WHAT IT MEANSPolitical Role of Yemeni Tribes (Part 1 of 2) [Archives:2008/1131/Local News]

February 21 2008

Yemeni society suffers from a faulty overall structure that has enabled the worst aspects of the past and present to emerge and become firmly established. Now we perceive the yoking of the worst values and practices of both bygone and contemporary times. New institutions have surfaced, modern in appearance but traditional in essence. They are “disfigured creatures,” borrowing from the tribe the most objectionable conventions and customs, such as vengeance killing, which is a phenomenon being transformed into political and partisan vengeance practiced in Sana'a and other Yemeni cities and villages. The “it-is-easy-to-resort-to-arms-and-violence” habit has been increasingly adopted to settle scores instead of resorting to the culture of dialogue and tolerance.

A social framework characterized by looseness and political overlapping

The social reality of Yemen is formless. It features social and functional overlapping at the same time because social classes are not distinct, although the tribal map is highly diverse and pluralistic.

There is an amazing overlapping in Yemeni political life. As such, one should make use of grey cells and political imagination to dismantle the complex of Yemen's society and state.

The above claim can be corroborated. It is commonplace to see a tribal sheikh performing multiple roles within the Yemeni political system. He is sometimes a party persona, sometimes a tribal leader, and at other times a Parliament member, merchant, etc. One can also notice that a businessman may add to his business title that of “sheikh”, making himself a “sheikh-businessman”. This phenomenon is further encouraged by the government's attempt to “breed” sheikhs. It manufactures sheikhs for certain tribes and dresses them in the sheikhdom cloaks in order to ensure the loyalty of these “puppet” sheikhs and foment disputes between the original sheikhs and the cloned ones, with the objective of marginalizing tribal roles and dividing the social body. On the other hand, one can find a government official acting as a businessman, clutching at business and statesmanship simultaneously.

To avoid the deceptive appearances of events and try to address their roots and real causes, one could safely state that the Yemeni citizen resorts to his tribe due to ineffective roles of the ruling elite, who are unable to deliver on promises of reform and elections and do not implement the announced programs.

Thus, the legitimacy of the Yemeni tribe's existence and escalating political role emanates from the illegitimacy and underachievement of the ruling elite.

The Yemeni tribe as a political concept

The West beholds the tribe as a traditional entity that has to be crushed and eliminated because it is the antithesis of development and advancement. The modernization process is sure to dismantle this stagnant anti-development social entity. However, this western view doesn't tally with the Yemeni and Arab situation.

The tribe in Yemen is a part of the state. In ancient times, it formed the nucleus of the state when the so-called “prevailing tribe state” phenomenon came into existence. Today, Yemeni tribes coexist with the state. Not only that, they also participate in decision-making and perform many tasks and duties NGOs are supposed to be doing.

The tribe as a concept is more politically oriented. The Arab worldview generally emphasizes an interactive relationship between the tribe and state. The Arab political community is most often associated with blood relations or tribalism. There is a controversial bond between the tribe and politics. It is observable that the Arab tribe, particularly the Yemeni variant, has always been at the heart of politics and represents one component of the political community.

The Yemeni tribe is a concept of political tribalism. By definition, it is a political concept. The Yemeni political tribe, by definition, has political grounds. It resembles the concept of the state both structurally and politically. It represents a single social, political, economic and military organization.

The Yemeni tribe resembles the State in terms of:

– tribal chieftains acting as leaders (or presidents) of their tribes. They are supposed to represent their respective tribes' interests and protect of their rights.

– a common interest among the tribesmen (both chieftains and individuals).

– alliances among tribes.

– tribal lands, inhabited areas with defined boundaries.

– a considerable martial culture and values with armed fighters, considered a reservoir of men for many Yemeni rulers.

Although the Yemeni political experience (Yemen's democratic tendency) is thought to have had liberal means and resources, Yemenis practice parliamentary, presidential and local elections on tribal, localist and sectarian bases.

The Yemeni people imported the liberal methods and then colored them with their own culture and values, thus leaving a liberal western shell and a Yemeni marrow.

It is notable that the Yemeni political experience has unique characteristics. It depends on a politicized social balance, and additionally features traditionalism and modernism at the same time. The party and tribe are yoked together. In other words, the “tribe-party” concept emerges with the “party being tribalized” and “tribe partisanized.”

Tribe structurally shaken; shrinking legitimacy of chieftains

The tribe's political role is manifested in a number of actions practiced by the tribe through its representatives (sheikhs) to achieve the tribe's objectives and interests. The assumption is that the tribe's interests are generally maintained through its leaders (sheikhs). Yet, there is a significant observation, i.e., some sheikhs prioritize their personal self-interests at the expense of other tribesmen. This is negatively telling on the political role of such sheikhs.

This raises an extremely important issue: the legitimacy of tribal leaders. We here distinguish between the legitimacy of the tribe in the eyes of its members and the legitimacy of its leader within the Yemeni tribal system.

Yemeni tribal legitimacy, in the eyes of its members, is permanent as long as its values and customs exist. However, the legitimacy of the tribe's leader is temporary and dependent on his attachment to his tribe and maintenance of its existence, and fulfillment of its requirements and needs. His legitimacy is expected to enhance when he is keen to achieve the tribe's objectives and meet its members' needs.

The tribal leader (sheikh) derives his legitimacy from two main sources. The first is the tribe's customs and conventions. The sense of blood relation begets self-satisfaction, complacency, and acceptance by the members of their leader. The second is the tribal leader's achievements and success in performing his duties and commitments towards the tribe and its members.

Prof. Mohammed M. Al-Thahery is

Head of Political Science Dept., Sana'a University.