Abdulrahman Al-Hamdi to YT: “Yemeni society is still passing through an experimental stage on the road to democracy” [Archives:2001/33/Interview]

August 13 2001

Abdulrahman Mohammad Al-Hamdi, 39 years old. He is Married and has three sons. He Graduated in 1988 from George Washington University, Faculty of Engineering. He is the brother of former President of previously Northern Yemen, Ibrahim Al-Hamdi. He is a prominent civil society activist who has been involved in several activities nationwide. He is the chairman of the Yemen Democratic Forum which is among the most active forums in Yemen. Mohammed bin Sallam of Yemen Times met with Mr. Al-Hamdi and filed the following interview.
Q: Could you possibly brief us about the Democratic Yemeni Forum? When was it first established? What has the Forum accomplished and what programs does it plan to undertake?
A: well, the Yemen Democratic Forum was established through the initiative of the leadership of the Yemen Institute for Democratic Development after a chain of discussions and consultations with political parties, effective civilian institutions, in addition to well known figures from the social and cultural fields, which took place in June.
According to the projects initiated by the Institute, there will be two principal objectives to achieve their aim. These are:
Actions to secure the highest possible degree of freedom, impartiality, credibility, and trust for the electoral process in our country, establishing awareness in the fundament truth that elections are the most distinct features of genuine democracy.
Secondly :
The effective contribution through various means in the process of developing, activating and deepening democratic performance and exercise at various legislative and all other relevant areas, whether in official governmental institutions or other civil institutions and society in general.
To achieve these two objectives, the forum leadership, with the co-operation of the secretariat of the Yemen Institute for Democratic Development, has laid down several comprehensive draft programs and work plans. Accordingly, the work will commence shortly, with the participation of the political parties, the civil institutions and some famous personalities. As examples of the most important functions and activities contained in these programs, we mention the following:
1-the active, effective and influential contribution on the meanings of legislatures and draft laws which governmental authorities plan to clarify, especially those relating to civil liberties, and political and democratic rights. Previously, these issue were raised, such as the legal Authority law, the law of procedure and the new draft law for elections, when in this regard discussions are conducted between the political parties. Civilian organizations and the Government where in the forum, while the Institute was the first to call for discussion, contributing significantly in the management of nearly five initial meetings before the discussion moved to the Government at its request. In this way, and with regard to all draft laws that are expected to be issued, our objective is to secure to the maximum degree possible the free boundaries of democracy, civil liberties and human rights in all their contents.
2-the intended programs will undertake practical initiatives on the various civil institutions of political parties, such as trade unions and professional associations, as well as non-governmental organizations dealing with women’s issues, democracy, civil liberties and human rights. These will help them develop their active role and impact within society through creating group networks and more extensive social groups to overcome the reality of social fragmentation, disruption and the waste of the individual’s efforts so as to help society achieve its full potential.
3- To crystallize the principles of genuine democratic culture and simplify and facilitate their understanding by all members of society, according to the various levels of education and experience, and to disseminate this widely; the culture which focuses on awareness and reforming the mentality of the citizen with both complete civil rights as well as obligations, developing the spirit of freedom, research and freedom of thought and expression, eliminating the habit of submission, fear, coercion and subordination from citizens and civil institutions. Such habits have accumulated over the years under despotic, tyrannical, and oppressive regimes, and therefore need to be replaced by establishing the citizen’s faith in his ability to think and act for himself.
In addition, this project involves reviewing the education curriculum, especially the fundamental principles and values achieved through the practice of democracy and exercise of civil liberties; thus these curricula will become ideal instruments to create and build the mentality of a faithful democratic citizen, and aim to translate them in his behavior, relationships, and daily life in a spontaneous from as though they were integral to his character.
4-Aim at eliminating all forms, ideas and practices of violence, terror and extremism aimed at imposing beliefs, ideas, convictions. We will challenge and encounter them through every convincing way, since they conflict with fundamental human as well as religious values and teachings, as well as the customs of urban societies.
The forum is determined to counter violence, terror and extremism by executing, analyzing, discussing and refuting them through conviction and belief, establishing the essence of true religion, values, proper human customs, and logical demands and natural human instincts molded and disposed to freedom. These are mere examples and main specimens of some functions and activities of plans and work programs of the forum. There are numerous others I do not wish to mention for the sake of concision and not to burden this text with too much further information. Concerning the declaration of the forum, I can say to you that it was made at an appropriate time. Its announcement was absolutely necessary in view of the evident restrictions on limited democratic freedoms.
Q: The government has recently decided to amend the Election Law, the question is what are your comments on the amendments? Are you going to take part in discussing these amendments and how do you evaluate the election system in Yemen
A: well, I can tell you that the draft project amendments to the Elections law which the Government has recently submitted, is considered disappointing to the utmost degree, since it represents a long and fearful retreat when compared with the first law issued in 1992 and the second issued in 1996. These recent proposed red amendments represent the destruction of what remains of limited democracy, especially given that they make all levels of the Elected Management authority completely subject to the executive authority without opposition. Thus the president of the republic has the right to appoint the committee and its chairman, as well as to substitute any of it members whenever and with whomsoever he feels like. In this way, the high committee ultimately becomes accountable directly to the president himself. This is all that is stipulated in the draft project amendments submitted by the Government ; this being the case, how is it possible for the electoral administration to be free, impartial and independent? Additionally, some of the amendments that the government has dedicated to the electoral administration, help tighten its grip on the latter completely, surrendering it to the government’s wishes and interests, flouting guarantees of a multi- party system.
Actually, we must here confess the gross mistake we made, that is the forum, the political opposition and civil institutions, which helped prevent subsequent dialogue.
That mistake is represented by our acceptance in good faith of a draft or arranged amendment project proposed for the Elections law submitted by the Government on the basis of those discussions. The most important and advantageous result of our discussions on the new draft law for Elections was that the council of Representatives (previously saturated with discussion) approved it constitutionally, submitting it to the president for issuance.
However, the president returned it to the council with a letter which included some remarks on how this draft law had previously passed through a chain of stages for dissuasion, study and review by the government and council of Representatives. But if that had been done we would have considerably cut short the time and effort needed to discuss a draft project on amendments prepared by the government itself or one of its own ministries!!
Allow me also to explain that there is regrettably a lot of confusion among some government officials and others about “the concept of the Electoral system” and the principles of the electoral administration. They talk about the two concepts as though they were the same thing. The term ‘electoral system’ implies the means or the pattern which we choose and the basis on which the elections are held. There are several electoral systems, such as the individual administration system that we have followed in Yemen since 1993 and the open relative register system, the system of the two electoral terms. Here the constitution stipulates the determination of matters permanently through the choice of the individual constituencies system, dividing the country into 301 equal constituencies which each elect a single representative to the council of representatives.
We do not see non-conformity with this system in our country, but its importance for the future of the unity and coherence of the people and nation. We see the need to change it by adopting the relative register system, which requires the division of the country to large electoral areas, 4, 5 or 6 in number, with each incorporating several governorates. The elections should take place in these on the basis of the party registers and independent candidates. However this is impossible unless the constitutional stipulation referred to is amended.
Q: As you know Yemen is a country in which tribal power and influence prevails over society?How do you asses the role of Yemeni political parties? In your opinion, should we even call them parties?
A: Allow me to make a quick comparison between the limited democracy and civil liberties before and after the unification of the two Yemens on 22 May 1990.
To clearly establish that it has narrowed and contracted to a large extent, especially in the tightening grip on the freedom of the press and the exposure of journalists to arbitrary punishments, and other general violations of human rights, restrictions on non-government al organizations, as well as arbitrary arrests and dismissals from work along with other non-democratic practices. However, if the passage and approval is made on the draft project amendments proposed for the Electrical law, it would mean an end to such limited and restricted democracy.
Q: What is your evaluation of the future of the democratic experience in Yemen?
A: the political parties, like all other institutions and different organizations are not isolated from reality, but they eventually will be, whether they like it or not. An integral part of their laws and requirements at this stage in their historical development is a society such as ours. Yemeni society is still passing through an experimental stage on the road to democracy, avoiding necessary pre- the conditions and infrastructural improvements for the practice of genuine democracy, such as the creation of an independent and impartial judiciary and the supremacy of and respect for the law.
Q: Finally, how do you assess the role of the non-governmental organizations, concerning democracy and human rights in general?
A: As I mentioned before, the parties are similar to civil non-government organizations. Nevertheless, I add that these organizations (and we are an integral part of them) are considered to be a new creation. The role and entrusted to them accords with what is required of democracy, its values, institutions and conditions.
Finally, please let me extend my thanks for allowing me this opportunity to talk about general issues that interest society, and also express my respect and appreciation for Yemen Times newspaper for its distinguished and informative role.