Middle East


Disband Yemen's Ruling Party

A picture of Yemen's President Saleh adorns a street in Aden. (Photo: Khaled Fazaa / AFP-Getty Images)

Since Yemen's presidential election last September, the nation is experiencing several areas of instability. Crisis areas include the fourth recurrence of the Saada war in North Yemen, popular protests in the former South Yemen, hostile tribal posturing, and the resurgence of terror attacks directed at the state. One causal factor common to all these conflicts is institutionalized inequality or state discrimination. This inequality is also the foundation of massive corruption that is destroying Yemen. With elitism so engrained and corruption so pervasive structural reform is nearly impossible. One solution may be to dissolve the national mechanisms that function to perpetuate inequality and enable corruption, starting with Yemen's ruling party.

Hopes generated before Yemen's presidential election were dashed in its wake. Oppositionists were disappointed that the election was a pantomime of democracy with state resources overwhelmingly supporting President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the victor and incumbent of 28 years. Saleh's supporters were disappointed when his expansive election platform produced few tangible results upon his reelection. In fact, the situation worsened for the average Yemeni with prices rocketing higher.

After the election, Yemen's military fought an intense war with Shia rebels in Yemen's northernmost Saada region. Estimates are the war cost over a billion dollars since January. Thousands of soldiers, rebels, and civilians have been killed and wounded. Cities and villages have been laid to waste. Internal refugees number over 50,000. The International Committee of the Red Cross has noted that food in the region is in critically short supply and the local population has been without medical facilities since the inception of the war. Yemen has fought the insurgents three times since 2004. Each time, mediation led to a ceasefire that was then broken by both sides.

Renewal of tensions between Yemen's major northern tribal confederations was a predictable result of the tribalization of the Saada war. The military inducted thousands of President Saleh's Hashid tribesmen, and reports of looting and indiscriminate violence emerged. Senior Bakil sheiks issued statements warning of the potential for the broadening of the conflict or years of localized retaliatory tribal warfare. The National Solidarity Council was announced in July and consists of 1,000 tribal sheiks and dignitaries primarily from the Hashid confederation. A hastily formed grouping of Bakil tribal leaders announced their opposition to the National Solidarity Council in August, accusing it of intending to foster conflicts and Libyan support.

With war tapering off in the north, long suppressed tensions have come to the surface in the south. Popular protests are expressing the grievances of tens of thousands of southern military officers who were punitively discharged after Yemen's 1994 civil war. Despite the regime's assurances of reconciliation, the southern officers remained unemployed and lived on below-sustenance pensions for over a decade. In August, Yemeni security forces banned "unauthorized" demonstrations in Aden after a series of increasingly large protest marches began in May. Hundreds of demonstrators were arrested. Others were beaten on the street. One died. Regime efforts to quell the movement included promoting about 600 former officers, creating a clone of the pensioners' organization, and promising to increase the pensions to legally required levels.

Each of these conflicts has its roots in intentional inequality. The 1990 unity between the former South Yemen and North Yemen was subverted by the dominance of the northern General People's Congress (G.P.C.) party. In the south, state discrimination takes the form of massive land theft, targeted impoverishment, and the withholding of employment and educational opportunities. Geographic discrimination is not unusual. The withholding of water to Taiz is discrimination against a city. The politicized arrest of Al Shura editor Abdulkarim al-Khaiwani is discrimination against a person. The war in Saada, primarily a political one, gained sectarian overtones when security forces began to target Zaidis by identity. The mass arrest of Zaidi preachers, students, and villagers is state discrimination, as is the withholding of food and medicine to the region. The primacy of President Saleh's Hashid tribe is derived from its association with the tools of the state. The access to economic benefits based on tribal affiliation as well as the immunity of the Hashid from the judiciary is institutionalized inequality. The inequality among groups (political, regional, tribal, sectarian) is reinforced by state media incitement.

In response to these recurring areas of instability and violence, the regime and the opposition parties are reacting predictably and in ways that initially fostered the conflicts. The government has responded with coercion, patronage, and propaganda without addressing any of the underlying factors such as political exclusion. The Houthis remain "monarchists" and the southerners "separatists" according to the official media. Movement leaders are plied with funds and accommodations while the bulk of Yeminis face brutal security forces and a well-armed military.

The Yemeni opposition blames and criticizes the G.P.C.; however, it is just as elitist. Some opposition leaders have also been co-opted by the G.P.C. and work toward the best interest of the ruling party, not the opposition or the people. The opposition coalition, the Joint Meeting Parties (J.M.P.), hopes to wrest control away from the powerful ruling party in Yemen's 2009 parliamentary elections. The J.M.P. operates in a limited political space with the threat of violence never far away. The constraints on the J.M.P. do not preclude it from operating democratically. However, the J.M.P.'s lack of commitment in practice to equality, transition of power, transparency, and free speech work to limit its credibility. For the J.M.P.'s promises to ring true, the coalition would need to demonstrate the ability to reform itself and engage in internal democratic practices.

Yemen is facing dramatic times that require new and dramatic solutions. One way to disentangle corrupt relationships and encourage a merit-based hierarchy is to dissolve the ruling party. The G.P.C. functions similarly to the Syrian Baath party and the former Iraqi Baath party, as a party of access, influence, and patronage. The party merged with state institutions and bureaucracies that have become politicized. The party operates in its own self-interest and has grown to dominate public space.

Dissolving the G.P.C. would enable space for authentic reform by removing the structure that determines inclusion and exclusion. The G.P.C. is a primary mechanism of discrimination. It discriminates against all Yeminis but does so by identity, thereby reinforcing social divisions. Party affiliation is a factor in education, employment, judicial rulings, and public services, where they exist. Through G.P.C. control of the bureaucracy, the oligarchy absorbs the benefits of donor aid and natural resources while clean water, electricity, and educational and medical facilities are largely unavailable to the bulk of Yeminis. Yemen's elite routinely deploy state institutions, including security forces and the judiciary, for personal ends as well as to stifle dissent, criticism, and efforts toward reform. Those within the G.P.C. with the foresight and courage to press for real reform can only go so far before the interests of "influential people" are threatened.

Another solution may be to create a new party that models equality and therefore democracy. A party committed to egalitarian principles would abide by its own charter, model financial transparency, hold fair internal elections, make leadership positions available to all members, and follow the expressed will of the majority. Yemen has yet to see a party that uniformly follows those prescriptions. And such a party needs to exist to give political access to ordinary citizens and hope to its 10 million youth. Democracy is the choice of the Yemeni people and therefore so is equality. A state or a party that discriminates by identity is inherently undemocratic.

Originally published by the Arab American News. Jane Novak is an American journalist and political analyst.