Nabil Al-Sufi to Yemen Times: “It costs less to dream than to despair.” [Archives:2009/1228/Reportage]

January 26 2009

Nadia Al-Sakkaf
A new political coalition is on the rise. The talk is that it represents a political alternative for Yemenis, especially in a time when existing political parties are busy minding their own interests. Although there are several Yemeni activists behind it, the face of this coalition is Nabil Al-Soufi, a prominent Yemeni journalist and activist, founder of News Yemen news website and Abwab magazine. Nadia Al-Sakkaf interviewed Al-Sufi to talk about the initiative.

This coalition you represent, is it a political party?

So far it has not taken an official form. You can say it is a political initiative to create real discussion and to change the line of the political environment. With time, we will organize ourselves into a more formal structure that could be a political party or any other form. The name is not important because our mission could be done through individuals sharing a common goal. We are a group of activists who are concerned about our interests as citizens. None of the existing political parties talk about the people's needs. The parliament does not hold sessions on road safety, adequate education, or hospital care. What we see is a struggle between parties over influence and power.

For the past four years we as activists in human rights, development, democracy, and the press have been complaining about life and freedoms in Yemen. We grew tired of complaining, to the extent that our frustration left us numb in despair. We no longer hoped or worked for change. But a few months ago, a small group of this community decided to do something.

You see, it costs less to dream than to despair. So we launched this initiative. I was the risk taker and decided to face the media to test the reaction our call gets. Now after two weeks, we had more than 700 discussions, which is encouraging. So we hope within one week the group would step into the light and announce ourselves and our mission.

What is the mechanism by which you will change the political discussion of Yemen?

The first step we aspire to achieve is to win a few seats in the Parliament. This is why we launched our initiative now. The coming parliamentary elections in April this year are an opportunity to put politics on the agenda of the laymen and laywomen of Yemen. Election time is a great opportunity to put life into the streets and discussions, and even to put Yemen in the news.

But mind you, we are not coming out as a new opposition party against the government, nor is our intention to help the government save face and give legitimacy to the coming elections in the case it had to enter it alone.

We will change the political line by representing the problems and issues of the normal people. I am talking about the bus driver, the mother in a rural area, the fisherman on the coast; these people are not included in any political party's agendas or discussions. If you ask a taxi driver whether he has read the latest political statement by a party or followed the latest session of the Parliament, he would defiantly say no, as they hold nothing for him. They do not touch his life or represent his concerns.

What we will do as individual activists in the campaigns and as Members of Parliament when we win is put these issues in the agenda and for discussion. If we do that, then we have achieved our goal.

You said “when we win”, not “if we win”. Does this mean you are sure about victory?

Nothing is guaranteed. And we are not competing with either the opposition or the state for its grassroots base. Which is, mind you, so small it does not even exceed ten percent of the total population. We want to target the remaining ninety percent who were not concerned by the political struggle or by the elections because it means nothing to them.

Our group is represented in six governorates: Sana'a, Aden, Taiz, Al-Dhale, Hadramout, and Ibb. The tentative proposal is that seven of us – four women and three men – would run for seats in the Parliament in those six governorates. It has yet to be approved; we will discuss it this week, and we may run for more seats depending on the results of the discussions.

The group is made of people who are independent and who are affiliated to some political parties. But our affiliation to this mission is stronger than the political links, because by being part of this initiative we represent ourselves and our needs as citizens. This is stronger than any political affiliation because it touches our basic needs as humans.

You say all political parties are not real representatives of the people's interests. Are you?

Yes, because we do not claim to be anything more than citizens who have the ability to be outspoken and empowered. Also, we do not have a governing figure such as an official, a sheikh, or a businessman to become a reference point for our group. Women have a larger stake in our initiative than the men. It was like this from the start, as many of the people who nurtured the discussions and the birth of this initiative were female activists from around the republic, so by default they are members of the founding group.

You see me as the face of the group for now, but soon there will be other names and other faces representing a wider group both geographically and demographically.

What is your plan for running? Where would you get the funding to campaign and reach out to your constituency?

We do not have any funding and that is a problem at the moment. The kind of support we need now is not only financial: we need training, we need open space, we need logistical help, and so on. But what we need the most now is acceptance of our right to be. We have seen several reactions from the officials and the opposition. We were welcomed more by the state because we demonstrate political variety and our existence simply means there is space for democracy in Yemen. And I must acknowledge that yes: in Yemen we still have this space despite all challenges. This is especially true when I compare our political environment to that of Saudi Arabia or even Egypt.

The opposition thinks we are there to endorse the state's position by entering the controversial elections. This is not true. In fact, we run for totally different reasons and represent a totally different group, one that is ignored in the political struggle for power between the parties.

Have you considered the local councils as a potential partner in this initiative?

Actually no. We have coordinated with individuals in the local councils. In fact we have partners in almost all the official and non-official bodies. But our partners represent themselves, not the organization they work for or their political affiliation. Don't forget that most if not all the local councils are dominated by the ruling party. We play a different tune, and so any kind of partnership has to come from the popular movement and then be organized as a political entity, not the other way round.

You call for change, but wasn't this also what the Joint Meeting Party was marketing in 2006?

During the 2006 presidential elections, Faisal bin Shamlan, the JMP candidate, was marketed as an alternative for president Saleh and not as a solution for Yemen's people. Not everyone could be convinced to vote for Bin Shamlan rather than Saleh, but everyone would support a bill that would mean no power cuts, better education, or free health care. This is the difference I am talking about. This is the change our initiative will bring to Yemen.

The JMP was fighting its own battle in the 2006 elections; we want to fight the battles of the people we represent, because they are our own battles. The problem with the opposition is that they lost track as they focused on how to harass the state rather than how to serve the people. The real competitor with the political parties should not have been each other, it should have been the challenges the people face. Their concern should not be how to make the other lose, but rather how to provide a system that fulfills the people's basic needs.

What kind of credibility do you fall back on to win voters' trust?

We have credibility simply by associating with the people, reaching out to them and being one of them. Our campaign will star from the bus and taxi cab stations. We will talk and walk with teachers, laborers, house wives; even girls in high schools will associate with us because we would give a voice to their dreams and concerns. When it comes to official representation we are most likely to run as independent candidates unless we are able to officially formulate ourselves in a political block or entity. But even if we could not do so before the elections, we will campaign for ourselves as bearers of change and messengers of the people. We do not need to have formal status, just like there is no such thing officially registered as the JMP. It is promoted as a coalition of opposition parties, but when they run, they register according to the different political parties included in the coalition.

Say you do win the seven seats, what next?

Next is to use our positions to bring the issues of the normal people to the discussion table in the Parliament. We will also advocate for this movement in all the public venues we can reach. We also hope that the media would give us space through which we create a different line of political debate. Our campaigns will not end when winning the seats; being parliamentarians will be just the beginning. The moment the issues we talk about become the talk of the media, political parties, and sector ministries, then we know we have reached our goal.

The next step will be shaped by the results and the discussions the campaigns trigger.

What do you want now, and from whom?

First of all we need the various political players to acknowledge our right to formulate a political entity, which is a constitutional right for any Yemeni. We need them to think of us as an independent and equal political organization in principle.

We need the national and international organizations working in supporting democracy to help us with training, capacity building, materials, or anything that would enable us in our campaigns. We want the individuals and intellectuals to believe that there is still hope and there is space for change in Yemen. We are not advocating for a revolution or overthrowing the ruling system as the opposition demands. We want to include the people's interest in both national and local agendas. So we are open to everyone and we represent everyone who wants to live a better life.

We want to make politics the business of the normal people. And so we want them to speak up and talk about their concerns and believe that they have the right to be treated better. We want them to hold the various instruments accountable as service providers for the people, not the other way round.

Finally, we want any kind of logistical, financial, material or even moral support that people have t offer us. We will accept any idea or suggestion that would help us develop our thoughts and reach our goals.