Future of Yemen’s Islamic Political Movement [Archives:1998/29/Focus]

July 20 1998

This is an OPINION page.
Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue!
Dr. Adel Al-Sharjabi,
Department of Sociology,
Sanaa University
Since its official establishment, the Yemeni Congregation for Reform (Islah) – the epitome of the Islamic movement in Yemen, it forged strong alliances with three social powers – tribal sheikhs, conservative intellectuals, and the mercantile bourgeoisie. These three groups, by virtue of their political, social and economic interests and the nature of their social inclinations, tend to protect and preserve the existing order. Not only that, but they also try to direct the regime to preserve the status quo.
This policy, clearly epitomized by the Islah today, can also be traced to the early days of the formation of Islamic movements in the late 1960s. In those days, though still underground, formed an alliance with the ruling authority or with one of its important blocs.
The main goals of such alliances can be specified as follows:
– confronting the ruling authority in southern Yemen;
– facing up to the growing pan-Arab and left-wing parties in the north; and
– resisting the armed struggle waged by the left-wing parties’ armed factions.
These objectives had both regional and international backing within an overall international strategy of containing and confronting the so-called tide of communism.
With the advent of Yemeni unity in May, 1990, one of the main reasons for the alliance between the ruling authority and the Islamic movement was eroded. This was further eroded when one of the ruling coalition partners – the People’s General Congress (PGC) – came out victorious from the war in July 1994. Thus, the PGC was able to rid itself of the need of the Islamic movement as an ally, despite the fact that the alliance remained on paper.
The military regimes that ruled Sanaa can scarcely be called religious or even conservative. That is why they were not comfortable with a religious ally. As a matter of fact, the ruling authority’s attempts to distance itself from the Islamic movement can be traced back to 1982 when the PGC was first established. Some of the steps taken towards that end included:
– transforming the PGC from an elitist organization into a more popular one;
– strengthening the military establishment and ensuring its loyalty; and
– creating new interests and common goals with a large segment of the middle class, and closely associating them with the interests of the ruling elite.
These measures and several others led, for the first time in Yemen’s modern history, to turning the ruling elite into a group unified by joint interests. This helped in getting rid of rival political forces.
Therefore, any possible danger that could threaten the ruling authority in the future, will come from the Islamic movement. That is why researchers expect the alliance between the ruling PGC and the Islamic movement, represented by the Yemeni Congregation for Reform (Islah), will become weaker during the next few years. Consequently, the PGC will work to curb the popularity of the Islamic movement in the country.
Actually, the ruling authority has already taken several measures to limit the role of the Islamic movement. These steps include the following:
– the armed confrontations with the hard-liners in the Islamic movement in 1995 in Taiz, Ibb, Aden, Lahaj, Abyan, Shabwa, and Hadhramaut;
– deporting of many non-Yemeni Muslim extremists known as the “Arab Afghans;
– ousting the hard-liners from many vital military positions and and para-military camps, and confiscating the weapons and ammunition they had acquired during the 1994 war;
– filling up the gap left by the defeated leaders of the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) in the southern governorates with some of former sultans of the south, who returned to Yemen after unification and who were reinstated over their former sultanates and were enrolled in the PGC.
Those and other steps have limited the ambitions of the extremist Islamic movements in the country, notably, Jihad Organizations, which began to grow after the civil war.
Generally speaking, political and social developments in Yemeni society do not favor the Islamic movement. The raison d’etre of the very movement itself has withered away, because of:
A- The ousting of the YSP from authority, which it had shared with the PGC, leading to the diminishing importance of the PGC-Islah alliance. This development has cost the Islamic movement one of its most important ideological hypotheses – fighting communism. This “fight” was for a long time a major factor in attracting people disgruntled with the regime in the south.
B- Islah’s participation in the coalition government during the period of economic crisis following the 1994 war; the cessation of Arab aid after the Gulf crisis of August, 1990; and the absence of any decisive stand by Islah representatives in government and parliament regarding corruption have all exposed them as yet another party. In the views of the general public, Islah is now seen as no better or even different than any other political parties. Many people used to regard Islah as the “savior” from corruption, poverty and the deterioration in living standards. That illusion is no more.
C- The contradiction between Islah’s ideological discourse and its actual political practices is gradually eroding its popularity. For example, Islah used to strongly criticize what it called the ‘policy of sharing public posts’ between the PGC and the YSP following the re-unification of the country in 1990. However, when the Islah replaced the YSP in authority, it practiced the same policy of sharing public posts with the PGC.
D- The absence of a clear and unified political program which is shared by the various colours and groups of factions in the Islamic movement in Yemen, has made some activists commit acts that are harmful to the overall movement. Such acts reflected negatively on the followers of Islah itself as it faces the Islamic movement.
That is why the Islamic movement is losing followers steadily over time.
E- The continuing alliance between the Islamic movement and tribal sheikhs will, in the long term, curb the movement’s growth, because the sheikhs’ negative image.
It is necessary for the Islamic movement to accurately re-formulate its relations with the tribes. In the long term, amalgamating the Islamic movement with the tribal establishment will lead to the triumph of brute force over intellect. This is already happening as tribal leaders have repeatedly shown they are in charge, at the expense of the ideological and intellectual leaders of the movement.
This will eventually empty the Islamic movement of its content for the benefit of the tribal establishment, limiting the movement’s popularity to tribal areas. Thus, the Islamic movement will lose its backbone; being a unifying force in a divided society. So the association between the Islamic movement and the tribal structure in Yemen will eventually lead to the movement losing its ability to unify the people. People from areas where there is no strong tribal influence will then view the Islamic movement as not representing their interests.
Generally speaking, this is in the short term. In the medium and longer terms, however, the Islamic movement in Yemen is capable of playing an important political role. The current political parties – more than 40 of them – is liable to recede. The country’s political map will be re-drawn with some of the weaker parties leaving the political arena. Other parties will merge to form fronts and umbrella groups.
Rivalry will then be limited to two main blocks: an enlightened Islamic movement and a modernist liberal group. This possibility, however, is subject to the adherence by the Islamicists to democratic practices. They should denounce both physical and intellectual violence and intimidation. Resorting to violence will weaken the movement and reduce the possibility of its growth. This is especially so in view of the trends adopted by the “new world order” and the regional tendencies that do not favor the spread of Islamic extremism and fundamentalism.