Civil Society in Yemen: The Political Economy of Activism in Modern Arabia

Article excerpt

Civil Society in Yemen: The Political Economy of Activism in Modern Arabia, by Sheila Carapico. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998. xv + 211 pages. Notes to p. 233. Gloss. to p. 235. Bibl. to p. 253. Index to p. 256. $59.95.

Reviewed by Janine A. Clark

Sheila Carapico's Civil Society in Yemen: The Political Economy of Activism in Modern Arabia is an impressive contribution to the theoretical study of civil society in the Arab world and to the empirical case study of Yemen. Carapico presents an authoritative historical analysis of the development of Yemeni civil society from the beginning of the 20th century to the late 1990s, and places it in a broad political, economic, and social context. In addition, Carapico examines in detail the different forms of civic activism in Yemen. The book reflects the author's extensive archival research of Arabic, English and European sources, and her personal familiarity with Yemen and Yemenis as a student, researcher, consultant, and friend for almost 30 years.

The study focuses on three periods of economic and political opening, during each of which civic activism rapidly filled the political space granted to it: Aden and the protectorates in the 1950s1960s; the former Yemen Arab Republic from the 1970s to the early 1980s; and the Republic of Yemen between 1990 and 1994. While the first period of civic activism consisted primarily of the formation of syndicates, clubs and political parties by labor groups and merchant interests, the second opening resulted in a flurry of self-help projects to build roads, schools and water supplies, and in the initiation of local elections. The third, and most democratic of the openings, produced political parties, intellectual seminars, conventions and lawsuits, as well as numerous charitable associations. All three periods began with economic expansion, followed by government experiments in political liberalization that were aimed at marshaling popular support for economic programs. But all three periods ended in repression, as regime tolerance of political criticism and challenges reached its limits and civic space narrowed.

Through her analysis, Carapico challenges the stereotypical portrayal of tribal cultures and Islam as inherently conservative and anti-democratic. Carapico shows that, while the forms of activism differ over time, civic spaces are commonly "defined by political, economic, and cultural factors, and in turn civic activism has discernible.. effects on states, material conditions, and popular culture" (p. 201). Carapico demonstrates that civic activism in Yemen not only exists, but has "furthered the constitutional, electoral, legal, infrastructural, institutional, and ideological dimensions of state power" (p. …