Middle East

Yemen: Democracy Without Minority Rights

Yemeni men show their support to opposition's coalition presidential candidate Faisal bin Shamlan during an electoral rally at a football stadium in September. (Photo: Cris Bouroncle / AFP-Getty Images)

In return for its cooperation in global antiterror efforts, Yemen extracts benefits from the West, notably from the United States. Likewise, Yemen's efforts at democratization, especially the improved conduct of September's presidential election, which should result in an increase in badly needed donor funds. However, in the aftermath of the election, the regime has begun discrediting, arresting, and harassing opposition leaders, activists, and voters. In one bizarre case, the regime has alleged that a human rights activist is linked to Al Qaeda, casting doubt on the sincerity of both Yemen's democratization and its efforts against terrorism.

The Election: Some Votes Counted

Yemen's recent election was hailed as a breakthrough by many. President George W. Bush congratulated Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh on the beginning of Saleh's 29th year in office, saying the vote itself was a victory for Yemen "because it was an election that international observers called free and fair" and "set an example for the region." Indeed, according to a preliminary report by the European Union's Election Observation Mission to Yemen, the vote was "an open and genuine contest" and a "positive development" in its democratization process.

A unique feature of the election was the inclusion of an authentic opposition candidate, Faisel Bin Shamlan, who received nearly a quarter of the vote. In another break with tradition, the government controlled national TV broadcast each candidate's rallies. For the 30-day election period, there was a vibrant national debate on the issues and open criticism of some government policies. The voters, in only their second direct presidential election, displayed a political maturity unexpected by some, and voting day was relatively peaceful and violence free. While these were positive developments, some aspects of the election were not free and fair.

European election monitors visited about 20 percent of the polling centers and evaluated voting procedures as good or very good in 82 percent of them. However, the observers also reported a variety of infractions that would not be tolerated in any developed democracy. Saleh's powerful ruling party, the General People's Congress (G.P.C.), engaged in illegal campaigning at nearly a third of the observed polling centers. The observers also noted a breach of the secrecy of the vote in 19 percent of the polling centers, among many other violations. Saleh acknowledged some "mistakes" were made. Al Motamar, the G.P.C.'s newspaper, estimated the vote tally for Bin Shamlan was understated by not more than 10 percent.

Bin Shamlan was endorsed by the Islamic reform party, Islah, the Nasserite Party, the Popular Forces Union, al-Haq, and the Yemeni Socialist Party, which ruled the former South Yemen. However, some southerners boycotted the election in protest of what they describe as belligerent northern hegemony dating back to the 1994 civil war and such continuous practices as land confiscation, discrimination, and the militarization of the former South Yemen. In a 2004 interview with the Yemen Times, Dr. Mohammed Masdos, a member of the general secretariat of the Yemeni Socialist Party, asserted that in the decade following the civil war, southerners faced employment discrimination, targeted harassment, massive layoffs, and exclusion from civil society organizations and political power sharing. He described the "erasing" of southern history and identity, a northern monopoly of wealth and power, and the resulting fear, poverty, and humiliation among southerners.

Those citizens who did participate in the electoral process faced difficulties beyond what was noted by the international monitors. Voter registration for the 2006 presidential election was seriously flawed. Statistics indicate the existence of several hundred thousand more male voters than than there are voting aged men in Yemen. The International Freedom of Expression Exchange reported that some news and political Web sites were blocked. Yemen's electoral constituencies are required by law to remain within a 5 percent deviance; however, their sizes range from 25,000 to 50,000. Opposition activists were harassed and 47 were kidnapped by security forces; several are still incarcerated without charge. The opposition leadership charged the government with seizing polling stations, buying votes, evicting candidates' representatives, and destroying and stealing ballot boxes. Hamid al-Ahmar, a progressive young sheik who was among the most prominent of Bin Shamlan's supporters, said that military and security institutions, intelligence apparatuses, public media, and officials had become "operations rooms" in favor of the G.P.C. Exiled oppositionist Ahmed al-Hasani stated on the London-based Al Mustakilla television channel that the regime received a shipment of ink remover for distribution to the military in advance of the election in order to facilitate multiple voting.

However, the international observers deemed an approximate vote count good enough. Paul Salem, from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said, "What is unfortunate is that a largely free and fair election could be clouded by doubts over percentage points or accusations of fraud, particularly at a time when virtually all parties agree that the basic outcome was that Saleh and the G.P.C. did win."

State power and funds overwhelmingly supported Saleh. Prior to the election, Saleh promised government workers in the drastically poor country an extra month's salary to be received after the election. Unlike other oil firms in Yemen, the Canadian firm Nexen refused to pay the bonus, correctly calling it "corruption" and "hush money." Although fear mongering is not an electoral infraction, Saleh raised the bar to new heights by predicting (or perhaps promising) a civil war if the opposition candidate was elected. Saleh was supported by Yemen's Salafi community, and a leading Salafi scholar issued a fatwa (at a campaign rally, alongside Saleh, and broadcast on national TV) declaring that voting against Saleh went against Islamic precepts. Saleh himself frequently referred to the opposition as apostates. Along with the religion card, Saleh also played the terrorism card.

The Terrorism Show

Saleh's regime has a history of exploiting the terror issue for political gain and the election season was no different. After what officials described as two thwarted terror attacks on oil facilities, Saleh accused his rival Bin Shamlan of instigating the attacks with his rhetoric against corruption in the oil industry.

On the eve of the election, Saleh went further, directly tying the attacks to Bin Shamlan. On national TV, Saleh alleged that one of Bin Shamlan's bodyguards, Hussein Dharhani, was an Al Qaeda terrorist and had masterminded the thwarted suicide bombings. Saleh brandished a photo for reporters of Dharhani standing behind Bin Shamlan at a campaign rally. Al Motamar ran the story with the headline, "J.M.P. Involved in Terror Attacks: Saleh" (JOINT Meeting Parties: J.M.P.). The opposition quickly pointed out that Dharhani was fired after a week on suspicion of being a regime intelligence agent and that he is married to Saleh's cousin.

Some in the opposition have gone so far as to suggest the thwarted terrorist attacks may have been staged. "The ruling party have [sic] fabricated these operations with the aim of accusing the opposition parties of being behind these terrorist acts," said Sultan al-Atwani, general secretary of the Nasserite Party. Abdul-Wahab al-Anesi, general secretary of the Islah Party, said, "I do not have perfect evidence about what al-Atwani alleged, but the way the government has exploited these acts casts doubt on their veracity, especially given that G.P.C. accused the opposition of backing the operation."

In truth, Saleh's regime is quite adept at devising propaganda, and some of its antiterror cooperation with the U.S. is appearance without substance. For example, in a recent interview published by the Yemen Observer, Yahya al-Raibee, whose son, Abu Bakr, was convicted on terror charges, stated that his son had received a 10-year prison sentence but never spent a day in jail, although U.S. officials thought he had. "The security would only take him from my house to appear in the court, and then bring him back after the court hearings," al-Raibee said.

Opposition Targets

The regime has continued using the terrorist label after the election to target its political opposition. The Popular Forces Union Party reported the arrest of party member Ali Hussain al-Dailami, director of the Yemeni Organization for the Defense of Public Rights and Liberties. Yemen's Ministry of Defense announced on its Web site, 26sep.net, that al-Dailami has "suspicious relations with a terrorist cell." A number of opposition parties, civil society organizations, and human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have denounced the arrest. The Yemeni Civil Society Organizations Coalition held a march in solidarity with al-Dailami, and the Arab Sisters Forum for Human Rights called al-Dailami's detention illegal. The smear by association tactic was also used against opposition parliamentarian Hamid al-Ahmar, who was accused in a published report of employing a relative of Dharhani at his telecommunications corporation, SabaFon. Al-Ahmar, who in May said it was "impossible for the nation to tolerate the totalitarian regime and its failed policies," is in October having difficulties clearing a shipment of equipment for SabaFon.

That is not the only trouble al-Ahmar is facing. The G.P.C. is supporting a request from the Ministry of Justice to lift al-Ahmar's parliamentary immunity in order to prosecute him under the banner of protection of journalists. Along with other oppositionists, al-Ahmar is facing an onslaught of insults in the governmental media, but that's par for the course in Yemen. The Defense Ministry's newspaper, The 26 September published a derogatory poem insulting al-Ahmar. In response, al-Ahmar called Gen. Ali al-Shater, the editor in chief of The 26 September, who reportedly has his own private prison. The general claims al-Ahmar issued a death threat during the call. In a politicized use of the judiciary, the case has been referred to the prosecutor.

In 2005, over fifty violations against independent journalists in Yemen were recorded. Independent journalists were harassed, kidnapped, beaten, stabbed, shot at, and threatened. The Committee to Protect Journalists noted: "The Yemeni government failed to conduct serious investigations or bring perpetrators to justice and its leaders conspicuously failed to denounce the assaults. Witnesses and evidence point to involvement by government forces and suspected state agents in a number of assaults." In light of the regimes previous lack of prosecutions for physical attacks on journalists, the prosecution of al-Ahmar appears related to his politics and not his phone manners.

Also in the aftermath of the election, many teachers reported being transferred to distant assignments, which they believe is retribution for their support of the opposition candidate. Employment in Yemen is politicized, and teachers in Yemen have faced sustained government harassment before. In response to a March strike for compensation due under Law 43 of the 2005 Wages Strategy, teachers and union heads were subject to arrest, to being followed by security forces, to suspension, and to having their salaries withheld.

The April edition of Islamic Affairs Analyst, published by the U.K.-based Jane's Information Group, quotes Ahmed al-Ribahi, chairman of the Yemen teachers union: "Teachers have been laid off, insulted, harassed, and accused of terrorism and of being separatists and stooges for the U.S. Our teachers have been threatened in all governorates. They say we are only working by the agenda of the opposition parties. The multiparty system became a dagger to jab anyone who asked for his rights."

Tyranny of the Majority

The multiparty system continues to jab those who challenge the ruling party's hegemony. The Yemeni opposition should be commended for its bravery in contesting the election, as the targeting that followed was predictable. Yemeni opposition parties overcame enormous obstacles and created a new regional political paradigm. They unified despite disparate ideologies and intense regime pressures. Through that unity, they forced some concessions from the regime and mobilized a significant number of voters after years of authoritarian rule. However, some of Yemen's opposition parties do not fully practice the democracy they advocate at a national level, and thus the development of a new generation of political leaders is stymied. A climate of egalitarianism has not fully evolved. The leadership often directs the membership and not visa versa.

The election itself did little beyond fortify the underlying concentration of power in the executive branch. Many reforms that Saleh has instituted do little in practice to empower either the opposition or the people. The recently elected local councils have an overwhelming ruling party majority. Saleh announced that governors would be elected by these local councils, leaving little hope for the election of opposition or independent governors. Saleh ordered the establishment of a second satellite channel under the supervision of the Ministry of Information, which historically has been a repressive institution. Although Saleh replaced himself with an appointed judge as head of the Supreme Judicial Council, the institution has little judicial independence from the executive branch. Saleh established The National Council for Fighting Corruption and appointed regime loyalists at its head. The body will most likely be used to target opposition parties and leaders.

In Yemen, the structures of democracy exist without its substance. The fundamental component of the principle of majority rule is the security and protection of the minority. Thus, one indication of Saleh's limited commitment to democracy is the treatment of his political opposition after the election. Attaching the terrorist label to opposition leaders is no more than a propaganda ploy designed for consumption by the West.

Jane Novak is an American journalist and political analyst.