WHAT IT MEANSWhen soldiers rally for Palestine [Archives:2008/1124/Local News]

January 28 2008

Dr. Abdullah Al-Faqih
On Tuesday Jan. 23, 2008, Kanan for Palestine, a GONGO (semi-governmental NGO), comprising state officials, academics, and pro regime elements organized a march to protest the Israeli blockade on Gaza. The huge crowd which showed up for the rally was not surprising because Yemenis are well known as a strong enthusiast of the Palestinian just cause. What was surprising is the alleged participation of thousands of soldiers in the protest. The allegations are substantiated by the fact that Kanan is led by Yahya Mohammed Abdullah Saleh)a nephew and an in-law of President Saleh and a brigadier general of Yemen's Central Security Forces. In fact, Yahya himself headed the crowed and called, in a speech delivered to participants, on unspecified countries to “open the door for jihad and resistance” promising that “our people will join.” The Tuesday incident raises some very important questions concerning the role of military in politics in general and the motives for the Tuesday showoff in particular.

Traditional role

The role of soldiers almost in every country is to fight wars, tightly control borders, hunt drug and human traffickers, and serve as a guarantor of a country's security and stability. In developed countries, the role of soldiers in politics is carefully monitored by both partisan politicians and civil society activists. It is almost unanimously believed in democratic countries that those who earn their livelihood from waging wars should never be entrusted with decisions relating to peace and war. In some developing countries, soldiers oftentimes serve as a source for legitimacy; he who controls the guns controls political power too.

In Yemen, the military's has playing a prominent role in politics. In the northern part of Yemen, it was the military who overthrew the Imamate in 1962. While failing to defend the republican regime vis-a-vis tribes loyal to royalists, it nevertheless managed after the national reconciliation to consolidate a very powerful political role. In fact, four out of the five presidents who reigned in north Yemen between 1962 and 1990 came from the military. In south Yemen, the ruling single party subjugated the military to party control. But that did not mean the military stayed out of politics in the south. As the 1986 confrontations between party factions illustrate, military commanders practiced a subtle but very vital political role.

When the two Yemens merged together and formed the Republic of Yemen in May 1990, one of the institutions which were kept divided was the military because both southerners and northerners viewed their militaries as the main guarantors of their political survival. And only with a divided military the northern and southern factions in power could go to war in 1994.

Changing rules

The role of military in politics in Yemen did not change with the adoption of democracy or the occurrence of the 1994 civil war. What changed are the rules by which politics has been played in most recent years. President Saleh, who no longer wears the uniform, never doubted at any time during his long political reign that his political survival and his ability to pass Yemen's throne to his son depends completely on maintaining a strong, and loyal military. For that reason in particular, he suddenly decided in the late 1990s to withdraw his elected son Ahmed from parliament and started training him as a commander of the elite forces)the Republican Guards and of the Special Forces. In essence, Saleh has been trying over the past few years to restructure the army around his son, colonel Ahmed, and a few of Ahmed's loyalists. And one thing, which Saleh persists in doping, is to go in front of military units and starts denouncing his political opponents and inciting the military against his rivals.

Almost totally controlled by the president's brothers, clansmen, and close relatives, the army since 1994 has claimed new political roles. For one, it has become the largest employer in the country and one of the most significant channels for the distribution of patronage and as such a major recruiter of voters and political supporters. For another, the military, with its high mobility, has been used repeatedly as a manipulating mechanism to undermine opponents in various districts during parliamentary elections. Most recently, blain clothed soldiers have been used occasionally to stage huge rallies in support of the president and his ruling party.

A different Palestine

It would be a mistake for one to underestimate the tremendous support for Palestinians in the Yemeni streets. That support is enormously evident. And if that is the case one must wonder: why use soldiers if one can easily mobilize hundreds of thousands of ordinary Yemenis to rally for Palestine? The answer to the question probably lies in the current political context and in the struggle for power within the country.

Two things, in particular, are worth noting here. First, a rapidly growing fracture between different factions within the ruling elite has made mobilization a very slow and costly effort. It is also feared, at some levels, that some politicians may seize the moment and try to make some political or financial gains. Second, on the question of Palestine, the Yemeni opposition appears to have an edge over the ruling party, and as a result, political rallies for Palestine have been used intentionally or unintentionally as a way to signal to the regime and to the population in general the strength and popularity of the opposition. In response, the regime has tried hard to dominate this foreign policy issue using all means possible, including the mobilization of military and security soldiers.

The author is a professor of politics at Sana'a University. For comments, please email the author at: [email protected]

Response from a reader

Dear Dr. Al-Faqih,

I read your article in the Yemen times (17 Jan., issue 1121); to be frank, I am concerned about the situation in Yemen.

Firstly, the Saleh government has to realize that things cannot continue like this; change will come whether they like it or not.

It is much better for the government to be part of that change instead of being a casualty of it. What Saleh needs to do is stop denying that there is a problem and stop blaming others for the current problem.

The government needs to know that hungry people will revolt; it is natural that when people have nothing to lose they resort to anarchy.

Southern people had behaved wonderfully considering the situation that they are in. The government must start helping the people of the south economically, that is the core of the problem. There is no need for clever Saleh speeches; what is needed is economic help. If the government tries to be too stingy in this area, it will pay dearly in the future. This economic problem will cause a civil war and consequent secession. People in the south are in dire need of economic help.

Development is not encouraged in Yemen; I know this personally. I have a great deal of experience in the fishing industry from when I worked in Norway. I tried to invest in Hadramout by establishing a world-class seafood plant. When I received the help of a Swedish bank for a loan to buy the facility that could create jobs in the south, the banks in Yemen refused to guarantee the loan.

Factories like mine, which could have created jobs, cannot get financing, while goods imported from around the world receive bank financing; how is that useful to the people of Yemen?! We are expatriates with experience, able to create jobs, and we are turned down.

Analysts and journalists should go beyond reporting incidents. They should tell the authority what needs be done and how best to do it.

The government may say we have no funds for the south, but sooner or later they will pay in cash and human lives when they plunge the country into civil war.

Southerners, on the other hand, must tell us who their leaders are. I hope they no longer follow warmongers as before. They also have to be careful of intruders in the peaceful demonstrations who foment havoc and start chaos.

If Ali Saleh doesn't pay attention in the immediate future, another Somalia is going to happen, which will destroy everything we've worked for.

This is my humble opinion, my friend; please keep up the good work and advise those arrogant, corrupt rulers.

Yemeni woman from the south

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