True Democracy: Tribesmen Understood it, Civilians Couldn’t [Archives:2001/10/Law & Diplomacy]

March 5 2001

The Yemeni tribe is not merely a community bonded with blood, heritage and common land, but it also is a community with its own social system with a specific inherited set of traditions, laws and regulations, usually based on Islamic regulations. Tribes in Yemen have their own ‘democratic’ electoral system on which the key figures of the tribes are elected, and whom are then given certain duties and responsibilities and are required to play certain roles. Tribes have their own constitution that distributes the tasks and duties on all their members, and has a clear set of rules that organize the rights and duties of tribesmen. Even though they do admit that there is a state responsible of the affairs of the country, including their areas, but they refuse the government’s involvement in their systems and local affairs. Despite the fact that tribes are mostly armed and consider rifles an essential part of their customs, they are seldom used due to the nature of harmony and organization within the tribes because of the well defined rules and regulations. The coexistence with many other tribes in the area with little conflict is a good example of the reasonably efficient system they are using. 
However, if attempts are made to alter this harmonious structure of a tribe using religion or politics, then a tribe tends to evolve to a political entity, with the very same ideas translated into politics. In other words, due to the armed nature of tribes, they could potentially turn to a military wing for a political party with common beliefs and goals. This is further emphasized based on the fact that tribes could sometimes be useful in terms of influence in their respected areas, and the weapons they possess. 
When looking back in time, we realize the important historical role tribes played in political conflicts and evolutions in Yemen since the Yemeni revolution. Tribes have also played an essential role in leading to the independence of Yemen from Imamate in the former north. They also were a major factor in limiting centralized rule and putting an end to any dictator’s rule. Tribes continue to play a role in balancing the political powers in the country mainly by limiting the possibility of the dominance of the military forces, which cannot even think of crushing any tribal group because this could potentially turn into a deadly war that the military forces could easily fall victims in because they are merely a group of soldiers working together, but tribesmen have loyalty and their strength comes from the belief that they should fight till death to maintain the dignity and honor of their tribe. 
Tribesmen stayed relatively unchanged and untouched even after independence of the former north. The system was a single ruling party system with little democracy and little public participation in key decisions. 
However, when Yemen suddenly started a democratic transition and opened the way for a multi-party system after unification in May 1990 in an effort to build the civil society and the state of law and order, we could imagine how this would affect the tribal communities spread throughout the country. How can we imagine a tribal group with little knowledge about the newly established ‘western’ type of democracy in the country? How could they adapt their trivial, basic, and historically old traditions that are out of this world with a democratic system with elections, etc.? 
Interestingly, tribes seem to have been able to easily adapt with the democratic transition. This may partly be because of the existence of a basic democratic structure with tribal groups in selecting some of their key members. 
One could realize that the presidential and parliamentary elections that have been held would not require much of tribal involvement, as they are decided by large communities and tribes could boycott or ignore these elections while having no effect. But the local council elections held on the 20th of February was the true test that would show how well tribes adapted to the democratic process taking place in the country. 
Not only did tribes excel in the implementation of true democracy in the local elections, they also showed that it is the authorities that are abusing the democratic practices in their respected regions. The council elections showed how capable these tribes are in selecting who represents them best in their districts. However, the dispute about the effectiveness of the sort of democracy that the government is trying to implement, particularly for tribal communities, is disputable. “The government wants to give us the ballots, tell us to vote in certain squares and then says this is our right to vote. How can we be taken and told to vote for a certain person or party in a democratic elections?” was a question asked by one of the tribesmen that reflects a deep understanding of the right to chose freely with no guidance or pressure. Tribesmen seem to have understood the electoral process adequately because they use it in their respective tribes, even though in a different manner. They have been taught to select whom they see best, each with his own justifications and views and cannot be forced. This practice that continued through generations show maturity in understanding free choice. However, it is shocking to see that citizens in cities and in rural areas where there is little democratic process are the victims of their misinformation and misunderstanding of elections. The authorities are not helping as well due to the advantage of the ruling party in using the official media, the army, and the public funds to further influence the citizens. But not many tribes have TV facilities. They don’t follow up the propagandas of the ruling party through the different media organs, and they tend to have their own pride and dignity in their tribal system which teaches them that they have the right to chose and should use their minds and not told what to do. 
Interestingly, this is happening in a time tribal revenge and extremism are still two prominent issues in the Yemeni tribal societies. However, let us take a particular case of study and see why we can indeed say that tribes proved that they are more aware of democracy than civilians. The Yemeni Congressional Party for Reform (Islah) has gained considerable ground in the tribal areas of Mareb, despite all other governorates in the republic. How did this happen? Why did Islah easily win in Mareb? 
Yemen Times tried to figure out answers for these questions by interviewing Sheikh Abdullah Mohamed Tahian, sheik of sheiks of the Jahm tribe who summarized to us his viewpoint by saying, “As for the problems we face regarding democracy, they are the exact same problems faced by all Yemenis in cities, or in villages. Unfortunately, democracy and partisanship have been misunderstood and not practiced adequately neither by the state nor by the public.” He indicated that true democracy is not what is taking place right now. He proved this by indicating that political activists tried first of all to impose their ideas on tribesmen thinking that it was easy to do so. He said, “Political activists usually forget that tribesmen have learned not to be fooled by political propaganda and were taught to take their own decisions with the consultation of the other tribesmen but without thinking on the materialistic side of things. A tribesman cannot simply agree -unlike any civilian- to abide by the laws or regulations of a certain party, especially when they contradict with the tribe’s values and traditions. Tribes have been mentioned in the holy quran as honorable communities. In other words, tribal bonds are much stronger and more important and last longer than partisan bonds.” 
Sheikh Abdullah went beyond that and openly by accusing the currently active political parties of not being appropriate for tribes because they are of materialistic nature with political interests that may or may not suit the tribal traditions. According to him, parties usually cause degradation in the level of morals and teach tribesmen immoral ways to gain support as they see ends justify the means. Political parties penetrated deep into families to cause disputes and conflicts within families and tribes with no positive effect so far. “This is what why we are against partisanship and being involved in politics. But if we are to be involved, we will be making our own choice, and not be imposed upon by the state or any other entity” he said. 
Sheikh Abdullah explained why tribes are different in terms of financial attractions by saying, “Loyalty should be for Allah first and for the whole country second, and should not be for a certain political party, not matter what it promises. This is what we learnt and what we teach each other in our tribal communities. Some parties try to use all means legal and illegal to influence tribes to get their support in a way or another. They tend to use the tribal or religious ethics to get the support of certain tribes, which is a wicked way of gaining support. Even though political parties are in general not in the service of the tribe, but some parties that are well established and organized and have a certain set of missions and goals to the extent that could attract some tribesmen to the party and create a strong bond with him,” he added. 
Regarding the democratic practices of tribes on a local level he said, “we have our own fair system in elections. We know what true elections are meant for, and we understand that if there is little influence on any member of the tribe, it would definitely affect the overall decision of the tribe. Hence, we leave the freedom to the tribesmen to decide who will represent him. Tribes usually select candidates that are close to their views and standings, in case they did decide to choose to participate in any elections.”Coming to the case study of Islah, we asked him why Mareb mostly selected members from Islah to represent them in the local elections, while other governorates were won by the General People’s Congress (GPC), he answered, “All the prominent sheikhs in Mareb who are somewhat religious and conservative nature and have very strong bonds with their tribesmen tend to openly favor Islah over its opponents. Even though I personally, do not support or belong to any political party, but I have loyalty to the religious scholars anywhere. I also prefer the youth that are enlightened and think about their religion before anything else. It is quite evident that Islah is the party that is closest to the views of tribes in Mareb than all the other parties including the GPC, which targeted some of the tribal figures in Mareb and tried to convince the people that these candidates would win. However, because religion is not something to bargain with and because the loyalty to the religious scholar has become stronger, we saw that Islah should indeed become superior.”It was reported several times about incidents involving fraud, multiple voting, army forces voting for the ruling party in different centers, etc. So we asked in Mareb why these tools were not effective and came up with a conclusion that indeed, Mareb was among the few governorates that its citizens did not allow such attempts to take place. As one tribesmen said, “We all willingly voted in favor of Islah, and were surprised to find that there were vehicles loaded with soldiers coming from a out of the region, probably to revert the results in favor of GPC, but we received them with our bazookas and rifles and threatened that if they come close to the polls we would let hell break loose. So the soldiers cowardly left the region to where they came from. This is our area and no one would decide on our behalf. They could have done this in many governorates, and probably led to the winning of the GPC because they found no resistance. But here, they found resistance, and they will get what they deserve if they try to change the results,” said another prominent tribesman in Mareb. 
Regarding this very same issue, Sheikh Abdullah concluded his statement by saying that he thinks that Islah indeed was supported in many governorates, but fraud and other violations led to the superiority of its competitors by saying, “I personally believe that Islah is strong in all governorates but what made its strength crystal clear in Mareb is the fact that tribes do not approve fraud and do not surrender to the pressure exerted by authorities in some governorates in the country. Hence, Islah usually wins in tribal areas, that practice true democracy.”The title could indeed be shocking for many readers. How can illiterate tribesmen be more democratic than the civilians living in cities? Before we made the comprehensive survey in Mareb, and made sure ourselves of how the electoral process was thought about in the tribal areas in this governorates, we too were in doubt that this could be possible. But if the article couldn’t prove it, it will be up to the numbers to prove what could not easily be proved. Yes, tribesmen were more democratic in the first ever local council elections of Yemen. They decided to give their governorate to the opposition party Islah, and so they did!