Yemen’s Difficult Path to Democracy [Archives:1998/30/Law & Diplomacy]

July 27 1998

The poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen seems to be opening up to democracy. It is the only country to do so in the region, and as yet it is a fragile process, supported mainly by the trade unions and civil society.
One cheek filled with the ubiquitous qat, the euphoria-inducing plant that like millions of other Yemenites, he chews and keeps in his mouth for a whole afternoon, Yahya Mohammed Al-Matari, with his keffiyeh on his shoulders and a jacket over his futtah, proudly wears the traditional curved dagger, the gambia, on his stomach as a symbol of virility. But his real source of pride is the newspaper he is holding out to us.
For several years now, Yahya, a graduate in political science from the University of Sana’a, has edited “The Worker”, a weekly journal of the General Federation of Workers Trade Unions (GFWTU) of Yemen. Page by page he invites us to peruse his latest edition: The problems of privatization, articles on corruption in certain enterprises, a survey on child labor, editorials and opinions, all embellished with cartoons and photographs in a layout that would make many trade union editors green with envy.
“In the past,” says Yahya, “I worked for a government newspaper, but when the paper moved to Aden, the country’s economical capital since re-unification, I agreed to work for the union. I earn less, but I have more freedom.” When asked about the unions independence, everyone points to it’s journal. “To gauge the changes that have taken place in the union, you only need to compare editions of the journal before re-unification with some of the latest issues,” Ahmed Al-Kuwati assures us. “Before the journal was a sectarian political organ, whereas now it talks about workers’ real problems, without bias.”
Ahmed knows what he is talking about. As a shop steward at Yedco, the Yemen Drug Company, a pharmaceutical enterprise which employs 600 workers (including 150 women), Ahmed was deemed to be too disruptive, and was sacked in 1994. It took a court decision (“the first of its kind,” smiles Ahmed) and the freezing of Yedco’s bank accounts to get him re-instated. “Every week, the trade union journal reported on my case and the federation always supported me,” recalls the trade union activist.
Today, he works in the sales department and can pride himself on obtaining substantial pay rises for his colleagues. Yedco is one of the many state enterprises. Everyday it produces more than 20,000 doses of dextrose, cough syrups and antibiotics. It also produces medicine for children, distributed free by the Ministry of Health, and financed by international aid.
Like many other state enterprises, Yedco may be privatized under the adjustment programme begun by the government. But Ahmed is not worried: “The federation is keeping a look out for problems, and anyway Yedco has a bright future, it may even begin to export.”
It is also Yedco that prints the Yemen Times, the only English language weekly in the country and not given, under the leadership of the editor- in- chief Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf, to indulge towards the government whose poor performance on human rights it regularly criticizes.
Now on the Internet, the Yemen Times has become both the conscience of Yemen and the symbol of its democratic achievements. Although Yemen is rightly criticized by humanitarian organizations such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch for its violations of human rights, perpetrated mainly by the Political Security Organization, the political police which the present government has been unable or unwilling to control effectively, there are undeniable signs the country is opening up to democracy. It has got to the point where the oil-rich monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula are getting worried, looking disapprovingly at the democratic developments in what is admittedly the poorest but also the most populated country in the region, and strategically situated, with its western coast on the Red Sea and its southern tip reaching into the Gulf of Aden.
“Our neighbors do not want to hear any mention of multi-party systems, freedom of opinion or democracy. The words “tripartism” and “trade union” alone makes their blood boil,” confides a high ranking government official. However, the democratization process which began in Yemen following the unification between north and south in 1990 and resumed in 1994 following a six month civil war is not so much the work of the political parties or the government – more concerned with restoring stability to attract foreign investors and impose reforms than encouraging the freedom of expression – than of civil society, including human rights and women’s organizations, co-operatives and the trade unions, now highly respected and proudly independent.
In the trade union federation’s meeting room in Sana’a, Yahya Al-Kahlani, its fiery president, recalls how the trade unions together with other non-governmental organizations contributed to the record levels of participation in the April 1997 legislative elections, the second since re-unification. On the walls, maps marked with arrows, red dots and comments give the impression of an army headquarters. It was here that they co-ordinated the supervision of the elections by the supreme popular committee, composed of human rights’, women’s, employers and trade union organizations and presided over by Yahya.
“One year before the elections, we launched a campaign to encourage voters to register,” recounts Yahya, showing the figures on a table, divided by region and sex. “We concentrated our attention particularly on women,” he added. However to have paid off: 300,000 more people registered to vote than in the 1994 election. “In all the factories, we posted up an appeal to workers to encourage them to vote for the candidates they knew and respected. We didn’t give them any other instructions,” continues Yahya. Judging by the maps on the wall, the whole country was covered and a supervisory center was set up in every electoral constituency, with its own supreme committee.
“Thanks to our network of educators and the fact that the ballots were held in schools, we were often the first to report incidents,” explains the trade unionist. And there were plenty to report. Shots were fired in several polling stations, pressure was put on voters, and fraud was committed. But there is no doubt that the presence of supervisors limited the damage. Foreigners declared that the elections were “reasonably free and fair,” given that in a country where electoral differences and political quarrels are usually settled by the gun.
The GFWTU has now become a respected negotiating partner, unified in 1990, before the re-unification of the two Yemens, it represents some 350,000 trade unions in the north and south of the country. “In the south we had a socialist regime and in the north a capitalist-styled system. Our unification enabled us to avoid the mistakes of these two systems,” explains Fadhle Abdulla Al-Akel, the unions education officer.
Although the tensions between the two communities seem to have been overcome within the union, it does still have some sizable challenges to face, particularly as it lost most of its resources in the 1994 civil war. Several of its offices were reduced to ruins and the training institute in Aden has been occupied by the Islah, the Islamist Party relegated to opposition in the last elections. “We have all the documents proving that this institute belongs to the trade union and the court ruled in our favor, but the government is reluctant to chase Islah out for political reasons, particularly as they have arms,” explains Fadhle.
Today it is the adjustment plan introduced at the behest of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank that is worrying the unions. With a comfortable majority in parliament, since the elections in April last year, President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his General People’s Congress (GPC) government now feels free to apply a program that the Islah resisted when it was in the coalition. Last July Yemen’s government raised the price of water, petrol and electricity, and the sharp rise (+ 60%.) in the price of diesel oil which followed in October roused the anger of farmers. The worst was yet to come.
According to Al-Shoura, a world bank delegation visiting Yemen last February recommended the total lifting of subsidies of essential foods and new austerity measures in exchange for more aid. A rise in the price of wheat and flour is expected and the reform of the civil service, which could lead to 35,000 job losses. All of which comes before the country has managed to recover from the economic consequences of the Gulf war. Yemen paid dearly for its refusal to support the UN coalition against Iraq in 1991.
Saudi Arabia sent home nearly one million Yemeni workers from its kingdom in the space of a few days, provoking a sharp rise in unemployment and depriving the country of one and a half billion dollars its emigrants sent home every year. Riyadh also suspended bilateral aid, estimated at 500 million dollars, and was followed by other donor countries who had been providing similar sums. Even though international aid has resumed, it will take Yemen many more months to recover.
“Today I earn the equivalent of 300 US dollars a month,” says Abdullah Al-Mutawakel, an engineer at TeleYemen, the country’s only communications enterprise, in which private capital now has a 49% stake. “In 1991, I earned the same number of riyals, but they were worth about 1,000 dollars a month,” continues Abdullah, who knows he can think himself lucky, given that most Yemeni workers have to make do with 15,000 riyals, about 120 dollars.
The successive devaluations of the riyal became inevitable after the Gulf war and the evaporation of currency reserves in the Central Bank. In 1991 the exchange rate was one US dollar to 4 riyals. Today it is one dollar to 125 riyals. According to the Yemen Times, civil servants, who represent 40% of the working population, have seen their purchasing power reduced by nearly 80% between 1993 and 1997. Many of them now fear, as privatization looms, they will join the ranks of the million plus unemployed.
Mohammed Mohammed Al-Tayeb, the dynamic Labour Minister, seeks to be reassuring. “The government will pay civil servants who lose their jobs through privatization from its budget until they have been retrained and find a new job,” he promises, in perfect English. The US educated Minister, a supporter of the “social clause” believes the most important task now is to create a stable economic and social situation in Yemen and environment that will attract foreign investors.
Tripartism, doubtless unique in the Arab Peninsula, has become a reality and the trade unions are an organized social partner. The GFWTU has even succeeded in delaying an agreement between the government and the WB, demanding that a law protecting workers be introduced before there is any privatization.
The growing influence of the trade unions however is not to everyone’s liking, and for some, old habits die hard. The omnipresent Political Security Organization (PSO) answerable only to the president of the republic, distinguished itself a few weeks ago by arresting Dirhem Abdulfatah, a trade unionist at the Central Bank who was taken away during negotiations with the governor.
Held in secret for a week, he was released following the GFWTU’s intervention. The teachers’ strike to demand an increase in their pay, which does not exceed 70 dollars a month led to a smear campaign by the PSO which accused the trade union leaders of pursuing political objectives.
The GFWTU president is cautious. “It has not been easy for us, and although we’re satisfied with the progress so far, we’re determined to continue our fight and defend our principles,” states Yahya Al-Kahlani. It remains to be seen whether the trade unions’ fervent desire for democracy is shared by the government, as it prepares economic reforms which are bound to affect a sorely tried population ready to jealously guard it’s new found freedoms.
By Luc Demart
[This article appeared in the April, 1998, issue of the ‘Trade Union World’ – published by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), Brussels.]