Misconceptions about Democracy [Archives:1999/38/Focus]

September 20 1999

Common Sense
By: Hassan Al-Haifi

While just the mere admission by a ruler that the position of Head of State is bound to be the object of public will and detriment in itself represents a significant breakthrough in the transformation of a country from autocratic rule to a viable democratic framework, it goes without saying that the process towards full democratic attainment and civil society in Yemen is far from being complete.
The latest “political campaign” effort for the Presidency of the Republic of Yemen seems to only underscore the need for substantial efforts to harness true political activism from downstream to upstream rather than from upstream to downstream, as the present political theatrics are flowing. There is no doubt in the mind of this observer that President Ali Abdullah Saleh is seriously desiring to have the election process for the office of the Presidency planted as a permanent institution in the political life of the Yemeni people and, it is the belief of this observer that this is a sincere desire of the President to gain a public mandate for his continuation as the undisputed leader of the country. In all fairness to him, this is an important step towards democratization. But, in all fairness to the Yemeni people and to the democratization process, should we acknowledge the fact that we have gone as far as we need, to feel satisfied that the people are really the reason and the source of the desire for full democratization of the process of electing our officials to the important positions of state, especially those officials who truly stand for the aspirations and the interests of the people they are professing to stand for.
If not for anything else, we must look at the present election for the office of the Presidency of the Republic of Yemen as another learning step towards the right path that will lead to the democratization of Yemen. After all, democratization is not an overnight process that can be put in a bowl and placed in the oven overnight to ferment from the leftover heat from the previous days cooking, and the next day we shall have a full democracy in full swing, i.e. like making yogurt. When studying the democratization process in the more advanced countries of the world, which coincidentally are the countries that hold the fate of the world in their hands now, despite their disproportionate weight in size, numbers and possession of the resources of the world Ð a result of nothing more than having fully matured institutionalized democratic governments, we understand that the democratization process is truly a reflection of experiences over the ages as to how to adjust political life in a country to the dictates and aspirations of the people being governed. In this kind of a situation, the wishes and the desires of the rulers become themselves nothing more than answering to these dictates and aspirations, setting their own selfish and narrow interests aside, and in fact believing that they themselves have to share these aspirations, in order to have any true meaning to their rule. In other words, when accepting to rule by the mandate of the people, it is impossible to believe that the interests of the people and the interests of the rulers should ever part ways and maybe meet once every election term, as seems to be the case now, as the campaign for the Presidency goes into full swing.
In an election campaign of any level, the prevailing issues of the nation are thrown to the floor, and it is usually those issues that seem to touch the people the most that are the subject of debate between the contesting candidates. We have seen some of this, surprisingly brought on by the hitherto unknown candidate, who as one observer puts it: “This guy really is beginning to really believes that the office is up for grabs, and that the few cheers he has gotten here and there provide enough momentum for him to become a true ‘opposition’ candidate. While perhaps the limited resources he has and the lack of control over any of the state institutions which the incumbent enjoys Ð and uses, to help in the campaign process, will never give the opponent the victory needed, and even if he is able to attain a sizable chunk of the expected very small turnout for what most are now convinced to be a staged political game, it goes without saying that Mr. Qahtan Al-Sha’abi is trying to make use of the process to fully reflect that the issues are really the important deciding factor in choosing the right candidate for the office of the Presidency, or any other office for that matter. Of course there are those who say that he is only playing his role as an opponent should, to justify his part in the game and to try to show that this is not the easy game that most people contend it to be. Nevertheless, the opponent has really chosen the right course notwithstanding the justification. Had there been more widespread awareness among the electorate, it would seem that the populist platform the “opponent” is embarking on would be more appealing than the continuation of a regime that has been beset by so many difficulties and challenges to its undisputed hold over the reigns of power in the country.
We have an opponent who is actually telling the people: “You have a choice: to continue the chaos and mismanagement that you have been going through for so many years, or to decide for a turn for the better, just by simply putting your vote for the other candidate. Here is your irreplaceable chance to say, enough is enough!”
But practically speaking, we know that the chances of the ‘opponent’ are very slim, given the poor political awareness among the general population, the use of the network of muscle and money which the existing regime has well-entrenched in an imprisoned society, that lacks the comprehension of the power of the vote and the means to assure that the power of that vote is not subject to any foul-play. Yet we must urge the opposing candidate to nurture this drive with all his might just to instill within the people that you can change things by simply thinking about what it means to vote and how to make sure that vote is truly the last resort for the people to get out of the mess we are in. It is not easy, especially when considering that the pressure put on by the machinery of the ruling regime is very strong and is not hesitant to make a mockery of what public will really means, and the public mandate it is seeking is nothing more than a superficial faade of what the democratic process is really all about.
The unfortunate factor that has a bearing on making this election what it should really mean, is that the many officials and even some of the enlightened ones among them have forgotten that they also can insist that this game should really be fair and really succumb to public feelings and aspirations. Regrettably, some have seen this as another chance to add more to the wealth they have accumulated and perhaps jump up another point or two in the hierarchy of a well entrenched regime of proponents of narrow interests and carpetbaggers, who have no ambitions in life except to amass as much wealth and status as possible, without any thought or meaning to the interests of the people and the aspirations they have for their country. For this reason, it is my strong belief that it is these people who are guilty of transferring the democratic process from a true reflection of public will to nothing more than another schema for the powerful elite to squeeze out of the government treasury whatever they can to further enrich their holdings and to add on to their false pretensions of power and influence. A friend of this observer had once asked a very important well-educated personality in the present reigning power structure: “If you people profess to be so close to the wielders of power and intrigue in the country, then why are you not advising your bosses on the true and meaningful course they should embark on, which will put them in the history books of Yemen, if you really want to serve your bosses’ interests?” Our not so wise intellectual, who is well entrenched in the regijust said: “Look my friend, I have learned that in Yemen, you should never volunteer any ideas or suggestions to those who supervise you unless you have been asked to do so-and even then, these have to be carefully put so as not to offend the bosses.”
Maybe the only one who has decided to deviate from this policy of appeasement to the bosses is Qahtan Al-Sha’abi Ð a needle in the haystack. For sure Qahtan may not win the Presidential race, but obviously he seems to have picked up on what a true democracy should really be all about Ð answer to the issues that most effect the people and sincerely laying out everything on the table Ð putting the incumbent on the defensive. Carry on boys!
“a man of peace in a country that does not believe in peace”Dr. Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf
Ayman Mohammed Nasser Mohanned
Attariq Chief Editor
In ongoing writing about the important moments in the life of the late Dr. Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf, it is important to highlight the role he played in the field of the non-official Yemeni strategy.
In a distinguished self-confidence and pride, he got into highly important issues that were double edged. He used to be at the center of things with the spirit of the professional warrior.
From the beginning of his career, he held issues that concerned Yemen; civilian organizations, press freedom, human rights, elections, etc. He even exceeded this, to reach Yemeni relations with other countries: the Yemeni-Saudi relationship, the Yemeni-Eritrean relationship and other issues on international levels. He, many times, appeared on different satellite channels defending the political attitudes of Yemen. This led a lot of people inside, as well as outside Yemen to raise the question, why is such a man not placed in the Ministry of Exterior?
Among these issues, “peace ” in the Mideast was at the top of Al-Saqqaf’s agenda. He showed a mature prospect for what our attitude towards the issue of peace with Israel should be.
In February 1995, the Attariq weekly newspaper disapproved what Dr. Al-Saqqaf wrote in his weekly column, Our Viewpoint, about the Israelis after his coming back from Jordan. He wrote “I spent the better of last week in Amman , Jordan. My hosts reserved for me at the Forte Grand Hotel, which is also a place Israeli delegates use as their base in their dealings with the Jordanian officials. My first contact with them was at the lobby. The Hebrew language was quite visible, and I felt it. You bet, I avoided “them.”
Then a couple of times, I was “stuck” in elevators with “them.” I felt a little bit awkward. As much as I tried to avoid thinking about my “temporary” situation, I could not. The main question that kept coming back to me was, “What did I have against these people, other than the brain-washing of the years?” ………..Most Arabs were raised to hate Israelis, and even Jews………….. Most of these people I met in elevators, coffee shops and the lobby were nice, and some were even lovely and attractive.”That time we commented: “here is Dr. Al-Saqqaf trying to pave the way for normalization with Israel.” Two years later, I met with Dr. Al-Saqqaf and listened to his stand-points which were based on sound proofs, and was convinced of his opinions.
There was something in common between the late Dr. Al-Saqqaf and Dr. Abdu Al-Kareem Al-Iriany in their attitude towards the peace process in the Middle East. Both of them insisted on Yemen having a role in the pushing forward of the peace process in the Mideast. This common point between the two men did not change Dr. Al-Saqqaf’s attitude towards Dr. Al-Iriany, which was full of displeasure with the spread of Al-Iriany lobby in the administrative system as well as the diplomatic corps.
In 24/03/1997, the Yemen Times met with Mosa Al-Shar’aby, the President of the Yemeni Jews Community in America during his visit to Yemen. The interview was published during the parliamentarian elections of April 1997 and I was asked by Dr. Al-Saqqaf to republish it in Arabic in Attariq newspaper. I hesitated a little bit in the beginning because I looked at it as a call for the normalization with the Jews, but he was able to persuade me of their right to inform their Yemeni brothers of their stand point. He told me how they were oppressed, even in Israel, and how their children were kidnapped to be sold in Europe and America to the rich families looking for children to adopt. At last, I was persuaded and the interview translation was published. Soon after it was published, I received a lot of phone calls and letters of disapproval and condemnation saying that it was a step towards normalization. In addition, I was warned against my relationship with Dr. Al-Saqqaf which, as they said, would lead me to regrettable consequences. I was calmed down by Dr. Al-Saqqaf who used to tell me,” Go on. Don’t pay any attention to them, you will succeed and they will fail. Let’s prove to all that we work for our homeland as well as the principles and values in which we believe and fight for. These principles are the freedoms and the human rights disregarding race, blood and religion.” It was his humanitarian sense that caused him a lot of troubles in his life.
Regarding the peace issue, all the Yemeni authorities knew that Dr. Abdulaziz was Yemen’s key to this field. The good level achieved by Dr. Al-Saqqaf on the international level in his life is considered to be a great achievement that the official organizations have been unable to achieve. Hence, I do hope that my colleague, Mr. Waleed Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf will follow the footsteps of his father and keep such relations hale and healthy.