Yemen's New Democracy Juggles With Tribal Traditions
By EVA SOHLMAN
Published: June 15, 2012
men/index.html?inline=nyt-geo> YEMEN - On a recent sunny morning, Yemen's
national Parliament was buzzing: Not with its usual suspects, but with the
induction of some 50 sprightly children newly elected in voting for the
Hadeel al-Mowafak, 16, an outgoing member after serving for two years, said
after the ceremony, broadcast on state television, that her term had changed
her life. "Before, I didn't know anything about Yemeni politics or human
rights," she said. "I didn't know I had a right because children's rights
don't exist here."
Founded in 2004 and run by the Democracy School, a London-based civic
education organization, the Children's Parliament trains 14- and
15-year-olds in children's rights and democracy practices. It also hosts
sessions during which its members can grill their adult counterparts and
hold them accountable on a range of issues.
Thanks to her newly acquired political awareness and her parents'
encouragement, Hadeel said she joined the protests last year that, together
with pressure from the international community, forced President
aleh/index.html?inline=nyt-per> Ali Abdullah Saleh to end his 33-year rule
and allow democratic reform.
Young people like Hadeel may be the future, but Yemen has challenges it must
confront before they are old enough to take charge. Its democratic
transition has run up against tough obstacles, raising the question of
whether such a tribal society can move toward a modern, democratic state.
Mr. Saleh and his cronies, many from the tribes, have challenged efforts by
the new president,
sour_hadi/index.html?inline=nyt-per> Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, to remove some
of Mr. Saleh's family members from the armed forces. Mr. Hadi is trying to
reorganize the military after it split during last year's protests. This has
hobbled the transition government and delayed a national dialogue on a new
constitution and social contract.
An old triangle of rivalry that sparked a war last summer also hampers the
process. It pits Mr. Saleh against the Ahmar business family, which leads
the powerful Hashid tribal confederation, and Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmer, the
country's most powerful general, who in March 2011 defected to the
opposition with his troops.
While some doubt Yemen's chances of shedding the influence of the tribes,
others hope that the revolution has broken their monopoly on power for good.
"Now that we have a new political order, the tribes will become almost
insignificant in national politics," said Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani, a political
analyst and co-founder of the Democratic Awakening Movement.
A strong state with a well-organized army and a good educational and
judicial system could significantly reduce the role of the tribes and foster
an economy more independent of the sheiks, observers say.
"If you want to break down the tribal structure, you have to find a stronger
state and fill the needs and requirements of the people," said a businessman
whose clan had had to step in and provide its members with education, health
care and water. He declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of
When asked about the tribes' sway, many Yemenis are eager to dispel the
stereotype of their country as consisting mostly of Kalashnikov-toting,
blood-feud-obsessed, warring tribes.
"We are not tribal. Most of us are in fact peasants," said Mr. Iryani. "When
people say these things they look at the distorted facade of Saleh, who gave
a monopoly to the tribes."
One of Mr. Saleh's most destructive legacies is the de facto autonomy of the
northern tribes, which he propped up with financial aid to the detriment of
the urban middle class, business interests and the rule of law; he further
weakened the state by neglecting education and institution-building,
analysts say. The tribes, which constituted the main fighting forces when he
came to power in 1978, in turn provided him for many years with armed
Meanwhile, Mr. Saleh's pervasive patronage system, still in place, eroded
state institutions as corrupt officials ignored laws and regulations to
Mr. Saleh, who himself never finished high school, was contemptuous of the
middle class and its business interests, minimizing their influence to the
benefit of the tribes, many Yemeni professionals say. Import licenses
introduced in the early 1980s were primarily issued to the tribes in the
north, who then sold them for a profit, businessmen say.
"The strong northern tribes would get the import licenses outside their own
businesses and then sell them to the big companies. They earned big
amounts," said Amin Ahmed Qassem, chairman of Yemen Trading & Construction
and a respected merchant.
People in Sana still remember Mr. Saleh making derogatory remarks about
effete "men in pants" who would get trampled in the streets and saying that
he could count on the tribesmen to gather in a matter of hours to defend him
if he asked. Yemeni tribesmen typically wear a cloth around their hips, held
up by a belt in which they carry a large dagger, the jambyia.
But the price of oppressing the pant-wearing state-builders, intellectuals,
engineers and technocrats has been disastrous for Yemen. Today it is the
poorest country in the Middle East. Its economy is near collapse, more than
half of its 23 million people live on less than $2 a day, and a famine is
President Hadi is regarded as doing a better job than many had expected
since he took over on Feb. 27, but his government is failing to provide
basic services such as electricity, health care and water.
Still, with a tiny middle class and at least half of Yemenis illiterate, the
number of people equipped to build and run the country is small.
Despite the huge challenges, which include Houthi rebels in the north, Al
Qaeda-linked militias in the south and a southern secessionist movement,
many people are optimistic about the future.
It seems likely that Mr. Hadi will base his authority on the legitimacy of
the presidential office, the constitution and the efficiency of government
institutions, Mr. Iryani said, because the president's two-year mandate does
not allow for the 15 to 16 years it took Mr. Saleh to build his patronage
Tribesmen do not see a contradiction between a democratic system and their
own. Saghir ben Aziz, a northern tribal leader, fought the regime's
intermittent 2004-2010 war against Shiite Houthi rebels, and also was on Mr.
Saleh's side during the war last summer against the Ahmar family and its
"The tribal system in Yemen will always be strong and intact, but we won't
stand against a democratic system," he said in an interview at his home in
Sana. In the wall above his head gaped two huge holes, which his armed
fighters said were caused by a tank last summer.
The tribes have a reputation for being against civil laws and only following
their own tribal laws. But while admitting to some imperfections, Mr. Aziz
stressed that the tribes supported the demonstrations last year, civil
rights and the peaceful succession of power.
They favor democracy because "being backed up by money and power is not
acceptable," he said.
Paul Dresch, an anthropologist and leading expert on Yemen's tribes and
fellow at St John's College, Oxford, does not see a dichotomy between the
tribal system and a more democratic state.
"I don't think this is incompatible at all," he said. "In fact, the tribes
understand democracy very well." He noted that elections in tribal areas in
the past year had gone smoothly. The tribes simply gather and caucus
beforehand. "I think the Yemenis are capable of making this work, but in
their style," Mr. Dresch said. "The big problem is not the tribes. It's the
Saleh bin Farid al-Awlaki, a member of Parliament, fought the northern
tribes in his youth. Mr. Awlaki, the uncle of the radical cleric Anwar
al-Awlaki, who was assassinated by the United States, and the leader of the
former sultanate of the southern Shabwa Province, doubted that the tribes
were willing to change.
But he was cautiously optimistic that Yemen could manage the transition.
"It's possible if the government is fair," he said, "and if it provides good
justice and education."
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Received on Fri Jun 15 2012 - 09:01:35 EDT