When democracy and dictatorship look alike [Archives:2007/1079/Opinion]

August 23 2007

By: Dr. Abdullah Al-faqih
Almost every Yemeni politician talks about Yemen as if it was the paradise of democracy in the world. The Yemeni leadership sometimes appears to be seriously considering exporting democracy along with oil to brotherly and friendly countries worldwide. The only obstacle to such a move, as it seems, is the fear that the world will misunderstand Yemen.

There is a precedent to international society's failure to understand Yemen. It occurred in August 1990 in the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. During the crisis, Yemen refused to condemn the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and either voted against or abstained from voting on some key United Nations Security Council resolutions. At that time, and in that particular crisis, the Yemeni officials claim that Yemen acted the way it did because it wanted to serve as a mediator and a peacemaker. Yemen even came up with a peace initiative which conditioned Saddam's withdrawal from Kuwait with Israel's withdrawal from Palestine. But the country was deeply misunderstood by international community. It was alleged then that Yemen was supporting Iraq, an accusation that is, according to officials, totally unfounded.

When the impoverished, the unemployed, and the starved Yemenis complain of corruption, misery, lack of justice, and poor social services, they are more often told to thank the leader for giving them democracy. Although people sometimes need food more than democracy, they are made to believe that democracy is what matters most.

To prove to Yemenis that Yemen is a democracy, state media is usually opened to Yemenis to thank the leader for his achievements. They are even told what to say exactly in his praise. If they fail to utter words of admiration, their voices would be replaced with skillful announcers.

State media in Yemen is very considerate. The Yemeni satellite TV channel sometimes allocates two hours and more for the evening prime time news just to praise the miracles of the leader who had just completed 29 years of reign. Although the Yemeni president ostensibly got into office through elections, he nevertheless still celebrates the first time he ascended to office in north Yemen on July 17, 1978. And because Yemen is immensely democratic, the president usually orders state institutions to celebrate the occasion on behalf of the people.

Yemen indeed is such a strange democracy. Only in Yemen you can have more voters than the people of voting age. Only in Yemen you can win before counting the ballots. Only in Yemen you can win 110% of the actual registered voters, and only in Yemen the dead can still enjoy their right to vote. Only in Yemen you can simultaneously have a democracy and keep the same president. Only in Yemen the same speaker of parliament. Only in Yemen the same vice president, and even the same press secretary.

Yemen's problem is not with the lack of democracy as enemies of the nation and the leader may suggest. It is rather with the failure of others to read Yemen's democracy. It is also with traitors such as independent journalists who dare to express their opinions or cover state secrets such as the recent war in Saddah. Yemen's problem is not illiteracy, which is a blessing but with literacy, which entices people to own newspapers and to start questioning.

Yemen does not allow its citizens, political parties, and various groups to establish independent and private TV and radio stations. It even sent some plain clothed security officers several weeks ago to repress and disperse a three-month long peaceful protest, organized by journalists and civil society activists, calling for liberation of the media. It also puts journalists in jails and accuses them of terror.

This is not because Yemen suffers from a democratic shortage or an autocratic surplus but because Yemen does not want to become like Iraq. The Yemeni leaders think, and they are the only leaders in the world to think this way, that the American invasion of Iraq came as a result of Iraqis having private TV stations after the invasion. They also think that the Lebanese had a civil war between 1975 and 1990 just because they now have private and partisan TV stations.

Even though genius Yemeni politicians seem to believe that free mass media is one of the causes of violent conflicts within societies, they miserably fail to explain why the Yemeni society is still having frequent violent conflicts even in the absence of free media.

Understandably, Yemen's democracy does not look like other democracies. To some people, it may even look more like a dictatorship. That is not because Yemen is not a democratic country. The reason is deeper than that, which cannot be understood by either journalists or foreigners. According to the mentality of the state officials, the Yemeni society has its own special characteristics that make Yemen's democracy look like dictatorship.

Yemen's friends should know, however, that Yemen's democracy is like wine in some countries, which is only sold to foreigners. As to citizens who dare to test it, they can do that only at their own risk.

The author is an activist, analyst, and professor of politics at Sana'a University. He welcomes sending comments to his email: [email protected]