Dr. Abd al-Karim al-Iryani, who served (among other posts) as prime minister and as foreign minister of North Yemen and then of all Yemen after unification in 1990, passed away on November 8, 2015. As he did with many other scholars, Dr. al-Iryani met with me on several occasions both in Sana’a and in Washington, DC. At a time when Yemen is wracked by war, and unity and democracy there appear to have been completely shattered, those of us who knew Dr. al-Iryani know that he envisioned that there could be both democracy and unity in Yemen and the Arab world as a whole. In remembrance of him, I am posting here an account that I wrote up back in 1992 but have never before published of what he said then about the relationship between democracy on the one hand and Yemeni as well as Arab unity on the other:
The highlight of the three-day conference on “Unified Yemen in a Changing World” held at the Yemeni Foreign Ministry September 22-24, 1992 was a speech by the then Foreign Minister, Dr. Abd al-Karim al-Iryani. Dr. al-Iryani set out to examine the contradiction between the viewpoint of Bernard Lewis of Princeton University that the 1990-91 Gulf war over Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait had led to the final demise of pan-Arabism on the one hand, and the fact that the two Yemens had united in May 1990.
“Is Yemeni unity the last act of Arab unity, or is it the model for Arab unity as a whole?” Dr. al-Iryani asked. “It seems naive to answer `yes’ to the latter question, and yet it is hard to answer `no’ to the former.”
He then asked what made Yemeni unity different from previous unity efforts in the Arab world. Earlier attempts, he noted, occurred without democratization having occurred in the countries which tried it. They all quickly foundered because the governments attempting to unify were unwilling to give up power or make meaningful compromise. In the case of the two Yemens, however, progress toward unity occurred alongside progress toward democracy.
“Democratization is the key,” said Dr. al-Iryani. “Democratization must and will become the basis for Arab cooperation, integration, and in some cases unity. Democracy was also the basis of European unity. The other European countries were right to exclude Portugal, Spain, and Greece from European Community [as it was then known] membership before they had democratized.”
He noted that many observers, including Bernard Lewis, saw the recent Gulf war as having caused such deep divisions within the Arab world that cooperation, much less unity, seemed impossible. “The Gulf war was not nearly as serious as World War II. But Europe began the process of unification soon after World War II ended.”
Returning to the question of whether Yemeni unity could serve as a model for Arab unity, Dr. al-Iryani stated that the fact that the Yemens united was less important than the process of democratization occurring in two neighboring Arab countries leading to successful unification. With democratization spreading to so many parts of the world, including Yemen in the Arab world, he predicted that the rest of the Arab world would not remain static. “If democratization occurs in any two neighboring Arab states, then integration–if not outright unity–will occur between them.”
He concluded by predicting that if democracy takes root in the Arab world, political and economic integration is highly likely since the ties binding the Arabs together are stronger than the ties binding the democracies of Europe.
The Foreign Minister concluded his talk by saying, “Democracy also means listening to things that you don’t necessarily want to hear,” and then called for questions from the conference participants.
Attending the conference were scholars from many countries, including the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Russia, Egypt, and, of course, Yemen. The Western and Russian participants posed questions focusing on just how far democratization had proceeded in Yemen. We did not challenge Dr. al-Iryani’s premise that democratization was the best way to achieve integration in the Arab world. Two of the Yemenis who asked questions, though, directly challenged this notion.
A member of Yemen’s transitional parliament asked, “Is democracy the only means to achieve Arab unity, or are there better, faster alternatives?” He made it clear that he thought waiting around for all the Arab countries to go through the long process of democratically deciding on unity was less desirable as well as less efficient than if strong Arab leaders brought it about all at once.
(One of the ironic aspects of democratization in Yemen is that while there is no longer any bar to the formation of political parties, many of the political parties that have been formed are distinctly undemocratic.)
Dr. al-Iryani responded that all previous attempts to create Arab unity without democracy had failed. The idea that “strong Arab leaders” could bring about unity quickly was an illusion.
A Yemeni Foreign Ministry official asked whether it was possible to avoid U.S. domination and pursue democratization simultaneously now that the Cold War was over and there was no Soviet Union to protect Yemen. This was less a question than a statement since the gentleman spent over five minutes arguing how the U.S. was to blame for all the Arab world’s problems, including the divisions resulting from the Gulf war.
Dr. al-Iryani’s response to this soliloquy was simple but powerful: “Unless democracy emerges in the Arab world, we cannot blame others for our tragedies.”