Could it be the beginning of a new era of freedom in the Middle East?Admiring Yemen’s passion for democracy [Archives:2003/634/Opinion]

May 5 2003

Emma Bonino

In the great hall where the President of the Republic of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh received the international organisations on April 23 on the eve of the general election held on April 27, it was not only the smell of incense that could be breathed, but also the new wind that is blowing through the Arab world. Although no-one has acknowledged it openly, apart from one or two courageous dissidents, the fall of Baghdad is beginning to have the same effect on this region as the fall of the Berlin Wall had on Eastern Europe. True, it would have been better if this new climate, this surprising desire for reform, had been brought about by the people of these countries rather than from the outside, through a war. But we would have to be deaf and blind not to notice that the downfall of Saddam Hussein is having an effect similar to an earthquake on the many corrupt, authoritarian regimes that rule this part of the world. They have not suddenly converted to democracy, they are simply afraid that after Baghdad it could be their turn: only a few days ago Qatar announced constitutional reforms, like Oman and Bahrain; in Jordan, too, elections will be held in the near future, two years after the king had practically dissolved parliament; Palestine finally has an authoritative government, and will go to the polls in a few months' time.
It would be unforgivable not to read these new signals and to continue with the same old policy, the policy that brought about the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and the many other dictatorships in the region which, in the name of the war on the Zionists and the American imperialists, deprive millions of people, both Muslims and non-Muslims, of the right to freedom, and often of the right to life.
Unfortunately, if you look around to see who is present, or rather who is not present, in the hall in Sana'a where President Saleh is expressing his proud and justifiable satisfaction at the fact that Yemen is now holding democratic elections for the fifth time, far in advance of all the much richer and more highly-courted countries in the region, the opposite would seem to be true. That I am due to speak immediately after the President, despite the fact that I do not represent any European institution, but only the Transnational Radical Party, is the clearest sign. I have been invited, in fact, by the UNDP, in particular by the Election Support Project directed by Antonio Spinelli. I do not even represent the European Parliament, of which I am a member, for less than two weeks ago it cancelled the visit of the parliamentary delegation “for reasons of security” which have clearly not worried the other delegations, including the large delegation from the American National Democratic Institute. After stating so often over the last few months that democracy cannot be promoted or exported with bombs, Europe is absent in a country which, without many rivals in the Middle East, has set off on its own, with its own modest resources, on the slow and difficult path towards democracy.
Despite these absences, on Sunday April 27 more than 8 million men and women went to the polls in Yemen: a remarkable event in this region, where the nearby Saudi Arabia in particular has excluded women from public life and even banned them from driving.
I was a little bit embarrassed when I took the floor: although on one hand I wanted to congratulate the leaders of this extremely poor country, with a per capita income of $490 a year, for having taken up the challenge of democracy in the face of widespread indifference, on the other hand I could not help pointing out a serious shortcoming in the current electoral process, that is the almost complete absence of women candidates, whose number is even lower than in the previous elections. Only 11 out of a total of almost 1,300 candidates from 22 parties were women. In the previous legislature only two women had been elected, another two had been appointed by the Consultative Council and only one had held ministerial office, as Minister for Human Rights. Nor could I forget the widespread discrimination and suffering borne by the women of Yemen, from domestic violence to the effective privation of the rights of ownership and inheritance, from the tolerance of so-called “crimes of honour” to genital mutilation. The recent modification of the Yemeni constitution has further aggravated their situation: while previously it recognised the equality of all citizens before the law and prohibited all forms of discrimination, article 31 now states that women are the sisters of men and enjoy the rights and duties laid down by the Shariah and by the law. I could not fail to denounce this step backwards, all the more so in a country where social traditions and customs have often led to a restrictive interpretation of Islamic law, aggravating discrimination and violence towards women.
Once again, however, the country presented me with another pleasant surprise: President Saleh replied to my comments without any irritation, justifying the absence of women from the electoral process on the basis of traditions, but acknowledging that the situation must change. I was even more surprised when I learned that the whole discussion had been broadcast live on TV and shown again on the evening news. As a consequence the “women presence” in the political process has become automatically the main point of reference and discussion in all the meetings I had all week long with journalist, political leaders, diplomats from the region, national Ngo's etc nd on Friday instead of visiting the narrow streets of Sana'a as a tourist I met a whole range of Yemeni women's groups, including the National Committee of Yemeni Women, a government body headed by Rashida Ali Al Hamdami, an energetic woman who is a co-sponsor of the anti-FGM appeal organised by “No Peace Without Justice” and “AIDOS”. Together we discussed the conference we are organising on 21 June in Cairo as part of the STOP FGM campaign
Almost all the women I met came wrapped in a sort of black overcoat and veils of various sorts: some were veiled from head to toe, others wore dark or coloured scarves, one or two wore no veils (Amal tells me that only twelve women in Sana'a go out unveiled), but once they took off their overcoats they revealed colourful, modern clothes, suits, trousers and fancy, sheer nylon stockings. They all had stories of battles and initiatives and funny, dramatic anecdotes to recount; they were all very much involved, with high hopes, in Sunday's elections.
This impression was confirmed by my visit on Saturday to the governorate of Al-Mahweet, around two hours from Sana'a, where there is a local branch of the Election Support Project. The road and the scenery are so beautiful they take the breath away: we were at around 2.800 meters, making our way along a winding road with terrifying steep drops and villages cut out of the mountainside. It was almost impossible to distinguish the houses from the rocks, apart from the white decoration around the doors and windows. (Wherever possible they have built terraces where they mainly grow the qat, a bush whose leaves they chew slowly and gradually roll into a ball in their left cheek. There is hardly an adult in Yemen without this lump on the cheek: the rite is performed in groups, in the afternoon, in interminable sessions that seem to bring life in the country to a halt. When chewed, qat leaves secrete a mild drug that brings about a sense of well-being, and there is not a single village in Yemen, even the tiniest, without a qat market. All this happens in the light of day, there are no illegal dealers and chewing qat leaves does not lead to hard drugs; in the long run excessive use can lead to mouth infections and lower productivity, true, but these serious side-effects are nothing in comparison to the dramatic social and economic harm caused by the prohibition of similar substances in the civilised world. The main problem is that spending almost half their salaries on qat leaves is an unbearable burden on Yemeni families. The Government recognizes the problem, but luckily enough has not been tempted by the illusion of prohibition. At least not up to now)
In all the places we visited the polling stations for Sunday's elections had already been set up. The election materials had already arrived, and the ballot papers included not only names and party symbols, but also photos of the candidates to help those unable to read. The polling stations, as in Ecuador, are different for men and women, and in the women's sections the election officers are also women. What struck me most, however, was that even in the most remote and inaccessible villages there were evident signs of the election campaign: blue banners with the sun symbol for the Isla party or the horse symbol for the party currently in power fluttered in the wind, as if there were a festival, the festival of democracy.
I leave the country before the final results are known, though the first indications are that the government party has won the majority of seats, but to be honest I am more interested in other things. I am reasonably sure, in fact, that the elections have taken place in a substantially regular, free manner. There have been a few incidents, and the ruling party has probably used various instruments of pressure to maintain power. But the mere fact that the people of Yemen, alone in this part of the world, have been able to choose their government in the respect (at least the formal respect) of freedom and secrecy, is of remarkable importance. This does not mean that Yemen is an earthly paradise or a fully-accomplished democracy. There is still a long way to go. I have read the worrying Amnesty International reports on torture, and I have always denounced the humiliation and violence to which Yemeni women are subjected. But despite these shortcomings the long process towards democracy is underway: it represents an uncomfortable model for the neighbouring countries, and its failure would bring great joy and relief to a lot of dictators and fanatics.
The outgoing Foreign Minister, whom I meet the day after the elections, is convinced of this: together we discuss the Community of Democracies, an initiative in which I strongly believe and on which the Transnational Radical Party is working hard. Yemen was relegated by the Council of the CoD to “observer” status due, among other reasons- to the troubles during the 2001 elections; the government is now determined not only to win back its previous status, but also to become an active party to the initiative, supporting the extension of the current group of 10 convening countries and a review of the criteria for membership to make them more transparent and also open to appeal.
It is therefore now urgent that Europe should finally be politically involved, at the highest levels, in the developments in this country, supporting the delicate process towards democracy, and not only through financial aid, however invaluable and substantial. A tangible sign of this new interest would undoubtedly be the opening of a European Union delegation in Yemen. I hope that President Prodi will manage to find a place, among his many priorities, to fulfil immediately this commitment that the European Commission made several years ago, perhaps with the support of the Italian presidency in the second half of this year.