Yemen: Democracy without minority rights [Archives:2006/994/Opinion]

October 30 2006

Yemen extracts benefits from the West, notably the US, in return for its cooperation in global anti-terror efforts. Likewise Yemen's efforts at democratization, especially the improved conduct of September's presidential election, should result in an increase in badly needed donor funds. However, in the aftermath of the election, the Yemeni regime has begun discrediting, arresting and harassing opposition leaders, activists and voters. In one bizarre case, the regime has alleged a human rights activist is linked to al-Qaeda, casting doubt on the sincerity of both Yemen's democracy promotion and its efforts against terrorism.

The Election: Some votes counted

Yemen's recent election was hailed as a break through by many. U.S. President Bush congratulated Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh on the beginning of Saleh's 29th year in office, saying the vote itself is a victory for Yemen because it was an election that international observers called free and fair and will set an example for the region. Indeed, according to the European Union Election Observation Mission's preliminary report, the vote was “an open and genuine contest” and “[a] positive development in Yemen's democratization process.”

The regionally unique feature of the election was the inclusion of an authentic opposition candidate, Faisel Bin Shamlan, who received nearly a quarter of the vote. In another break with tradition, the government controlled national TV broadcast each candidate's rallies. For the thirty day election period, there was a vibrant national debate on the issues and open criticism of some government policies. The voters, in only their second direction presidential election, displayed a political maturity unexpected by some, and voting day was relatively peaceful and violence free. While these are “positive developments,” some aspects of the election were not free and fair.

European Union (E.U.) election monitors visited about 20% of polling centers and evaluated voting procedures as good or very good in 82% of the cases. However, the observers also reported a variety of infractions that would never be tolerated in any developed democracy. President Saleh's powerful ruling party, the General People's Congress (G.P.C.), engaged in illegal campaigning at nearly a third of the observed polling centers. The E.U. observers also noted the breach of the secrecy of the vote in 19 percent of polling centers, among many other violations. President Saleh acknowledged some mistakes were made. Al-Motamar, the G.P.C.'s website, estimated the vote tally for Bin Shamlan was understated by not more than ten percent.

Bin Shamlan was endorsed by the Islamic reform party, Islah, the Nasserite Party, The Popular Forces Union, al-Haq and the Yemeni Socialist Party which ruled the former South Yemen. However, some Southerners boycotted the election in protest of what they describe as belligerent Northern hegemony dating back to the 1994 civil war and such continuous practices as land confiscation, discrimination, and the militarization of the former South Yemen. In a 2004 interview with the Yemen Times, Dr. Mohammed Masdos, a member of the General Secretariat of the Yemeni Socialist Party, asserted that in the decade following the civil war, Southerners faced employment discrimination, targeted harassment, massive lay-offs, and the exclusion from civil society organizations and political power sharing. He described the “erasing” of Southern history and identity, a northern monopoly of wealth and power, and the resulting fear, poverty and humiliation among Southerners.

Those citizens who did participate in the electoral process faced difficulties beyond what was noted by the international monitors. Voter registration for the 2006 presidential election was seriously flawed. Statistics indicate several hundred thousand more male voters than voting aged men in Yemen. The International Freedom of Expression Exchange reported that some news and political websites were blocked. Yemen's electoral constituencies are required by law remain within a five percent deviance; however their sizes range from 25,000 to 50,000. Opposition activists were harassed and forty seven were kidnapped by security forces; several are still incarcerated without charge. The opposition leadership charged the government with seizing polling stations, vote buying, evicting candidates representatives, and destroying and stealing ballot boxes. Hamid al-Ahmar, a progressive young sheik who was among the most prominent of Bin Shamlan supporters, said that military and security institutions, intelligence apparatuses, public media and officials had changed into “operations rooms” in favor of GPC. Exiled oppositionist Mr. Ahmed al-Hasani stated on the London based Al-Mustakilla television channel that the regime received a shipment of ink remover for distribution to the military in advance of the election in order to facilitate multiple voting.

However, the international observers deemed an approximate vote count good enough. Paul Salem, from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said, “What is unfortunate is that a largely free and fair election could be clouded by doubts over percentage points or accusations of fraud, particularly at a time when virtually all parties agree that the basic outcome was that Saleh and the GPC did win.”

State power and funds overwhelmingly supported President Saleh. Prior to the election, President Saleh promised government workers in the drastically poor country an extra month's salary to be received after the election. Unlike other oil firms in Yemen, the Canadian firm Nexen refused to pay the bonus, correctly calling it “corruption” and “hush money.” Although fear mongering is not an electoral infraction, President Saleh raised the bar to new heights by predicting (or perhaps promising) a civil war if the opposition candidate was elected. Saleh was supported by Yemen's Salafi community, and a leading Salafi scholar issued a fatwa (at a campaign rally, along side Saleh and broadcast on national TV) declaring voting against President Saleh was against Islamic precepts. Saleh himself frequently referred to the opposition as apostates. Along with the religion card, Saleh also played the terrorism card.

The Terrorism Show

President Saleh's regime has a history of exploiting the terror issue for political gain and the election season was no different. After what officials described as two thwarted terror attacks on oil facilities, President Saleh accused his rival Bin Shamlan of instigating the attacks with his rhetoric against corruption in the oil industry.

On the eve of the election, President Saleh went further, directly tying the attacks to Bin Shamlan. On national TV, Saleh alleged that one of Bin Shamlan's bodyguards, Hussein Dharhani, was an Al-Qaeda linked terrorist and had masterminded the thwarted suicide bombings. Saleh brandished a photo for reporters of Dharhani standing behind Bin Shamlan at a campaign rally. Al-Motamar ran the story with the headline, “JMP involved in Terror Attacks: Saleh.” The opposition quickly pointed out that Dharhani was fired after a week on suspicion of being a regime intelligence agent and that he is married to President Saleh's cousin.

Some in the opposition have gone so far as to suggest the thwarted terrorist attacks may have been staged. “The ruling party have fabricated these operations with the aim of accusing the opposition parties of being behind these terrorist acts,” said Sultan al-Atwani, General-Secretary of Nasserite Party. Abdul-Wahab al-Anesi, General-Secretary of the Islah Party said, “I do not have perfect evidence about what al-Atwani alleged, but the way the government has exploited these acts casts doubt on their veracity, especially given that GPC accused the opposition of backing the operation.”

In truth, Saleh's regime is quite apt at devising propaganda, and some of its anti-terror cooperation with the U.S. is appearance without substance. For example, in a recent interview published by the Yemen Observer, Yahya al-Raibee, whose son Abu Bakr was convicted on terror charges, stated that his son who received a ten year prison sentence never spent a day in jail, although U.S. officials thought he did. “The security would only take him from my house to appear in the court, and then bring him back after the court hearings,” Mr. al-Raibee said.

Opposition Targets

The regime has continued using the terrorist label after the election to target its political opposition. The Popular Forces Union Party reported the arrest of party member Ali Hussain Al-Dailami, director of the Yemeni Organization for the Defense of Public Rights and Liberties. Yemen's Ministry of Defense announced on its website, 26 September (sic), that al-Dailami has “has suspicious relations with a terrorist cell.” A number of opposition parties, civil society organizations and human rights groups including Amnesty International have denounced the arrest. The Yemeni Civil Society Organizations Coalition held a march in solidarity with Al-Dailami, and the Arab Sisters Forum for Human Rights called al-Dailami's detention illegal. The smear by association tactic was also used against opposition parliamentarian Hamid al-Ahmar, who was accused in a published report of employing a relative of Dharhani at his telecommunications corporation, SabaFon. Al-Ahmar, who in May stated, “It is impossible for the nation to tolerate the totalitarian regime and its failed policies,” in October is having difficulties clearing a shipment of equipment for SabaFon.

That's not the only trouble al-Ahmar is facing. The G.P.C. is supporting a request from the Ministry of Justice to lift Al-Ahmar's parliamentary immunity in order to prosecute him under the banner of protection of journalists. Along with other oppositionists, Al-Ahmar is facing an onslaught of insults in the governmental media, par for the course in Yemen. The Defense Ministry's newspaper, The 26 September (sic) published a derogatory poem insulting al-Ahmar. In response, Al-Ahmar called General Ali Al-Shater, the editor in chief of The 26 September (sic), who reportedly has his own private prison. The General claims Al-Ahmar issued a death threat during the call. In a politicized use of the judiciary, the case has been referred to the prosecutor.

In 2005 over fifty violations against non-governmental journalists in Yemen were recorded. Non-governmental journalists were harassed, kidnapped, beaten, stabbed, shot at, and threatened. The Committee to Protect Journalists noted, “The Yemeni government failed to conduct serious investigations or bring perpetrators to justice, and its leaders conspicuously failed to denounce the assaults. Witnesses and evidence point to involvement by government forces and suspected state agents in a number of assaults.” In light of the regimes previous lack of prosecutions for physical attacks on journalists, the prosecution of Al-Ahmar appears related to his politics not his phone manners.

Also in the aftermath of the election, many teachers reported being transferred to distant assignments, which they believe is retribution for their support of the opposition candidate. Employment in Yemen is politicized, and teachers in Yemen have faced sustained governmental harassment before. In response to a March strike for compensation due under Law 43 of the 2005 Wages Strategy, teachers and union heads were arrested, followed by security forces, suspended and their salaries were withheld. The April edition of Islamic Affair Analyst published by the U.K. based Jane's Information Group, quotes Ahmed Al-Ribahi, chairmen of the Yemen teachers union, “Teachers have been laid off, insulted, harassed, and accused of terrorism and of being separatists and stooges for the US. Our teachers have been threatened in all governorates. They say we are only working by the agenda of the opposition parties. The multi-party system became a dagger to jab anyone who asked for his rights.”

Tyranny of the Majority

The multi-party system continues to jab those who challenge the ruling party's hegemony. The Yemeni opposition should be commended for its bravery in contesting the election, as the targeting that followed was predictable. The Yemeni opposition parties overcame enormous obstacles and created a new regional political paradigm. They unified despite disparate ideologies and intense regime pressures. Through that unity, they forced some concessions from the regime and mobilized a significant number of voters after years of authoritarian rule. However, some of Yemen's opposition parties do not fully practice the democracy they advocate at a national level, and thus the development of a new generation of political leaders is stymied. A climate of egalitarianism is not fully evolved. The leadership often directs the membership and not visa versa.

The election itself did little beyond fortify the underlying concentration of power in the executive branch. Many reforms that President Saleh has instituted do little in practice to empower either the opposition or the people. The recently elected local councils have an overwhelming ruling party majority. Saleh announced that governors will be elected by these local councils, leaving little hope for the election of opposition or independent Governors. Saleh ordered the establishment of a second satellite channel under the supervision of the Ministry of Information, which historically has been a repressive institution. Although Saleh replaced himself with an appointed judge as head of the Supreme Judicial Council, the institution has little judicial independence from the executive branch. Saleh established The National Council for Fighting Corruption and appointed regime loyalists at its head. The body will most likely be used to target the opposition parties and leaders.

In Yemen the structures of democracy exist without its substance. The fundamental component of the principle of majority rule is the security and protection of the minority. Thus one indication of Saleh's limited commitment to democracy is the treatment of his political opposition after the election. Attaching the terrorist label to opposition leaders is no more than a propaganda ploy designed for consumption by the West.

Jane Novak ([email protected]) is an American journalist and political analyst. She is a contributing editor at and maintains the website