What It Takes… for Democracy to Succeed in Yemen [Archives:1998/34/Focus]

August 24 1998

This is an OPINION page.
Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue!
Dr. Fouad Jaleel Al-Salahi,
Assistant Professor of Sociology,
Sanaa University
The increase in the number of democracies around the world during the last decade of this century has not come as a fluke of history. It is the direct result of drastic changes in the world order that led to a change from bi-polarity to uni-polarity. Hegemony is now to capitalism as represented by the US.

This change has led many countries to adopt liberalism, both political and economic. Such a transformation dictates the changing of the whole nature of a state and its legal and establishmentarian framework. These states have become obliged to allow greater space for political, economic and social developments. Totalitarianism has been largely abandoned allowing individuals and NGOs more independence.
Transformation in Yemen
In this context, the democratic transformation in Yemen represents an opportunity for social and political forces to come into the open. The process of democratization is a transitional period between two important periods in the development of the modern Yemeni state. It accompanied the unification of the country; both events are qualitative leaps in the Yemeni political system and state towards political pluralism and unity.
So Yemen’s political transformation comes within the overall world democratic changes. This is despite the fact that adopting democracy in Yemen was not a voluntary act, but was dictated by the accumulation of crises in both former Yemeni states. For such a transformation to succeed, however, it must be based on a number of essential factor.
Basic Factors
Yemeni society at present is not entirely democratic, but is on its way to become so. the success of this process must rely on certain establishmentarian, legal, political, economic, social and cultural structures. Without such structures, the whole edifice will collapse.
Laws limit the state’s authority and guarantee individual rights and liberties. Establishment building and law inforcement are liable to restrict the authority of individuals and interest groups, and consolidate the activities and legal status of civil society establishments.
The success of democracy in Yemen also depends on adopting a civil culture and set of values that form democracy’s framework of knowledge. Both the ruling authority and the opposition must undergo an intellectual and political renewal. They have to open up to the values of democracy, human rights, equality, civil liberty, tolerance, political pluralism, etc. These values must be promulgated through society and its educational and cultural establishments. Members of society must be brought up on the values of democracy and its culture.
Since the regulatory concept of political liberalism is respect of human rights – political, economic and social. Democracy must grow and develop within society before it becomes a real political practice. It certainly cannot be built in a day, nor is it a grant by the rulers. It grows to become integrated in establishments, values and attitudes. It is a process of gradual maturity for the people and the rulers alike.
All of the above requires the development of a culture of democracy, to be promulgated within basic sociological constituents of the state – civil society establishments. These establishments represent society at large and form channels of political participation and enhancement of popular support. Civil society institutions also include local authority organs with which the general public interact daily.
For a country to be truly democratic, its people must have the right and freedom to choose their government though regular free and fair elections within a system of political pluralism. Democracy is a major process to be activated by both society and the state in an equal partnership.
Traditionalism & Tribalism
Since the Yemeni society is generally characterized by traditionalism and solid tribal allegiances, the state has to modernize society’s infrastructure. Modern institutions and their laws must become deeply rooted within the society in order to create a social and cultural environment supportive of modernization and democratization.
The state must also activate the citizens’ participation, politically, economically, and socially. Collective loyalty must be focused on the state itself. And a symbolic framework for the Yemeni personality should be created to represent the society’s national identity and characteristics. To successfully achieve this goal, the Yemeni state must become a melting pot for all individuals to help put an end to the multiplicity of tribal allegiances that contravene loyalty to the central authority.
The weakness of the state and its legal mechanisms will eventually lead to re-creating the traditional establishments and imposing their authority. The diminishing of the state’s central authority can lead to violence and political instability. The latest developments in Mareb and Al-Jawf are a good example on that.
So a modern state, based on constitutional legitimacy and public majority, is the essential factor in building a true democracy where people can positively interact with the state through the civil society institutions.
Popular Participation
The democracy that allows full public participation is the best means to overcome the culture of violence and corruption, which depend on practices that oppose the state and its laws. Corruption creates groups of narrow interests and allegiances, the loyalty to which is the “passport” to senior public employment.
Therefore democracy with its fairness, constructive criticism and freedom of the press helps uncover erroneous practices and give ordinary citizens the right to independent self-expression and criticism. A citizen of a democratic state has the independent ability of acquiring information that far exceeds the information given or imposed by the state. Thus a citizen will have the freedom to learn, think and benefit from the experiences of others and be able to compare his or her state’s performance with others. Therefore, freedom of information dissemination is a crucial condition for a true democracy. It give the citizens the ability to make an informed decision.
Democracy is not a façade. It is a structure of institutions, values and attitudes. Since the Yemeni society has no heritage of democratic practices, its modern civil forces must work to amass the powers of liberalism and openness as supports for Yemen’s democratic transformation. The civil society institutions form a focal point for the forces of modernism. Any modern concept must rely on a public will and supportive forces.
Economic Prosperity
Democracy’s success also requires more economic growth to create employment opportunities and an acceptable level of living for the people. Every citizen must have an employment opportunity to be able to live with dignity.
Thus democracy creates a suitable and supportive environment. Political liberalism encourages social flexibility and helps dismantle old or traditional groups and affiliations. Moreover, it vitalizes political participation.
Democratic transformation in Yemen will not succeed without certain number of factors: institutional and legal structure of the state, activating civil society institutions, active political and popular participation, economic growth and reducing unemployment. In addition to all that, the values and of democracy and civil culture must be promulgated, based on political plurality, equality, tolerance, and dialogue.
The modern Yemeni state to survive, it has no choice but to continue modernizing its institutions and to embrace democracy. In this only can it make the safe and successful transition into the next century.