Politics of Survival and the  Structure of Control in Yemen [Archives:1999/52/Focus]

December 28 1999

This is an OPINION page. 
Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue!  

Ahmed Abdulkarim Saif 
Doctoral Candidate, Department of Politics, 
University of Exeter, UK 
Yemeni politics since unification was visibly characterized by discontinuity in terms of methods and targets. The politics of survival predominated during the first four years following unification (1990-94), ending with the defeat of the YSP. Consociational/corporatist policies have prevailed since 1994. 
The main point that one should notice is that consociational/corporatism is not a new policy adopted in Yemen. If one imagines the policy as a line extending from the beginning of President Saleh’s rule in 1978 up to 1997, it will be observed that corporatism has been a main policy throughout that streamline. This streamline was interrupted only during the period 1990-94, after which all its previous characteristics were restored. 
Nevertheless, some variables, which did not exist before, such as manipulated democracy, the evolution of civic organizations, changes of demographic features of the state and the adaptation of structural adjustment, were introduced into the Yemeni political scene. These variables might create a modified consociational/corporatism, which might include some new groups and/or exclude others. Also, by changing the institutional base, on which corporatism was previously dependent, the above mentioned variables had developed an expanded institutional structure that could push towards new forms of coalition. 
All three types of action constituting the politics of survival had been used: the big shuffle, non-merit appointment and dirty tricks. The big shuffle occurs when the leader has the power to appoint to or dismiss from office. The ruling partners during 1990-94 – the People’s General Congress (PGC) and the Yemen Socialist Party (YSP) – were in competition for important government posts. Despite the formula for sharing power that they had agreed to, there grew up a tacit rivalry by which one impeded the other, and each of the partners tried to manipulate the organization of the state for its own political interest. 
The second action in the politics of survival is the non-merit appointment, where the only criteria for making appointments are personal loyalty. Mainly it was the President who relied on patronage and client ties that he had inherited from the former YAR. So, key posts in government were occupied either by the president’s relatives or by persons loyal to him, mostly from the Sanhan and Hamdan tribes, who are part of the Hashid tribal confederation. Relatively, the YSP lacked power in this kind of political action, because of its ideological platform and its organizational structure, which thus minimized the concentration of power in a certain tribal grouping or province. 
The third action, dirty tricks, includes illegal methods of removing rivals. Although both the PGC and the YSP used these methods, mainly assassinations, the YSP was the bigger loser because of the involvement of a third party, the Yemeni Congregation for Reform (Islah). The Islah was the ally of the PGC and it was accused by the YSP for most assassinations against YSP members. This gave the PGC a great advantage – to appear as a mediator, although in reality it was jointly running the show. 
The tool for control under President Saleh can be termed as the accommodation process, which takes place at two different levels. In the first level, the top state leadership accommodates two kinds of social control. The first, is when local strongmen are allowed to develop social control in order to gain social stability at a local level. The second is through power centres at the national level, in which the leaders conduct their dealings through discriminatory and/or preferential policies. 
The second level of accommodation takes place at local and regional levels, where the implementers of state policies, their supervisors and local strongmen accommodate one another in a web of political, economic and social exchange. 
This accommodation concept contributes to the explanation of the way state policies in Yemen have been distorted and the resources redirected as they filter down to society. The predomination of the politics of survival forced rivals to become involved in the accommodation process. 
The PGC and the YSP were competing to consolidate their power and to mobilize people, which led to their strengthening their ties with different influential groups and individuals. Whereas the YSP neither re-incorporated the ex-Southern powers nor achieved loyalty of Northern power centers, the PGC had a well-established network of interdependent military, tribal, commercial and religious interests. Incorporating those southern powers, which the YSP had failed to incorporate or was not interested in, strengthened this. 
Nevertheless, the balance between the rivals created a sort of accommodation, bringing-in groups which would otherwise not be involved, but giving them only limited influence, After the threat of the YSP was removed, such groups failed to sustain their privileged relations with the center. These groups included the mid-level sheikhs, local notables in the peripheries, intellectuals, workers and peasants. This accommodation process was not effective because of the modest presence of the state at the peripheries. 
Yemeni politics is greatly influenced by actors and groups that emerged as a result of the conciliation between the royalists and the republicans in the early 1970s. President Saleh, who himself assumed power in 1978 reflected the interests of these actors and groups. Therefore, Saleh’s victory of 1994 has entailed the continuation of the pre-unification interests. 
For this reason, Yemen ended up with a situation of a compartmentalized politics, where state policies were impeded by private interests. This resulted in a strategic compromise, a system of corporate pluralism, which involves endless bargains made between the regime and the leadership of individual groups. Subsequently, this resulted in an increasing incoherence of policies and institutions, but prevented the emergence of strong interest-group coalitions or of a united opposition. 
However, a limited development of associations in Yemen allows different interests to be represented through personal contacts, patronage or client ties. Patronage and bureaucratic linkages are not necessarily an alternative, they can go hand in hand. In corporatism generally, individuals and classes do not interact with the state directly, but rather through intermediaries. 
The formula of corporatism in Yemen after 1994 gives the appearance of avoiding disastrous conflicts between the PGC and Islah, where it has solved the problem of power distribution and modernization without the sacrifice of society’s identity. This formula appears to be convenient for elites wishing to initiate modernization, while controlling its form and direction. 
Corporatism in Yemen tends to be community-centered. It emerged in conditions of early modernization, representing an attempt to involve pre-capitalist social groupings in which classes were not yet well defined yet. By this means, the consociational/corporatism formula ends with a weak state, which is embedded in its social environment and impeded by constant contradictory interests. 
In the Yemeni situation, the military group was dominant and applied a policy of differential incorporation to other groups such as tribal sheikhs and merchants. 
The PGC was established in the North, at the beginning of the 1980s, as an alternative to party politics. It was intended that local committees should elect regional committees, and the whole would culminate in a national committee structure, which would reflect the will of the people. Very rapidly, however, the system came to work from the top-down, through an elaborative system of patronage, opposite to the intended direction. The state became corrupt, turning into a family business. Power centers developed around the military family, which were strongly linked to the center by interdependent interests. High-ranking army officers, important sheikhs and a few great merchant families all had their hands in each other’s pockets, and between them they had the state under their control. 
In order to understand how this complex evolved, it should be borne in mind that, historically, in the pre-unification period, North Yemen witnessed two types of economic systems. The first, predominated in Midland Yemen, a semi-feudal system existed, in which tribal leaders owned arable land and tribesmen were obliged under their need to work on this land. This meant that wealth was concentrated in the hands of the leaders, and it explains the spread of progressive social thought in this part of Yemen. 
The second type predominated in Upper Yemen, where a pastoral economic system existed, where tribal leaders owned no more land than any other tribesman. In this case, the leader’s power was derived from an unwritten code of practice, which was inherited and passed from generation to generation, whereby tribesmen owed loyalty to the leader and were expected to obey and support him. In 1970, the reconciliation between royalists and republicans gave the tribal leaders of Upper Yemen power gained from wealth derived from their access to state resources through their government posts. 
Therefore, the tribal leaders of both Upper and Midlands Yemen had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, which is why they have always resisted any program that might restrict their power. This stance has also been reinforced by external support. 
When President Saleh assumed power in 1978, he appeared to be continuing on the same broad course that President Hamdi laid out of state building, institutionalization and the leading role of the state in promoting socio-economic development. President Saleh, however, retreated from pursuing these programs of development in order to escape the fate of Hamdi, who was assassinated in 1977. In part, this explains why the nation-state building still lags far behind. 
There are two main points, which clarify the structure of military-commercial complex. The first, is that the tribes and the government are not separate entities, where the tribesmen hold governmental jobs, but the tribal leaders are prominent in the state apparatus. 
Second, the majority of Yemenis are from tribal origins. Today, most of them are deprived, even those whose leaders hold high posts in the state. This means that the co-optation of tribal leaders into the state apparatus does not necessarily lead to benefits for their tribesmen. 
During the last decade, a filtration process has taken place, which resulted in narrowing the circle of the complex. In other word, confine the influence of wealth and authority to a smaller number of actors and groups as much as possible. Also, the center has dealt with other actors and groups through intermediaries. 
Two results have ensued. The first is that the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of high-ranking army officers, the most influential sheikhs, some senior government bureaucrats, and a few commercial families. The second result was the distancing of the President from his constituents leading to a visible reduction in his popularity as well as the distancing of the major sheikhs from their followers. 
It is ironic that heritage and culture were based on morals, which ensured that individuals gave respect and obedience to their sheikhs, even when these leaders sought benefits for themselves at the expense of their followers. This potential power of the sheikhs was the driving force behind the President’s attempt to control the army through tightly knit connections. The president’s brothers and cousins command much of the armed forces. 
North Yemen, therefore, entered unification with this complex ruling structure. After the defeat of the YSP in 1994, this complex retained its efficacy. 
With regard to domestic balance, it is naive to assume that the president has the power to implement policies, which might disaffect the power centers. The president has neither the sufficient power, nor the inclination to risk losing the support of local lords, however bad they may be. 
Coalescence of the tribo-military-commercial complex has been cemented by two factors. Exposure to an external threat such as that posed by the YSP, and the existence of interdependent interests, where the commercial part of the ruling complex has managed the assets and maximized the profits of the tribal and military parts of the complex. 
Each part of the equation has an important role to play. The commercial bloc has managed the economy. The tribal part of the complex guaranteed social stability, while the military part of the ruling complex provided the tribal and the commercial parts with the needed protection and uses official influence for their own interests. 
Despite the successful working of this strategy, there are two factors that could lead to the breakdown of this coalition. 
The first is due to the reverse relationship between the power of the army and the power of the sheikhs. As the army grows in strength, so the sheikhs weaken and vice versa. The tribal part of the complex, therefore, is keeping an eye on the army, but lacks the ability to influence it. The sheikhs do believe that once the army reaches a certain level of power, then the president will topple them. 
The second, is the economic situation, which deteriorated due to termination of important sources of revenue. Before unification the government had relied on neighboring states which provided financial support. That is no more. Workers remittances which directly helped the low-income groups were also no more. As a result, the level of poverty reached unprecedented levels. This has been exacerbated by the prevalence of corruption and mismanagement. 
Therefore, unless economic progress which can alleviate poverty and raise the standard of living is achieved, it will be difficult to sustain a strategy that will retain control of the tribo-military-commercial complex. 
Abstract summary of a Ph.D thesis at Exeter University.