Book review Civil Society in Yemen: A Political Economy of Activism in Modern Arabia

Sheila Carapico
Cambridge Middle East Studies 9, Cambridge University Press, 1998. Pp xiv + 256. Map. Tables. Glossary. Index. Bibliog. Notes. Hb. £35.

Sheila Carapico is a political scientist who has spent a total of six years in Yemen since the 1 970s researching the political and economic developments of the past two tumultuous decades, and conducting various urban and rural economic surveys. This important book builds on her doctoral thesis on the development co-operatives (LDAs) in the North during the 1970s and early 1980s, and draws on discussions and relationships with scores ofYemeni intellectuals, politicians and activists as well as on first-hand observations of local politics. The author has also trawled an impressive range and quantity of sources in Arabic as well as European languages, includingYemeni newspapers.

Carapico’s ambitious project is to catalogue and explain the abundant manifestations of’civil society’ inYemen since the 1950s. By ‘civil society’ is meant modern political, economic, legal and cultural projects and organisations which articulate and promote the variegated interests of the populace independently of state institutions. Whereas the tolerance of civic activism is a defining characteristic of western—style democracies, some political scientists assume that it barely exists in the Muslim Middle East because of what they construe as the ‘inherent conservatism’ of Arab societies and the persistence of indigenous or ‘primordial’ institutions, particularly tribalism and Islam, which they perceive as impeding ‘progress. Carapico cogently refutes this influential essentialist vision by presenting the Yemeni case within its cultural, economic and political context. She reveals that an immense variety of civil institutions emerged in North and South Yemen in the second half of this century, and that civic activism flourished according to ebbs and flows in local and international economic and political conditions.

Introductory chapters summarise current academic debates on ‘civil society’ by Western and Middle Eastern (mainly Egyptian) scholars, and provide the background for the study by oudining the profound political changes and economic transformations in twentieth centuryYemen. The next chapter examines the cultural and historical foundations of ‘civil society’ inYemen, and reveals its roots in Muslim values such as divinely sanctioned philanthropy, and in tribal precepts of collective responsibility and mutual aid. The remainder of the book describes the impressive range of associations and activities which emerged in the second half of this century. These include labour unions, self-help projects, development cooperatives, clubs, private schools, welfare associations, political parties, discussion groups and publishing ventures such as newspapers and political pamphlets. The book concludes by describing the response of some of these groups and their members to the political crisis of the 1990s, and their frantic but unsuccessful attempts to achieve national reconciliation and avert civil war. Carapico’s achievement is to collate a remarkable array of facts and figures, some summarised in extremely useful tables, and to relate the florescence and demise of civil activity in Yemen to specific contingent circumstances. She argues that ‘civil society’ flourished at three key moments, or ‘openings’, in recentYemen history: the British colonial period in the South in the 1950s, the post-revolution period in the North from the 1970s to the early 1980s, and the period between unification in 1990 and the 1994 civil war. In each of these periods economic and political circumstances stimulated and allowed bursts of grassroots endeavour which were later controlled or repressed before resurging. In the Northern case, for example, fledgling regimes with moderising agendas were too weak or poor to deliver basic services such as roads, health and educational facilities, yet needed the domestic and international legitimacy to be derived from promoting development and grass-roots participation. Thus, for example, successive governments encouraged the remarkable co-operative development movement of the 1970s and 1980s, and the astonishingly free press of the 1990s, only to incorporate the former and suppress the latter when they threatened central hegemony.

In a short review it is hard to do justice to this densely-written, fact-packed book and its thought-provoking analyses. However, I would have welcomed more extended first-hand accounts of the intellectual and political ferment of the early 1990s, and I found the descriptions of the huge ‘tribal’ conferences, rowdy political meetings and fervent ‘chaired’ qat party debates tantalisingly brief. An appendix providing brief biographies of the main personalities mentioned would also have been useful. The book nevertheless represents a substantial effort to document and understand, in theoretical terms, a vitally important but hitherto neglected aspect of recent Yemeni history and society, and will become an indispensable reference work on an extraordinary period.