This is an OPINION page. Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue! THE YEMENI INTELLECTUAL: What Role in Public Life? [Archives:1998/02/Focus]

January 12 1998

By: Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf*
One of the issues that is forever present in the mind of intellectuals and professionals is their marginal role in decision-making and even in opinion formation. The logical question is ‘Why?’. I would like here to express a few thoughts on this matter.
1. Basic Background: The number of Yemenis who can be termed as intellectuals (university graduates, poets, writers, middle income urbanites, people who have travelled/served abroad, teachers, university professors and their assistants, etc.) and professionals (physicians, engineers, accountants, economists, lawyers, journalists, businessmen, etc.) is rising. Some estimates indicate there are about a quarter million intellectuals. These are naturally concentrated in the capital city, Sanaa, and the large cities of the republic, such as Aden, Taiz, Ibb, Hodeidah, Mukallah, Dhamar, etc.
2. Two Inadequate Roles: Given the experience, so far, one can surmise that Yemeni intellectuals have charted for themselves two general roles. The first role is to be part and parcel of the ruling regime, whatever it stands for. The second role is to simply remain passive and limited within the scope of their ‘tasks’ and stay out of public life. The first role is best personified by the intellectuals who hold high offices in government and para-statals. They have a subservient role to play in that they are not real decision-makers, even if they hold such high posts as ministers, and even prime minister. The general public is aware of this subservient role, hence the many jokes about intellectuals who are servants and dupes of less educated decision-makers. The second role is even more devastating. People who are able to contribute to society are unwilling/unable to do so, primarily because they are not risk-takers. The majority of Yemen’s intellectuals would rather stay at home and do/say nothing rather than get involved and then bring upon themselves some heat.
3. The Assessment: The role of the group that decided to join the regime is, in my opinion, better than the second role, though it is not the one I could live with myself. I would rather chart a third course which involves a contribution to the system, without being a mouthpiece to justify its shortcomings or to opportunistically take advantage for self-enrichment because of ‘services rendered to the regime.’ The first group contends that by being part of the system, they have played a modernizing and tempering role. This could be partly true, but it does not rise to the level of the responsibility they should shoulder. Most members of this group have become so overwhelmed with taking advantage of their ‘positions’ for self-enrichment that they have compromised themselves to the extent of not being able to wield any real influence or stand up to the values they portend to represent. They have fallen in the public eye. The second group is invisible. It is as if they do not exist. For example, did you know that Yemen has today some 1,500 university professors who hold PhDs in various fields. Where are these individuals? There is a similar number of physicians, engineers, lawyers, economists, etc. Where are these people? Why are they marginal, although among the highest educated in the land?
4. A Third Course? I mentioned earlier that a third course is possible. This means that intellectuals will be involved in leadership roles in the public affairs of Yemen. They will project the values they represent, with dignity. For this to happen, there are three requirements:
A- Personal Success: Personal success is a key criteria for making a meaningful contribution. In other words, a successful engineer, physician, accountant, etc. is like a beam of light which generates optimism and confidence. Success also means financial self-sufficiency. In other words, a professional who is not able to meet his/her financial needs cannot be a leader.
B- Strength of Character: High education and interaction with other cultures and peoples is supposed to lead to character development. Strength of character is probably the most lacking element. A person who does not possess some qualities like patriotism, dignity, decency, fairness, ability to work with others within open and accountable parameters, etc. cannot play a leadership role irrespective of their level of education or culture.
C- Vision: In order to be able to lead, the intellectual would need to have a vision of what he/she wants of society and aspires for. I would suppose the appropriate values at this juncture are of a society that sees for itself a fruitful and interactive role with the rest of the world based on human rights, political pluralism and fair play, press freedom, liberal economics, and good governance. In the final analysis, the role of the intellectual is up to us. But, being subordinates or shunning public life are not ideal roles.
* Dr. Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf is a ranking professor at Sanaa University, Chief Editor of the Yemen Times and Member of the Consultative Council. He is involved in many voluntary and grass-roots activities.