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Hichem Karoui: Post-Saleh’s Yemen
February 18, 2012
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

Are the events unfolding in Post-Ali Abdullah Saleh’s Yemen bearing an ominous or an auspicious significance? Is the country, without Saleh, going to be a better or a worse place? In other words, will the Yemeni revolution reach its objectives?

These questions, among several others, related to this issue will be debated for two days in Doha (Feb.18-19), in a symposium organised by “the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies” (ACRPS), on: “The Yemeni Revolution: Historical Background, Local Specificities, and Future Prospects.” The meeting is expected to be attended by a number of academics and experts on Yemeni affairs.

The topics are highly important; the context is intense; the expectations are very much elevated, and we surely can understand why. The country has been in turmoil several times and for many years before what we call today “the Arab Spring.” A significant part of its pains is due, like in similar cases, to its political elite. But unlike Tunisia and Egypt somehow alike in their political culture and in their social infrastructure, Yemen has a poor performance regarding this aspect of its polity.

Neither in Tunisia, nor in Egypt, has the tribe — as a social organisation — had any significance after the independence. Thus, it is not expected to weigh in on the political stage. In both countries, the forced departure of the head of state under the pressure of the people did not raise the same political dilemma that we see in post-Ali Abdullah Saleh’s Yemen. Why? Because, in Tunisia and Egypt, the president did not represent an influential tribe, but a political organisation (a party).

The party — any party — could be dismissed, dismantled, or overwhelmed by a rival organisation(s) or pushed out of the political stage. Power transition would then be a matter of roles redistribution, according to a new or an amended constitution, and the new balance of forces inside the political spectrum. So far, this is what happened with more or less differences due to the historic specificities of each country.

In Tunisia, for instance, the armed forces have always been apolitical. The Tunisian army has been maintained, since Bourguiba, outside the political scene, and it did never seek to exert influence (occult or plain) in this respect. That was indeed one of Bourguiba’s best achievements, added to the importance he accorded to public education, women empowerment, and the construction of what he called “national unity” that took over the archaic role of the tribes.

Of course, during the fight against the French colonial rule, Bourguiba used the influence of the tribes to gather and mobilise the population for the struggle. However, once the independence was won, Bourguiba could not allow any influence to compete with the State. The party that led the struggle for independence became the cornerstone in the construction of the modern nation-state. The tribes were obliged to abide by the law. The law was positive. Thus, tradition has been restrained and remained limited to the family life.

In Egypt, the 1952 revolution also tried to install a modern regime, in which it relatively succeeded. However, the part of the armed forces grew increasingly over time, not only because they have made the 1952 coup, but also because Egypt was at war with Israel, and no other Arab country has held that role of defending the Arab cause (Palestine included) against several hostile forces:

1- Israel, which occupied Palestine and since 1967, parts of other Arab territories; 2- the old colonial empires Great Britain and France, on the decline, and trying to clutch to their “zone of influence” and interests in the Suez Canal ; and 3- the USA, emerging in the aftermath of the Second World War as the most ambitious superpower ready to occupy the vacuum left by Great Britain and France, and striving to keep the rival USSR away off the Mediterranean and the Gulf. So, for Egypt, the stakes have been different since that time, because of the different challenges it faced, which propelled the armed forces to play a role in the Egyptian society and economy that was not allowed in Tunisia (far away from the war scene).

However, if we put aside the difference regarding the role of the armed forces in Tunisia and Egypt, the political culture in both countries would reveal to have more common points than people tend to think.

In Egypt too, we would not find a significant influence of the tribes. Nasser’s era has moulded the society in almost the same kind of bureaucratic, state-directed socialism than Tunisia under Bourguiba. With more emphasis on the pan-Arab cause, and a pronounced inclination towards the struggle of the non-aligned, Nasser has also accorded much importance to education, women empowerment (although less than Bourguiba) and a modernity that pushes tradition and tribalism, almost naturally so to say, away from polity and politics.

Now, if we look towards Yemen, what would we see?

The tribe is still at the centre of the political life of the country. Nothing could be more a nuisance to polity and politics than this single fact. For the dilemma of the Yemeni revolution today, unlike Egypt and Tunisia, is not how to make the transition to democracy work, but how to hinder the repetition of the same game, the same policies that brought the country on the verge of civil war several times.

Because when we ask: who was responsible for the mess that caused the revolt? To think that it was a man alone (i.e. Ali Abdullah Saleh) who blocked the political and economic life of the country, is to take a wrong turn. If things were so simple, then suffice it to remove him from power, and everything will be fine. This is just wrong. A.A. Saleh, like Z. Ben Ali, or H. Mubarak, was the product of a system, which still needs to be changed in order to make democracy work.

Yet, in Tunisia and Egypt, the old political parties that were monopolising public life have been swept away by new political movements. In Yemen, the party of the president is — to a large extent — the expression of a traditional rule, which is, the rule of the tribe. If it seems relatively easy for the Tunisians and Egyptians to remove a party from power, or dismantle it or overwhelm it under a wave of little newly formed organisations, how would you remove, dismantle, or sink a tribe or several tribes struggling for surviving the rule of A.A. Saleh? To do that, you need to change the system itself, not a single man.

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The author is an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)

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