“Friends of Yemen Need to  Come to Its Support Now.” [Archives:1999/17/Law & Diplomacy]

April 26 1999

On Friday April 16th, Professor Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf, Chief Editor of Yemen Times, made a presentation to a large gathering of experts and officials on the “New Role of the Media in the Context of New Technologies.” The event in Montreal was co-organized by UNESCO, Orbicom, and the Universities of Quebec and Montreal.
On Monday, April 19th, Dr. Saqqaf gave another address organized by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) in Ottawa. The occasion was attended by Canadian officials from the Foreign Ministry, CIDA, NGOs, and various think-tank organizations. He talked about the twin-transformation in Yemen – political democratization and economic reforms, and the interaction between Yemen and the donor community, especially Canada.
The following is a summary of the second presentation.
It is a pleasure to be back in Ottawa among old friends. I am especially indebted to Dr. Norman Cook at CIDA, and the various friends from the Foreign Office.
I shall limit my address to two reasons why Canada should engage in Yemen more actively. But first, let me start with a brief history.
On May 22nd, 1990, the political parties that controlled the former Yemen Arab Republic (People’s General Congress) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (Yemen Socialist Party) decided to re-unite the nation. They found that the only system that would allow them to co-exist was a multi-party political system. Thus, our democratization process started.
Since then, the country’s roller-coaster ride on this path has been anything but steady. We have had a civil war, a tremendous effort to reign-in opposition parties, crackdown on the press, co-option of NGOs, etc. But, the seeds of democracy continue to endure. They are even growing.
I believe the reason behind this tug of war is a philosophical gap in the understanding of our leaders of the meaning of democracy and its mechanisms. This is true even of those who studied in the West.
In my opinion, the tools of democracy – elections, press freedom, transparency, accountability, NGOs, etc. – are all important mechanisms to manage change. The basic tenet of a democratic system is that change is inevitable and necessary, and that such change must be managed peacefully and gradually.
Thus, it has little meaning to apply the tools of democracy without arriving at at least some of its objectives. What is the meaning of elections if they bring no change? What is the meaning of press freedom if there is no accountability? What is the meaning of NGOs if their leaders are appointed by the authorities?
Thus, we witness relentless efforts by some elements in the regime to turn the clock backwards, so far unsuccessfully. That is because even as the efforts for a reversal continue, the forces of democracy continue to develop roots and grow.
Reason Number One: Critical Mass for Democratization:
In my opinion, as our world gets ready to cross over into a new millennium, Yemen is approaching new cross roads. An adequate level of critical mass has been created to allow the democratization process to achieve a new milestone. In my opinion, the next watershed has to do with the attitude and perception of the ruling power center. If President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his men accept that their powers are limited to only influencing people and events rather than controlling them, then the process will reach new highs. If the rulers of Yemen continue to seek to control events and people, then our democratization will face more difficulties.
It is here and now that the foreign friends of Yemen can come to the nation’s assistance. A regime visibly beholden to foreign aid-partners and international relations will definitely pay attention to the position of countries like Canada. Such nudging by the friends of Yemen will allow a redefining of the structures and roles of the various actors in the transformation process. It will also allow new approaches and attitudes towards the concepts and tools of democracy.
Reason Number Two: Difficult Neighborhood:
At this time in history, Yemen finds itself in a difficult neighborhood. On the Arab side, most countries are ruled by authoritarian systems in which the ruler draws legitimacy through divine providence. In other words,the rulers are accountable to God, not to the people. Their main job and first priority is to uphold their vision of God’s dictates, not the interests of the people. On the African side, there is a lot of turmoil and instability. There is a civil war in the Sudan. Eritrea and Ethiopia are at war. Somalia is plagued by another civil war. There are visible cracks in Kenya, etc.
The success of the transformation process of Yemen thus can play a dual role. On the Arab side, it spearheads the democratization process and offers a model. It is no secret that since the Yemeni process was unleashed, many of the countries of the region have slowly moved towards democracy. Qatar had municipal elections, Oman embarked on parliamentary elections. Even Saudi Arabia now has some sort of parliament. For Africa, a successful Yemen (read, stable) offers an important window to work to bring back peace and stability. Yemen, as the closest neighbor and one with historic links to East Africa, can play a constructive role in the return of sanity to that part of the world.
For those and other reasons, I believe Ottawa needs to engage Sanaa more visibly. Stronger cooperation between Canada and Yemen is an important vehicle for regional democratization and stability.