Khaled Fattah to Yemen Times: “Yemeni tribes are ancient reliable safety networks closer to the people than the state system” [Archives:2008/1172/Reportage]

July 14 2008
Khaled Fattah
Khaled Fattah
Nadia Al-Sakkaf
Nadia Al-Sakkaf interviewed Khaled Fattah, a doctoral researcher specializing in state and society relations in the Arab Middle East and a tutor of international relations, foreign policy and history of the Middle East at the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom.

In addition to his academic background in international relations, Khaled Fattah holds several degrees in the fields of the politics of development strategies, intercultural studies and cross-cultural psychology. Below, he elaborates on the relationship between Islam and democracy and the future of the tribe in Yemeni political life.

Why did you choose “contextual determinants of political modernization in tribal communities” as your doctoral thesis?

By all conventional measurements of modernization and development – from education and communication to bureaucracy and urbanization – Arab societies have been undergoing an impressive socioeconomic transformation.

However, there's a gap between this transformation and the political consequences of modernization. In other words, the Arab Middle East exhibits a sharp contrast between its societal and political progress.

My doctoral thesis attempts to discover why such a gap exists in those Arab republics with significant tribal populations. My choice of a contextual approach is based on my conviction that contextualization transcends the simplistic and essentialist narratives unfortunately constituting a popular framework for many Western academic works and journalistic reports about the Arab Middle East in the hysterical post-Sept. 11 world.

The choice of tribal political communities is made for several reasons, the first of which is that in such communities, the dilemma of state formation in the Arab world is very prominent. Second, within these communities are obvious contradictions between tribal and state attachments.

Third, in the aftermath of the atrocities of Sept. 11, a plethora of journalistic reports, policy and strategic papers highlight an intimate relationship between tribalism, authoritarianism and terrorism.

A hostile attitude toward tribalism in the region intensified even more following the disastrous failure of the United States' geopolitical project in Iraq.

In my thesis, I question this misconception regarding the link between militant Islamism and tribalism in the region and I attempt to furnish a better understanding of the role of tribalism in shaping the process of political modernization.

In a nutshell, my research is an attempt to critically reexamine the current popular interpretation of political modernization in tribal Arab republics.

Why is Yemen one of the countries you're researching and what are the particularities of the Yemeni community that aren't present in any other community, in your opinion?

For me as a researcher with an interest in exploring state-society relations in the Arab Middle East, there scarcely could be a more appropriate part of the region in which to study the influence of the tribe in shaping the process of political modernization and the mode of governance than the Republic of Yemen.

Tribes in this republic remain dominant systems of cultural meaning and the imprint of tribal values is evident in the state's political structure and decision-making process.

The important role of tribes and the strength of tribalism in Yemen are so evident in the political structure and the decision-making process to the extent that its president even admits that the Yemeni state “is part of the tribes.”

He further notes that Yemenis are a collection of tribes and that the nation's cities and countryside areas are all tribes. He adds that all of the state's official and popular apparatuses “are formed from tribes and tribesmen.”

Such presidential statements not only are a strong political assertion of tribal political culture, but also an indication of how the balance of power between the state and the tribe in Yemen sometimes strongly tips toward the latter.

The tribe's continuous prominent political role in shaping Yemen's modern sociopolitical life is indeed a unique formula within the Middle East laboratory of state-society relations.

It's worth remembering that Yemen is one of only four countries in the world – alongside Egypt, Persia and China – that can claim three millennia of more or less continuous culture. In such an ancient society governed by a newly-established and externally-imposed modern state system is an obvious tense relationship between its ancient tribal and modern national identities.

In addition to what I've already mentioned are various aspects making unified Yemen a unique specimen within the Arab political aquarium. To begin with, it is the only Arab nation born out of the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Second, united Yemen is a unique fusion of completely opposing political orientations between the only Marxist Arab state ever to exist and the most tribal and conservative Arab state.

Third, compared to other Arab states, Yemen scores extremely low on every development index. However, at the democracy level, it allows party pluralism and a degree of freedom of expression not found in the Arabian Peninsula or even in some Arab republics.

Finally, united Yemen is an excellent case study of the war variable and regional factors in state formation and de-formation in the Middle East. Yemen not only is an enigma to anthropologists of the Middle East, but to political scientists as well.

You reflect on the classical modernization theory in the sense that in order for developing nations to move forward, they must leave behind their traditional structures and systems. However, Yemen has taken its traditional structures with it into the future, so how do you explain this?

Classical modernization theory positions primordial attachments such as tribalism in direct conflict with civil loyalties and stresses their incompatibility with full participation in a modern nation-state. The theory assumes that such attachments are unpragmatic pre-national identifications soon replaced by class consciousness and citizenship awareness.

In modernization theory, the political manifestations and consequences of modernization, similar to socio-cultural and economic ones, are explained within a hegemonic discourse whose terms have been dictated largely by the Western academy.

According to the theory, one can identify three main changes at the heart of the political modernization process, the first of which is replacing traditional authorities (e.g., religious, tribal, regional, local) with a single state authority that's democratic, secular and national. Such an authority should rationalize its authority in a manner that asserts its internal and external sovereignty.

Second is developing specialized, autonomous, elaborate and disciplined structures capable of performing the state's new differentiated functions. The third change involves developing new political institutions (e.g., political parties) to carry out the task of stimulating and organizing political participation and the practice of democracy.

However, in Yemen, it has become evident that the launch of modernization in the 1960s has aggravated pre-national identities such as tribalism and intensified state-society conflicts over allocating economic goods.

Furthermore, state-led reconstruction of tribalism and manipulation of the tribe continue to be a prominent feature in contemporary Yemeni politics.

After years of academic engagement with Yemen's sociopolitical life, I realize that one useful way to grasp Yemen's case is to appreciate Ibn Khaldoun's views regarding the impact of the physical location of tribes on determining the degree of governance from the core.

According to him, living in desert regions and inaccessible mountain areas has helped tribes acquire the skill of escaping their obligations to the state, especially when the central government is weak. Khaldoun's term for those areas under formal state control is “lands of treasury,” and for those peripheral areas dominated by tribes, “lands of dissidence.”

Today's academic agreement with Khaldoun appears in the argument that ancient Middle Eastern forms of social identification, such as tribalism, persist in peripheral areas beyond state control or in rural areas where the state practices indirect governance through tribal authorities.

Another valid Khaldounian view regards the dynamic yet opposing equilibrium between tribal nomads (Bedu) and settlers (hadar). Because tribes are difficult to tax and they constitute a physical threat to the hadar, central governments regard them with suspicion. Throughout Middle Eastern history, the Bedu-hadar relationship has always been characterized by mutual mistrust, but at the same time, by mutual need.

Classical modernization theory fails to explain Yemen's case simply because Yemen doesn't display a simple two-stage progression from a traditional tribal-based system to a modern political community. For instance, the Yemeni state doesn't displace existing tribal society nor does it halt exercising power along traditional lines.

In this sense, Yemen represents a case of synthesis between political modernity and ancient tribal Arab values and structures; therefore, it's a typical case of hybrid modernization. In Yemen, tradition and modernity aren't opposites!

Who rules Yemen – the state, the tribe or both together, and how?

This question reminds me of the old Yemeni saying that says “Ruling Yemen is like riding a lion!” This is indeed a central question that many observers of Yemen have attempted to answer by evaluating Yemen's state-building process in order to determine whether the Yemeni state is strong enough to rule over the tribes.

Most available findings indicate that on the basis of the understanding that a state is a common set of institutions capable of distributing goods and providing services, enforcing decisions, maintaining law and order and extracting taxes within its internationally recognized territory, the Yemeni state is the weakest in the Middle East.

This means that state institutions in Yemen are unable to fully penetrate and regulate the tribes. However, this doesn't mean the Yemeni state is just a tribe with a flag, as some wrongly argue; rather, tribal banners in Yemen fly next to the national flag.

Turning to the tribes in Yemen, we should be aware that the distinction between tribal and non-tribal in no significant way corresponds to nomads and settlers. Yemeni tribes do not move; in fact, the majority of tribal populations in Yemen are farmers.

Yemen's tribal reality amplifies the mistake some Western academics make in treating the tribe as a far much simpler unit than the state and as an entity occupying a lower rung on the evolutionary ladder of political life.

This wrong evolutionary approach has been rejected, since it's clear that tribes and the state in Yemen, as in other parts of the Middle East, lead to the formation and sustaining of each other. As a result, many recent scholarly works have begun to transcend the traditional state-tribe dichotomy by criticizing the notion of the state as an autonomous political actor.

According to these new works, the state is simply a political field upon which many actors, including tribes, compete for resources and influence. In light of this, one can argue that the politicization of Yemeni tribes isn't an attempt by the tribes to overthrow the state and replace it with tribal order; rather, it's an attempt to extract maximum political concessions and economic benefits from the state.

Historically, the powerful political position of today's Yemeni tribes has its roots in the Saudi and Egyptian military and financial support of the Yemeni tribes during the nation's civil war in the 1960s. Following the toppling of Northern Yemen's President Abdullah Al-Salaal in the aftermath of the 1967 withdrawal of Egyptian troops, tribal infiltration of state institutions began to expand, peaking during the regime of Abdul Rahman Al-Eryani (1967-1974).

Regime after regime in North Yemen did what the imams did – namely, rally the tribes. In other words, as one Yemeni academic put it, Yemenis succeeded in getting rid of the imam, but not the imamate mentality.

Today, Yemeni tribes not only have become a very powerful political entity, but also the most important mediating national institution mainly because since the first day of its birth, tribes strongly penetrated the North Yemeni state.

An observer of Yemen reflects on the impact of such penetration, arguing that today's Yemeni state behaves like a tribe, while the tribe behaves like a state.

In my opinion, many signs indicate that the Yemeni state slowly is gaining strength, particularly in the security sector, but it's not yet in a position allowing it to exercise supreme political authority over its tribes. Rather, today's Yemen is ruled by a state still in the making that compensates its limited power by co-opting tribal leaders.

In one of your articles on decentralization, you wrote, “The existing dilemma of local governance in Yemen will get worse as long as the policies of central government are not driven by demand from local citizens.” Can you explain this further?

Decentralization is much more than transferring fiscal and administrative responsibilities from central to local levels of governance. Above all, decentralization is about empowering local populations to control those conditions, plans and actions that affect their daily lives and aspirations.

The decentralization dilemma I had in mind relates to those seasonal but loudly advertised central government-designed projects imposed upon citizens living outside the capital city. Such projects are doomed to fail if locals don't feel any ownership about them.

Experiences in other parts of the developing world have shown that successful decentralization projects were implemented in local communities where central government officials reassigned roles at the local, regional and central levels, removed obstacles to self-help, encouraged the empowerment of women, introduced a clear concept of accountability, prevented local elites from abusing their power and allowed local solutions to emerge in response to common problems.

Unfortunately, Yemen still has a long way to go on the road to democratic decentralization of governance. But it must be said that, like their fellow humans everywhere across the globe, Yemenis will support decentralization of governance when it responds to their immediate needs and brings them tangible and direct socioeconomic benefits.

What do you mean by “the state uses the tribal system to legitimize its existence?” Does this mean that in the long run, Yemen won't be able to exist without tribes?

Legitimacy is strongly linked to the concept of consent, meaning that every regime or political authority needs its citizens' acceptance in order to survive and be able to widen its sphere of influence.

One of the best metaphors to explain political legitimacy is one used by prominent political scientist Robert Dahl, who employed the metaphor of a reservoir. As long as the reservoir remains at a certain level, political stability can be maintained; however, if it falls below the required level, it is endangered.

Yemen's harsh political reality reveals that without tribal support, no regime can acquire legitimacy, thus, the level of political stability falls sharply. It may be of interest to know that there are three main sources of legitimacy for all regimes and governments worldwide, the first of which is the so-called charismatic authority, which grants legitimacy based on a political leader's charisma. Egypt's Gamal Abdul Nasser is a good example of this type of legitimacy.

A second source is traditional authority. The monarchal systems in Jordan, Morocco and the Arabian Peninsula derive their legitimacy primarily from this second source.

Finally, there is rational/legal authority, which provides governments a type of legitimacy based on a well-known and highly respected set of laws and principals. To say the least, this third source of legitimacy isn't really popular in the Arab Middle East.

Looking at Yemen in the post-imamate era reveals that neither charisma nor traditional authority supply political legitimacy; instead, Yemen's political regimes, particularly the current regime, derive their legitimacy by relying on an extensive web of tribal, military and commercial complexities.

Thus, Yemen's future political life depends on the particular source of legitimacy and the path of modernization and human development that Yemen's political elites will choose.

Is democracy an Islamic concept?

Much ink has been used to discuss the compatibility of Islam and democracy. Briefly, we can divide the vast and varied spectrum of literature that has addressed this issue into two main traditions, the first of which presumes a serious conflict between Islam and democracy.

According to this tradition, Islamic values contain something inherently undemocratic that makes it impossible for Islamic societies to develop Western culture's dualism of church and state, spiritual and temporal authority.

The second tradition argues that there are ample grounds for skepticism regarding the claim that democracy conflicts with Islam. To support this argument, advocates of this tradition often point to the Islamic concepts of shoura (consultation), ijtihad (independent interpretive judgment) and ijma (consensus) and how such concepts are very compatible with democracy.

However, there's a fundamental problem in the nature of much of the debate between these two traditions – namely, the contrasting of the norms, values and core assumptions of Arab/Muslim societies with the values, principals and practices of Western democracy.

This approach misses the point that the key to understanding the Arab/Muslim world's transition to democracy lies in the type and context of state-society relations in the region, not in the type and context of Muslim societal norms, values and assumptions.

It's not Islam that makes the Arab Middle East resistant to the waves of democracy and the winds of sociopolitical change; rather, it's the region's authoritarian regimes that don't allow room for dissent and fail to provide the majority of Arab citizens dignity and social justice.

It's the acute shortage of the state's devolution of power to social actors and the politics of patronage and disempowerment that should be blamed, not Islam. The level of democracy isn't determined by the type of religion but rather by the degree of autonomy the state grants to society.

The debate about the link between Islam and democracy also can be criticized for downplaying or totally ignoring facts concerning other religions, for example, in Israel, where religion and state are not separate.

Introducing Christian values in Africa and Latin America did not bring democracy, political stability and human development to the peoples in those places. Regardless of religion, race, language or ethnicity, democracy is foreign to no part of the world and Arab/Muslim societies are no exceptions.

How do you view the ideological division of Yemeni society in terms of those affiliated to tribes and those more civilized or modernized communities where the tribal structure has diminished? How do you describe the interaction between tribal and civil communities in Yemen?

In every society on earth are tendencies toward change and those toward preserving tradition. The latter tendency often blames modernity for all social ills and problems, while the former accuses tradition of being the reason for backwardness and stagnation.

For this reason, the existing friction between tradition and modernity in Yemen should be examined through a global rather than a local prism.

What differentiates Yemen's case is the fact that, unlike in many parts of the world, the forces of modernity remain very weak in the face of strong tribal traditions. In my view, such weakness is attributed to the marginalization of modernizing forces in national politics and the weakness of state institutions.

Keeping in mind that Yemeni tribes are ancient reliable safety networks much closer to the people than the state system, I think the tribes will keep winning over the forces of social and political modernization as long as political elites are unable or unwilling to lead Yemenis to the path of social, economic and political progress in the 21st century.

You said earlier that political parties are a modern description of the tribal system. Do you think this is an exaggeration, especially given that Yemen's political system allows for party pluralism?

What I meant was the strong tribal infiltration of Yemeni political parties, which as one Yemeni academic put it, has led to the tribalization of parties.

For researchers of political modernization, such infiltration is quite confusing because political parties are modern political institutions offering citizens membership on a voluntary basis, while tribes are ancient socio-cultural entities with membership determined by blood ties.

This is just one more unique political reality in Yemen, which begs the question: Despite nearly two decades of party pluralism, why can Yemeni tribes do without political parties, but the political parties can't do without the tribes?

You've said in some of your articles that a tribe sometimes serves as a buffer to protect citizens from the state. What do you mean by that?

A panoramic view of the landscape of state-society relations in the Arab Middle East reflects that the degree of state despotism in Yemen is far less than in the rest of the region.

In the absence of a strong civil society and rule of law, the power of Yemeni tribes versus the state creates a type of balance between the central authority and society. In other words, the Yemeni state thinks twice before acting against an individual with a strong tribal backing.

In an interview I conducted with a prominent Yemeni scholar, he told me about a meeting he had with exiled moderate Tunisian Islamist, Rashid Al-Ganoushi, during which Al-Ganoushi said, “I wish I had a tribe because if I'd had one, I wouldn't have been exiled!”

What do you hope your research proves and how would you like decision makers to use your findings?

I hope to prove that the essential starting point in studying the process of political modernization in tribal Arab republics should be an appreciation of the inherent tensions in nation-building and state formation in newly established modern states governing ancient tribal-based societies.

Therefore, analyzing political modernization in such nations should be done in light of the fact that tribalism is an alternate structure more available to those societies recently incorporated into the Western-dominated world economy, politics and culture.

Political tribalism in the Arab Middle East is the outcome of the fact that the state and the tribe have articulated with each other within complex and multifaceted external/internal contexts.

Political modernization – and thus democracy – must learn extremely well the languages and histories of those nations it visits. The disastrous failure of the U.S. project in Iraq is illustrative of the fatal consequences of cultural ignorance and historical amnesia.

What we hear in today's Iraq is not the marching of modernization and democracy, but rather the marching of U.S. troops, and the cries of innocent Iraqi civilians.

By presenting Yemen's case within its cultural, economic and political contexts, I hope to refute the current influential essentialist vision regarding modernization and democracy in the tribal republics of the Middle East.

I'd also like to present Western readers and researchers indigenous views by Arab academics, politicians and activists. One finding of my research that I'd like Western political decision makers and international organizations to consider when dealing with modernization and democratization in the Arab Middle East is that Arab/Islamic culture isn't an impediment to transition to democracy, but rather, Western preconditions of modernization are out of context in places like Yemen because such preconditions don't coincide with the shared set of social meanings, regional/international interventions and domestic economic conditions there.