr Omar says, but whatever the name, "it's a socialist, democratic party".

The party does face some difficulties, however. Earlier this month a member of the secretariat was shot dead from a passing car, and several of the party's offices have come under attack. Armed guards are now stationed in the corridors of its Sana'a headquarters.

Islah lists its most important aims as adherence to shari'a law and the protection of democracy and the multi-party system. Islah draws most of its support - perhaps 75% - through conservative tribal sheikhs, notably the powerful Sheikh Abdullah bin Hussein al-Ahmar. There is also a small element influenced by the ideas of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood which opponents claim forms the party's intellectual driving force.

Mr Mutawakkel of the GPC says: "Some of Islah are fanatical. You should hear the speeches in mosques and religious schools. Islah objected to all paragraphs in the new constitution that concentrated on giving people freedom of belief and economic practice."

The Socialist Party, with its roots in Aden where fewer women are veiled and alcohol is sold and even openly consumed on the streets, has even more fundamental differences with Islah. "They are not sure about democracy," Mr Omar says. "They want to use democracy more than practise it. Also we differ on human rights and liberties."

At Islah, Mohammed Abdullah al-Yadoumi, a member of political bureau, protests: "We are certainly not fundamentalists. Since start of party activities we have done nothing that can be described as extremist."

The Yemeni constitution stipulates that Islamic law is the "basic source" of legislation - implying that it is not the only source. Would Islah like to stiff en this? Mr Yadoumi thinks not. "If there's a good commitment to apply it, that 's all right. The practice is the most important thing," he said.

Yemen at present has no Islamic banks. Would Islah treat this as a priority? Mr Yadoumi thought for a while, then said "Islamic banking should be a final objective - people should be free to choose."

Probably there is an element of political knockabout in the accusations against Islah. Outside observers largely agree that by Middle Eastern standards even the most militant members of Islah are relatively moderate. It is also clear that Islah, as the main anti-government party, is drawing support from a variety of disaffected quarters, and there must be some doubt as to how long it can hold these disparate groups together.

WHAT impact these newspapers will have on the forthcoming elections is hard to judge. The majority sell only a few thousand copies and are rarely seen outside the cities. Even so, it would be a mistake to assume the non-reading public are either ill-informed or politically unsophisticated.

In remote villages - and perhaps especially there - people have time to think, debate and - above all - listen to the radio. Farmers sighting a stranger will, after the barest exchange of pleasantries, ask earnest questions like "What do you think the Americans will do to Libya about Lockerbie?", "Is it true that Maxwell was an Israeli spy?" or "Do you believe that Jesus is really dead?"

After a couple of encounters along these lines you realise that the questioners are not seeking information but inviting you to debate a given topic. Venture an opinion and you will be confronted with an unnerving array of evidence and arguments that either back up or politely refute what you have said, and leave your own thoughts on the matter seeming rather feeble.

Facts and figures that you have vaguely heard or half-forgotten are retained by the Yemenis, to be recalled at a moment's notice with startling precision. The number of tons of explosives that the Americans dropped on Iraq - and how it compares with the number used in Vietnam, of which Saudi princes have been seen in which London nightclubs.

Possibly this is a consequence of the afternoon qat-chewing sessions - unique to Yemen and the highlands of east Africa. As the juice of the leaves takes effect, serious, often very deep, conversation flows, quite unlike the sentimental jollity of a British pub.

NONE of the three has so far published a manifesto, though all are planning to hold conferences in the spring where they will set out their political wares.

The elections are expected between May and November next year, though sceptics suggest they might be postponed if there are signs of public disorder. There have also been hints from some Socialists that elections should wait until the unification process has been completed. The reason is not hard to see. In the present parliament the socialists are over-represented in population terms; new constituency boundaries mean they are almost certain to lose seats in the election unless they can win new support in the north; a delay would give them more time to organise. One the other hand, President Salih's GPC has everything to gain by holding the elections on schedule, and might even try to bring them forward to reduce the chances of organised disruption.

Most observers believe the GPC will emerge are the largest party, with Islah second and the socialists third. That would probably mean another GPC-Socialist coalition, though the GPC might also seek to fragment the opposition through an alliance with parts of Islah.

The Socialists, however, claim there could be some surprises. On past form, there will also be more than a little skulduggery. But it would be wrong to underestimate the collective cunning of the Yemeni electorate. During the recent constitutional referendum, Saudi interests are said to have bribed the men of Sa'ada (the northernmost border province) to stay away from the polls. The men happily took the money but sent their wives out to vote in droves. Sa'ada's polling stations had the highest female turnout in the country. Not at all what the Saudis had expected.