Dr. Saqqaf to Al-Khaleej “The tribal system is the central part of conventional powers for it has very influential authority” [Archives:2000/23/Interview]

June 5 2000

More than 50 are the advisors to President Ali Abdullah Saleh, all grouped in a Consultative Council. However, few are those who have close and strong ties with him. Among those few members was the late Dr. Abdul-Aziz Al-Saqqaf who was said to be having strong ties with the president.
Dr. Abdul-Aziz Al-Saqqaf was constantly at conflict with the authority even before the declaration of Yemeni unity. He was well known for this objective opposition stands towards the government. In his interview with the UAE Al-Khaleej, late Dr. Al-Saqqaf said that of all the different political powers and parties that he came to have contacted, he found out President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the PGC easier to deal with.
As Head of the Human Rights and Freedoms Committee in the Consultative Council, Dr. Al-Saqqaf found himself closer to people’s concerns and authority practices against them. This position gave him a better insight and knowledge of internal conditions.
In the course of the interview, Dr. Al-Saqqaf explained the President’s approach in dealing with the conventional and modern power centers commenting that, without the president’s support, they would be left high and dry. Sadiq Nasher, Al-Khaleej correspondent in Sana’a met him in 1998 and conducted the following interview. Yemen Times republish this interview because of its importance.

Al-Khaleej: Dr. Abdul-Aziz, being a leading politician as member of the Consultative Council, how do you view the political situation in country?
Dr. Al-Saqqaf: I can say that there is a moral conflict on where to go next? There are some parties that try to make things go back as to where they were in the past, old-fashioned and traditional or at least hinder development and openness. Of course, there are local and external pressures pressing to continuity of open-door policies, democracy and freedom and prevalence of the state of law and order.
Therefore, we can perceive some sort of an unseen conflict in which the president is the judge. He is the man who makes or breaks the deal. As a result, we are experiencing a period of debate over the system’s identity. This explains the efforts aimed at development and advancement that are also permeated with setbacks and retreats.
In my personal assessment, there is no running in confusion but rather a kind of pulling in opposite directions between two mentalities, two visions and concepts: a concept intending to integrate Yemen in modern contemporary life, including openness and integration with world economy and modern political systems, and another vision clinging to the systems known to it with their ossified traditions, norms and sovereignty.
Yemen is now living amidst these two mentalities and advocates of both these mentalities are trying to attract president Saleh to their camps. President Saleh is playing the game very shrewdly. He meets some demands of this party and some of the other’s, but did not part company with either mentalities or camps.

Al-Khaleej: For how long do you think President Ali Saleh would remain the judge? When would he join up with one of the mentioned camps?
Dr. Al-Saqqaf: I am quite confident that the president would never team up with any of the two power centers unless the situation goes out of his control. I am concerned that the president might be laying a wager on extra time for the situation to unveil. Truly, I am afraid that we might not see him plainly stand for any of the camps.

Al-Khaleej: Why this fear, are there indicators?
Dr. Al-Saqqaf: We are running out of time. Yemen is undergoing difficult economic conditions, varying social situations as well as changing cultural values and international relations. Yemen is demanded to define its position and the regime has to define its stand. Otherwise, Yemen will find difficulties in improving its local and foreign relations.
This stand makes us fluctuant. Many times you would find Yemen at the forefront of the countries adopting modern systems such as press freedom, political plurality and human rights. However, when it comes to practice we rank the last. We even lag behind countries that do not announce support these values and concepts.
This fluctuation mars the identity of the Yemeni Society as a government and a society. I do not know for how long can we hold on in the middle of this fluctuation. If things do not change, sure the worse will win and this could be a catastrophe.

Who rules Yemen?
Al-Khaleej: In some of your statements you mentioned that centers of power rule Yemen and not government institutions Now, what the role that modernization powers play in the midst of this conflict?
Dr. Al-Saqqaf: Modernization powers are still novice and cannot fight this battle. They are similar to other young modernization powers in the world which start off disjointed and lacking organization.
Modernization powers include university professors, lawyers, journalists, doctors, businessmen as well as people of the middle class. However, members of this power lack means of communication since each one is consumed in their own business. On the other hand, the conventional powers are strong and powerful. Therefore, the conventional powers have strong influence on decision-making whereas the modernization powers remain ineffective. For example, the president chose to appoint me as a Capital Secretariat but conventional powers collaborated to change it and they succeeded. Another example is what happened with Dr. Faraj Bin Ghanim. The president appointed him Prime Minister to lead the reform process. Later, however, he had to accept his resignation under pressures of these powers.
More than a few times the president adopted skilled persons whom he gave away soon after. This proves that he is still linked to both powers.

Al-Khaleej: Do you want to say that the tribal system in Yemen determines the fate of the country?
Dr. Abdul-Aziz: The tribal system is the central part of conventional powers for it has very influential authority. We hoped that the involvement of the tribal system in investment, trade and economic sectors would gradually merge it with the modernization powers. Unfortunately, it either will take a long time which we are in short of, or they would employ the new economic power to strengthen their tribal power. So it sounds as if conventional powers will remain dominant in all cases.
Aside from Sheikhs and tribes, the conventional camp includes high-ranking officers. These latter exercise different levels of pressure and they might be even more stubborn than Sheikhs. There are also some religious groups which belong to this camp. I say to these groups that Islam calls for openness and rightfulness. Our religion is made to work in any place and in all times. It is not rigid but rather adaptable with the needs of human beings.
These are the three main groups that form the conventional camp. We can also add to these partisan individuals who hold high certificates.

Al-Khaleej: You have stated that the mentioned power centers are attempting to contain the president’s policies. To what degree do you think this would affect the president’s image in the eyes of the public?
Dr. Al-Saqqaf: President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been ruling Yemen for 20 years now. During this long period, he maintained his position through a form of social contract with power centers rather than people. Despite the fact that president Saleh is a simple person who tries to give a hand to the entire Yemeni society. Needless to say that the ruling system in Yemen, which based on a contract between the president and conventional powers, prevents him being so close to people. I am sorry to say that the public opinion and society always remain outside the court of the game.
Therefore, I tend to believe that the president will remain connected to these powers. At some point these powers will change and will be replaced by other ones. In his turn, the president will support these new powers which at advanced stages would serve him in return.
This contract has created a high level of stability and security. Still, this did not bring about the advancement and luxury that people yearned for.

Al-Khaleej: Do your think this stability is temporary? In another words, do you expect that several internal developments and factors will evolve after which the president would find himself unaccompanied?
Dr. Al-Saqqaf: I cannot be sure of that. Until this moment power centers have given the president all that he asked for. For instance, during the period of the old traditional system, power centers were able to stand against the national front in the central district (north part) and the intrusion attempts of the former southern regime against the system in the north.
In the new system, the power centers gave way to the president demands during the elections. So, it is the power centers that brought about the great success of the PGC and not the society. The reason behind this is that power centers have a strong influence, whether positively or negatively, on the public opinion.
Consequently, the president finds that being associated with the power centers facilitates the accomplishments of his goals. Logically, it would be unwise for him to give them away. No one can tell how long this relation will stay. Again I say there will be new power centers and the relation will continue. The president supports power centers and in return they serve his interests.

Al-Khaleej: Can we say that the opposite applies here?
Dr. Al-Saqqaf: No, because once these powers decide to disengage from this contract, they become powerless. The contract states that the president allows them power in their respective sectors and they become fully loyal to him.

Al-Khaleej: Aren’t you afraid that the equation would turn around and power centers become on top?
Dr. Al-Saqqaf: Only Allah knows what the future hides. I cannot predict what would happen but I have faith that none of the power centers can be of serious threat to the president. Therefore, the real bargain is to win the president to our side and not power centers. I can ascertain that if modernization powers win the president fully to their side, then the modernization project would surely be the victor.

Al-Khaleej: Does that mean that you point a condemning finger at modernization powers which you are member of?
Dr. Al-Saqqaf:: Yes, I certainly do. We all make mistakes and I am partially responsible like every body else in the modernization wave. It is a fact that we cannot and won’t succeed without the president’s support.
We need to show the president that we can stand by him to create a better future for Yemen. Modernization powers mean freedom, democracy and constructive assimilation with the world. These are the powers which can create a modern Yemen that president Ali Abdullah Saleh would be proud of.

Al-Khaleej: Where doe Dr. Abdul-Aziz Al-Saqqaf stand in this confusion?
Dr. Al-Saqqaf: I am one of the decision-making people in the country. I participate through teaching students in the university. I was the fourth Yemeni professor in the university. I have been working as professor for 17 years now starting in 1970.
I can affect the public opinion by means of my students and the Yemen Times newspaper. I also participate in steering and making the public opinion. My position in the Consultative Council gives me the advantage of being close to the head of the authority and other members as well. In addition, I effectively participate in more than 30 non-governmental organizations. I believe I am the first person who has membership in 12 organizations and active in others. Furthermore, I have a wide international network of connections and only few people in Yemen can have such a connection for I am fluent in both English and French and work in using computer and advanced technology.
In brief I have a big role in influencing the public opinion. What is frustrating, however, is that the public opinion is impotent in Yemen. In democratic countries the political decision is influenced by the public opinion whereas in Yemen we are still far from this. Therefore, we have to attempt to influence decision-making people.