Back to the Islah [Archives:2002/04/Focus]

January 21 2002

By: Hassan Al-Haifi
Unlike most of the political parties that came to the surface after 22 May 1990, the Islah, or the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, was already operating within the society, in the educational as well as the social front. Many of those who eventually were leaders in the Islah were among the constituency of the General People’s Conference Party, which prior to 1990 was the only legitimate political organization, with many of them in its leading committees or boards. On the other hand there were many non-governmental organizations that had very close, if not direct links to the organization, which were already operating on the surface. The most important source of developing its grass roots followers, as was pointed out in the last article on the Islah came from the Scholastic Institutes, which the Islah operated almost on its own, with considerable, if not total financial support from the Government. These institutes took in many children, especially from remote and deprived areas and did provide them with a reasonably adequate chance at an education, which they may never could have gotten at all had not the institutes been there. It is not known how much political orientation that these children were also fed along with, what many observers have suggested to be overtly puritanical religious education, if not excessive. But for sure, over the years, the Islah reached a relatively healthy grassroots following, which it could count on at any time it saw a need for mobilization of active political and even military engagements, as the need arises. Even with the Islah coming to the surface, in the wake of the political pluralism guaranteed by the Constitution, its organizational and institutional framework remain much of a mystery, to even most of its grassroots constituency. Therefore, it is difficult to classify the party as a party that is guided by the inclinations of its membership. Within the party itself, one is not aware of any real parliamentary procedures applied in its internal decision making process, nor do the members seem to show any desire or willingness to question the decisions of their leadership, or even how this leadership is chosen. Thus, while the Islah Party enjoys its existence in the political theater thanks to the democracy brought along by the unification of Yemen, it has yet to institute democratic collective government within its institutional set up. Furthermore, the lack of transparency that seems to prevail in its operations makes it difficult to assess the extent of implementation of democratic procedures within its own organization, or even its willingness to accept such procedures.
One should also bear in mind, that what goes for the Islah, as far as political nurturing of its members and their active participation in deciding the political course for the party to follow, also applies, to a large extent to many other political parties that came to the surface on that fateful day in Yemeni history. Moreover, politics remained pretty much monopolized by the party leadership of these parties and with little attempts to activate their existing memberships, the political parties on the whole failed to realize the significance of rallying mass popular support for their political drives. Surprisingly, even the YSP, with its long history of associating itself with the masses, could not develop a solid public wall it could lean on to give greater weight to the institutional muscle it possessed as a party-state. Nor was the YSP able to find the means to institute the democratic platform, it should be given credit for introducing into the establishment of the Republic of Yemen, as one of its conditions for unity, in its own party operations. Furthermore, the YSP failed to effectively mobilize the obvious support that many other political factions and significant elements of the mass public, who might have seen some credibility in the YSP populist platform. On the other hand, the YSP was unable to secure the continuing reliable support of many of its own constituency, who began to pursue personal quests that would readily be reached by less dramatic association with the Party.
Politically, the Islah was active in the ongoing political feud that arose almost immediately after the May 22, 1990 proclamation of the Republic of Yemen, between the very partners who brought on the unity of the country: the GPC and the Yemeni
Socialist Party. It stuck with its strategic alliance with the GPC and openly proclaimed its animosity towards the YSP and may have encouraged the former to also deal with the YSP with a high degree of suspicion. Moreover, the Islah was not a helpful supporter to get Yemen on a sound democratic footing as envisaged in the unity agreement and generally opposed any legislation or institutional set up that would work further to instill democratic practice. On the other hand, the Islah, like the other two leading parties did not hesitate to use some morally questionable practices during one of the most important democratic practices, namely the elections of important government elections or referendums for important legislation. Thus, it is difficult to ascertain how the political course of the party may be visualized for the future, because the party’s attitude to democratic practice has not been encouraging to start with.
As much as the Islah may be associated with a fundamentalist platform and a fairly strong attachment to religion, the Islah has yet to show its perception of the political establishment it seeks to see in the country. Furthermore, the Islah’s fundamentalist drive and dogmatic inclinations are probably less extreme than the other fundamentalist movements in the world that seem to nurture the same political aspirations and religious interpretations. From this observer’s own personal acquaintance with many Islahis, one is encouraged to believe that, as fundamentalists, the Islahis are a lot less prone to extreme inclinations, as those shown by the Taliban, and a lot less desirous of enforcing their will on the Yemeni people, as the political masters of the country. The Islah Party does include some fairly accommodating people in its leadership and political apparatus. These people see pragmatism and a credible degree of tolerance as being, at least for now, essential to maintain their general acceptance by the Yemeni people and to hold on to the many elements in the Islah, who are driven by political considerations that have to do a lot less with religion. Furthermore, other than its point blank attitude towards the YSP, the Islah has not really worked to antagonize any of the other political factions that exist in the theater. Surprisingly and perhaps wisely, the Party did not even raise a storm against the integration of the scholastic institutes, which were breeding grounds for its grassroots constituency. This seems to indicate that the Islah has a fairly good sense of not daring to bring any further shocks to the national scene, which could further bring economic difficulties, which Yemen simply cannot shoulder. On the other hand, surely a confrontation with the GPC would stand to take the Islah out of a lot of solid grounds now, which it cannot afford to loose. After all, it cannot be ungrateful to the GPC for much of the leverage that the Islah has gained over the years. There is also a lot of economics at stake, since a lot of its supporters come from the mercantile establishment and the Islah does have its own economic interests, either under some of its subordinate institutions or that are owned by its leaders. Thus, most Yemenis see little danger emanating from the Islah Party in the foreseeable future, because, as a national party, one believes that the Islah would not jeopardize Yemen’s interests to seek political momentum by any haphazard miscalculated move. After all, the Party is too entrenched in many areas that require stability and pragmatism to overrule any drive for sensationalism, for which it will otherwise probably pay the highest price in the end.