Where Does the Islah Party Go From Here? [Archives:2002/02/Focus]

January 7 2002

By: Hassan Al-Haifi
Anyone familiar with the political developments in the Republic of Yemen, especially since the Revolution of September 26,1962, will undoubtedly have to admit that the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, or Islah Party, officially established in 1990, has been present for a considerable period in the political arena, albeit under different manifestations and under a more or less covert status prior to 1990. For sure, the presence of the Party will continue to be felt in the future politics of the Republic for a long time to come and may even assert itself even more in the delicate power equations that set the political scene in Yemen as time goes on.
There is really no definite date, which can be pinpointed as the exact date when the Islamic “fundamentalist” movement set foot in the Yemeni political theater. Some might go back to trace it to the years before the 1948 Revolution, when Al-Fadheel Al-Wartalani, an Algerian member of the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood Movement, who was teaching in Yemen in the 1940s, helped to organize the unsuccessful first coup against the Imamate Regime of the Hamid Aldin Family. Some suggest that Al-Wartalani may have been instrumental in convincing Mr. Mohammed Mahmoud Al-Zubeiry, one of the heroes of the Yemeni patriotic nationalist movement, to be sympathetic towards the platform of the Moslem Brotherhood, if not to become an active member. However, even if we assume that this is true, it would be a misleading contention to view the political philosophy and approach adopted by the modern organized religious political organization, that has come to be the Islah, can be associated with the much older and more sophisticated and to a larger extent, more pragmatic and enlightened Moslem Brotherhood. The reasons for this are many and obvious to those who are familiar with the history of religious political activism, but to delve into them would really be insignificant in the context of this analysis. The earlier manifestations of the Islah Party did borrow the name of the Moslem Brotherhood, at the start of its entry into the political theater in Yemen. In fact, most people referred to the members and the movement as the “Ikhwan”, or Brotherhood. The Wahhabi establishment in Saudi Arabia and their military and political wing, represented by the Saudi Royal family, had done the same, in the 1920s and early 1930s, when King Abdul Aziz Al Saud was consolidating his hold over what is now Saudi Arabia, although there was absolutely no association with the Moslem Brotherhood whatsoever. There might have been members or sympathizers of the original Moslem Brotherhood, who might have joined the Islah. This was the case of many former members of even the MB in Egypt, who joined other new movements that propped up in the late Sixties and Seventies, for various reasons, which again we will not delve into here. However, when they joined the new movements, they adopted the philosophies and approaches of the new movements accepting the different dogmatic inclinations of the new movements also.
In Yemen, the growth of the movement was fostered by a number of factors. After the Revolution of 1962, most of the official and unofficial religious institutions and organs that prevailed in Yemen were officially viewed as being associated with the Imamic regime. Therefore they were either terminated or absorbed by the Republic, in a more subdued manner, to placate the religious sensitivities, which most Yemenis were not willing to give up, notwithstanding their appreciation that Yemen had to follow a more progressive stance than the Imamate was willing to adopt, if it was to enter the Twentieth Century. With the Civil War between the Republican and the Royalists (1962 1970) ended, between the Republicans and the Royalists and peace set in, Yemen was more or less left to steer its own political course without foreign intervention (Egypt supported the Republic and Saudi Arabia supported the Royalists). Many leading Yemenis, still saw that religion would have to play a greater role in Yemen, because Islam still had a greater appeal among the majority of the people. This was further encouraged by the access to the strong obvious support from established “fundamentalist” movements elsewhere, although in a surreptitious manner. Therefore these people organized and worked towards filling what appeared to be a religious institutional vacuum. Thanks to access to adequate, if not generous resources and political support, these people were able to quickly find a niche in the power structure that evolved in the peacetime Republic. This was further reinforced, especially when the movement found sympathy among the more conservative tribal leadership, which needed to bolster its position in the new political framework that prevailed. With the Cold War still in full swing at the time, the movement projected itself as the defender of the faith and the nation against the eminent Communist danger that lurked in the air. This image was further enhanced with the establishment of the radical leftist regime that took over control of Aden and the South Arabian Federation, once the British abandoned the latter parts of Yemen in 1967. With the movement setting up “Quranic schools” throughout the country, a healthy and loyal grass roots following was achieved, and subsequently the movement gained the recognition of the Government, perhaps with the prodding from some of the neighbor states. Gradually the movement was considered as a strategic ally, of the Government in fighting the subversive insurrections that were being encouraged by South Yemen (1970s and early 1980s), which was able to mobilize active popular resistance against the subversive leftists until they were eliminated.
Then came the unification of North and South Yemen and the adoption of political pluralism and democracy in 1990. Like many of the underground or aspiring political movements in the country, the Islah Party also officially became launched. Thus, its appearance in the theater was now more vivid and more active. This political activism was bolstered by continuing to maintain a close affinity, politically, with the People’s General Congress as a “strategic ally”, even if they could not agree on a coalition arrangement in Government.
Next week, we will discuss the role of the Islah Party during the post unification political struggle and its current status, while trying to project the possible course open to the Islah, especially in the wake of international developments that followed the infamous tragedy of September 11, 2001 in the United States.