It was confusing. When I visited Yemen in September 1992, there were many signs that democratization was really occurring. But there were also signs that it wasn’t.
Over forty political parties had sprung up. But most of these espoused authoritarian ideologies, such as Nasserism, Bathism (both Syrian and Iraqi varieties), and others. The two biggest parties were the ones which ruled in North and South Yemen before unity–the People’s General Congress and the Yemeni Socialist Party. Both had been authoritarian organizations in the past which had only recently declared their adherence to democracy. The third main party was the Islamist Islah which also declared itself to be democratic, but which had strong links to less democratic Islamic movements elsewhere in the Middle East.
Over one hundred newspapers had sprung up. Some of these, however, were controlled by the People’s General Congress or the Yemeni Socialist Party. They did not tend to be self-critical. There were many others papers, though, which were critical of the government. But since illiteracy in Yemen is very high, these independent newspapers had only a limited impact on the public. Television and radio, which are accessible to the illiterate, remained under the control of the two ruling parties in their respective power bases. And like the newspapers they controlled, their TV and radio stations were not especially self-critical either.
The TV stations, however, did broadcast parliamentary debates. By all accounts, these were often quite contentious. But the parliament had only limited influence. It was the five-man presidential council–especially its chairman, `Ali `Abdallah Salih (the former northern president)–who made the decisions. This group was not directly elected, but appointed by the parliament without much debate. For it was this group–and not the parliament–that controlled the armed forces.
Some of my Yemeni friends were ecstatic about how far democratization had advanced. Others were pessimistic and said it was a sham. But the very fact that they could say so openly seemed to indicate that democratization had taken root to some extent.
There were so many inconsistencies. There certainly was a much greater degree of press freedom and openness in government in united Yemen when I visited there in 1992 than had existed in either the North or the South prior to unification in 1990. The Yemeni Socialist Party had run a repressive Marxist regime in the South up until the downfall of communism in Eastern Europe when it too began to change. Up until 1988, Salih’s rule in the North was simply a military dictatorship in which even his political party was created as an afterthought.
Why the YSP had begun to embrace democracy was clear: with the downfall of communism in so many countries, it was going to have to change somehow to remain in power. Indeed, its agreement to be the junior partner in a united Yemen was probably based on the calculation that it would probably be overthrown by the people like so many other Marxist parties if it tried to continue ruling the South on its own.
Why Salih embarked on democratization, though, was less clear. He didn’t have to do it. There was no serious challenge to his rule. There was no hue and cry for democracy. Yet in 1988, he began the process of democratization by holding elections for 80% of the Northern parliament. Democratization seemed to be enhanced by unification since the two ruling parties essentially agreed to share power during the transitional period before the all-Yemeni elections which were eventually held in April 1993.
Why had Salih agreed to all this? Had he genuinely converted to democracy? Or did he merely intend to ease the expansion of his authoritarian rule from the North to the South through creating a democratic facade which he manipulated? If he had become democratic, his conversion was clearly incomplete. But if he meant to continue ruling as a dictator, allowing democratization to begin was dangerous since this would only raise popular expectations for it which might be difficult to control later. What, then, did Salih really have in mind for Yemen?
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These were the questions that came to mind while I was in Sanaa for the Yemeni Foreign Ministry’s conference on “Unified Yemen in a Changing World” during September 1992. On the third and last day of the conference, it was suddenly announced that President Salih wanted to meet with the foreign participants in the conference.
We were taken by bus from the Foreign Ministry to the Presidential Palace on the outskirts of town. After going through three security checks, we were shown into the President’s receiving room. The room was a rectangle. We foreigners were seated in chairs along the two long sides of the rectangle. When Salih entered the room, he along with Salim Salih Muhammad (one of the strongmen from the South who was now a member of the Presidential Council), and a translator sat in chairs against one of the short sides of the rectangle. Opposite them along the other short side were officers who were probably part of the presidential body guard.
The first sentence Salih addressed to us praised the multi-party aspect of Yemeni democracy. This was very encouraging; he did not identify his own party as the only one that was truly democratic, but clearly saw a role for other parties too.
But after saying this, his second sentence was, “We must continue to guard against the continuing conspiracies of our enemies against Yemen.” This was not encouraging. Who were the “enemies?” Did they include internal as well as external ones? What constituted an internal enemy–anyone who disagreed with Salih? This sentence did not strike me as being very democratic. But then again, it was not unknown for the leaders of even the most well-established democracies to see “conspiracies” and “enemies” all around them.
Salih then bitterly complained about how the great powers had treated Yemen both during and after the 1990-91 Gulf War. Salih protested that Yemen had condemned the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, but opposed the UN intervention because Yemen favored an Arab solution to the crisis. Yemen had been neutral, he claimed (in fact, it had taken several actions which favored Iraq), and was now being unjustly punished by the West and the conservative Arab states. He called upon all of us in the room, “Yemen’s friends,” to speak out about democratization in Yemen which the West should support.
At one point while he was speaking, Salih snapped his fingers abruptly and pointed at one of the officers at the far end of the room. The officer leaped out of his chair and was at Salih’s side instantly. It turned out the President simply wanted a light for his cigarette.
This, I remember observing to myself, was not the act of a democrat!