To channel Rodney Dangerfield, Yemen can’t get no respect. Yemenis are to the Arab World what Paraguayans are to Latin America and what the Polish once were to the United States: the butt of all jokes, the symbol of backwardness, a nation of illiterate buffoons. Yemeni women are seen as ignorant, severely repressed and married off at a young age; Yemeni men are ignorant and abusive tribesmen who run around with curved daggers tucked into the colorful wraps they wear in lieu of pants. Both regionally and internationally, Yemen remains little understood, and few even try. It is frequently described as the Wild West, where no viable state really exists and where remote areas – home to exotic ruins, beautiful landscapes and ancient mysteries – are defended by savage tribes who make sport of kidnapping foreigners and stealing vehicles. The images of Yemen as an ancient people untouched by modernity are not all negative: Yemenis themselves boast of being the original Arabs, fending off Western penetration (and global commercialization), and speaking the most pure form of Arabic.
These are the narratives that circulate about Yemen both within the Middle East and globally, images that also imply that Yemen is somehow more difficult to understand precisely because it has not yet joined the modern world. This is also what makes travel as well as politics there so exciting: it is dangerous, untamed and unpredictable.
This veneer of impenetrability and the inability to understand the country and its people, of course, has political effects, too. That is, these narratives shape how other states as well as peoples regionally and internationally approach Yemen. This is why so many are now just shrugging their shoulders as Yemenis continue to demand the end of the Salih regime (he has left Yemen but his sons were still fighting on his behalf as of this writing). And these images are why so many are shocked to see Yemenis demanding a return to democratic politics.
Yes, that’s correct: a return to democratic politics.
Narratives and images of Yemen as dangerous and unpredictable – where tribal leaders wield considerable power, two rebellions (the Houthis in the north and secessionists in the south) have fueled political instability, and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) may now function as the main base for the foundering mother organization – work to suppress other political realities that are going to be critical for understanding what is happening there now as well as the prospects for the future. Forgotten is Yemen’s remarkable democratic experiment of the early 1990s, when the newly unified state undertook a dramatic political opening that included a vibrant and free press, animated public debates, and free and fair parliamentary elections in 1993. That election returned an assembly where no part won a majority, and independent candidates constituted the single largest bloc. To be sure, the following year saw a civil war in which the army of the former south Yemen (the Peoples Democratic Republic of Yemen) was defeated by the army of the former north Yemen (the Yemen Arab Republic) under Salih’s command. But that conflict had everything to do with political rivalries and nothing to do with Yemenis themselves, who had embraced the democratic opening with a level of enthusiasm that left Saudi Arabia nervous about its neighbor on the peninsula. Even in remote tribal areas, men gathered in circles to perform traditional dances of celebration with their daggers – dances done in celebration of the occasion of Yemen’s democratic elections.
But while ongoing and violent conflict is a distinct possibility for Yemen – and the outcome that the frontier narratives would predict – we should not lose sight of several factors. First, the aforementioned democratic experiment has produced not a functioning democratic system but a people clearly demanding such. The protesters throughout the country have a clear vision in mind, and that vision is of a substantively democratic system. Even Salih has long embraced the narrative of Yemen’s democratic system, of course for strategic reasons. He repeatedly described Yemen as a model of “emerging democracy” even as his regime did everything possible to undermine substantive democratic practices. But despite the manipulation of the formal state institutions, he has never been able to control the vibrant, free public sphere in which Yemenis will openly make fun of their president (“He cannot even sign his own name!”) and debate the regime’s repressive tactics. Compare this freedom to a place such as Syria, which is conventionally considered to be more developed than Yemen. In that republic, where citizens are also now pushing back, jokes about the president have long invited the security service’s brutal surveillance of one’s self, family and friends. Yemen is not a democratic place in terms of governance, but the desire for democratic politics is far deeper and more well-established than most observers realize.
Second, the fragmented nature of Yemen might actually be an asset. The fact that some 60 million weapons are held outside of the state’s control may indeed be a destabilizing factor for a state that seeks to monopolize the legitimate use of violence. But precisely because Salih ruled by managing various centers of power rather than dominating them, a new alternative could emerge in which the various centers of power cooperate on some unified council rather than seek to control the whole pie. Indeed, no force is really capable of taking control of all of Yemen through conventional arms. Analysts and military strategists see this situation as necessarily a recipe for disaster, but a good possibility exists that some brokered alternative could see the emergence of a new force that works to hold the country together – something that is in all of Yemen’s economic and political interests.
Third, radical Islamists are not nearly as strong in Yemen as they are sometimes made out to be. The country is indeed largely conservative and religious, but the well-armed tribes are not, with very few exceptions, welcoming hosts for the likes of AQAP. The terrain of the country produces a range of locales in which the group can function, but they are decidedly not welcome in many areas. The highest estimates for their numbers have ranged only in the hundreds. We know, of course, that a group need not have a mass following to cause considerable destruction, but the fact that AQAP’s numbers remain so small in a country of some 23 million people is significant.
Fourth, Yemen does already have a fairly mature political opposition that has brought groups from across the political spectrum together, most recently under the guise of the Joint Meeting Party. The extensiveness of this cross-ideological cooperation suggests as well that Yemen has already in place a political infrastructure for bringing diverse interests to the table in a peaceful and constructive manner. This is the stuff of normal democratic politics – debating joint positions and strategies, and cooperating on legislation while also disagreeing on certain red-line issues. Since the mid-1990s, Salih’s General People’s Congress party had become “the only game in town” for those who wanted a real chance of winning a parliamentary seat (and thus obtaining all the booty that comes with the job). He blatantly manipulated electoral processes to manufacture a majority and ensure the regime was not challenged. But even more than in states such as Egypt, Syria and Tunisia – where presidential “republics” also manipulated elections to produce grotesque victories for the ruling party – Yemen’s opposition did not go away or become stale; it regrouped and forged new paths of cooperation that enabled it to keep a toe-hold in the political system. The existence of an experienced, mature and cooperative opposition bloc could easily propel a new government into substantive democratic politics as long as a multiparty system is prioritized in any transition.
These factors together could produce a very different history than the descent into civil war that most analysts seem to imply is inevitable. From the U.S. government’s perspective, we might not even care about Yemen’s future were it not for the presence of AQAP in Yemen. To be clear, I am not suggesting that a peaceful transition to a democratic Yemen is the most likely outcome. But I do believe that such a path should not be dismissed as a viable possibility.
This is, of course, an outcome that Saudi Arabia would abhor, and the state has unquestionably been a major source of instability in Yemen. Over the past decades, it has provided funding to virtually all political forces in Yemen, from Salih’s regime to major tribal groups to the socialists to Islamists of every ilk.
But as many shrug their shoulders at the ongoing violence throughout the country, they should keep in mind the images of the individual protesters and the other Yemenis who are providing them with food, water, portable toilets and tents in which to rest. Yemenis have proven savvy in their protest tactics and articulate in their demands. Let’s not lose sight of these factors – nor of the country’s brief but vibrant experience with democratic politics – as we encounter the persistent narratives about this backward, unruly and dangerous country. Let’s notice instead the courage, resourcefulness and tolerance of a people who, frankly, deserve far better than their regime – or the global community – has dished out to them.
Jillian Schwedler is associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author of Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen (Cambridge 2006).