Relationship Between Tribes & Political Parties [Archives:1998/08/Focus]

February 23 1998

Dr. Adel Mojahid Al-Sharjabi,
Dept. of Sociology, Faculty of Arts, Sanaa University

Before delving into the relationship between the tribes and the political parties and organizations, two important facts must be established. First, societies where tribal structures constitute a major social organizational form are often characterized by indistinct class divisions. Thus, such societies tend to generate a distorted form of class struggle, which is often manifested as a sectarian, tribal, or regional conflict. This situation was quite dominant in the Arab World during the colonial era, before the outbreak of the nationalist revolutions.
Following the independence of several Arab countries or the ousting of their traditional ruling dynasties and the establishment of modern states, tribal influences moved from the social to the political arena. Tribes started to have direct and strong influence on fledgling state apparatuses. This is the second fact, which has to be emphasized.
This is exactly the situation that prevailed in Yemen after the revolution of September 26, 1962. During the Imam’s time, tribal sheikhs used to represent a link between the state and the masses, rural and tribal. But they were never incorporated within the state’s political body. The Imam’s dealing with the tribes did not go beyond using them as part of the regime’s unofficial tools of oppression, in return for certain financial rewards and privileges.
Tribes then could never become partners in the ruling authority, which was exclusively in the hands of the Hameeduldeen dynasty – the Imam’s family – and other Hashimite families. Despite the revolution, and because of some subjective and objective reasons, the former ruling classes were re-installed, part of which were the tribes.

Two major consequences came about as a result of the above changes. First, tribal sheikhs became involved in the state’s political body; thus, occupying a higher status in the official power structure. Therefore, they re-formulated their political and social positions accordingly. Second, the republican camp became divided into two inclinations: 1- a radical direction supported by urban powers (the bourgeoisie and the poor) and secret left-wing organizations, and 2- a conservative direction supported by traditional social powers headed by tribal sheikhs and right-wing political parties.
Generally speaking, tribal powers in Yemen are more inclined towards right-wing political organizations. However, this relation is not a simple one. It is part of a complex web of political and social relationships connecting the tribes with the political organizations and the ruling authorities in the north and south of the country. There were also some outside influences.

In the southern part of Yemen, the relationships among the ruling authorities, the secret political parties and the tribes were characterized by conflict. On the other hand similar relations in the northern part of the country, after 1969, were more harmonious and complementary. However, relations between the state and the tribes in northern Yemen were inversely related to the level of ties between the northern and southern ruling authorities. When relations between the Sanaa and Aden authorities improved, links between the former and the tribes worsened. The reverse was also true. When the ruling authority in Sanaa became divided, the tribes sided with the conservative camp.
The above represents the general trend in the relation between the tribes and the political organizations. But the nature of this relation is influenced by major issues of social struggle, the distribution of political powers, the ideologies of the political parties, their stance towards the tribal structure and the authority, and the tribes’ position regarding the ruling authority.
For example, up until 1963, pan-Arab nationalists in all their organizations looked to tribal sheikhs as patriotic forces to help in the struggle against the colonial and Imam’s forces. Thus, the pan-Arab nationalists agreed to an alliance with the tribal sheikhs when the National Front was formed. During the early 1960s, the Nasserites, then an unorganized political tendency in and out of authority, adopted the Egyptian position which was not openly hostile to the tribes. The Ba’ath Party’s position remained undefined until 1963.

Following the Amran conference in 1963, the pan-Arab political organizations started to re-formulate their position towards the tribal sheikhs according to the latter’s stance towards the Egyptian presence in Yemen and their position vis-a-vis the social content of the Yemeni revolution itself. Tribal sheikhs in general rejected the Egyptian presence in Yemen and, demanded a total withdrawal of Egyptian forces.
Events took a different turn when a dispute erupted between the late Egyptian leader Jamal Abdulnasser and the Ba’ath party. Egyptian forces began persecuting Ba’ath party members in Yemen. Therefore, the latter chose to side with the tribes who started organizing their ‘people’s congresses’ in 1963 as the first organized activities by tribal sheikhs.

With the Amran conference, divisions between the left and the right became quite considerable. Tribal sheikhs chose the right-wing camp. Organized by the tribes, the Amran conference was thus attended by representatives of the Workers’ Congress and the People’s Socialist Party, which represent the nationalist right-wing movement in the south of Yemen. In response to that right-wing coalition, the pan-Arabist movement started by mid-1964 to take certain measures designed to weaken tribal influences in the nationalist movement, in both southern and northern Yemen.
The preceding overall description of the relationship between the tribes and the political parties in Yemen is true for the period between the outbreak of the revolution and the unification of Yemen. Following unity, the tribes began to form one of the most important social powers on which both the People’s General Congress and the Yemeni Congregation for Reform (Islah) relied.
It is often noted that an alliance between a political party and the tribes lead to stinting the development of the former. Thus, it is crucial for the Yemeni political parties to re-formulate their links with the tribes. A unity between the party and the tribe would, on the long term, lead to the triumph of power over ideology. This means emptying the party’s modernization process from its content, containing the party organization, and utilizing its internal mechanisms for the benefit of the tribe and its values.

Moreover, tribal structures can then influence not only the political parties, but the whole democratization process. This is especially so when the party under tribal influence is the ruling one. Then, a distorted form of democracy – elitist democracy – would become predominant and confined to the relation between the state and a limited number of tribal sheikhs. The concept of popular participation in decision making would then be replaced by the partnership of tribal elites in the ruling authority.
This happens in the case of the ruling party gaining the support of all tribal sheikhs. But if these people’s loyalty is divided among several political parties, the situation is then far more dangerous. Not only the is the democratization process threatened then, but so too is the stability of the entire society.
The overlapping of tribal struggle with political and social struggles is then liable to change from a peaceful conflict to a violent confrontation that may eventually lead to civil war. The establishment of tribally influenced political parties or the tribal containment of existing ones will lead to these parties becoming no more than ideological and organizational frameworks for the tribes. In return, the tribe becomes the party’s armed militia. Gradually, the party’s ideological and political role would diminish for the benefit tribal concepts of political struggle. Violence, often used as a tool for settling personal and tribal disputes, would then also become a tool for resolving political and social struggles.