Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Yemen Again on Path to Democracy, Economic Growth

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Yemen Again on Path to Democracy, Economic Growth

Article excerpt

Yemen Again On Path to Democracy, Economic Growth

"Something wonderful has happened in Yemen," gushed The New York Times in May 1993. Citing Yemen as a model of Middle Eastern democratic transition, the editorial lauded the recently unified republic's success in holding free parliamentary elections with universal suffrage.

The praise seemed warranted at the time, but the following year Yemen's progress (and President Ali Abdullah Saleh's leadership) dissolved into a bloody civil war. The Times editorialists confided in a Yemeni colleague that they felt very foolish to have prejudged the transition to democracy.

Today, in the run up to parliamentary elections scheduled for next April, Yemen's political outlook lies between these extremes: While Yemen's democratic transition now appears far from ideal, the unified republic has made moderate progress toward pluralism and free-market reform.

The Republic of Yemen, located to the southwest of Saudi Arabia, was formed in 1990 from the consensual merger of the (North) Yemen Arab Republic and the (South) People's Democratic Republic of Yemen. Nationalists in both states had long called for reunification, but Yemen had been continuously divided since the 17th century. The southern Marxist-Leninist government petitioned for unity when the loss of Soviet and East German aid left it economically unviable.

As the weaker partner, former South Yemen was forced to accept the subordination of its laws, as well as the leadership of the northern President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Not surprisingly, some called for a return to separate states. The resulting secession crisis led to a war in May 1994 which journalists on the scene attest was initiated by the northern authorities. By July, Sana'a had succeeded in crushing southern resistance to northern hegemony. Saleh's party, the General People's Congress (GPC), formed a coalition government with the moderate Islamist Yemeni Congregation for Reform (Islah) as a junior partner.

Like fellow Arab states Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait, Yemen has a freely elected parliament but an autocratic executive that limits the parliament's effectiveness. In 1978 Lt. Gen. Saleh, a poorly educated man of humble tribal origins, came to power with the support of the army, the tribes, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. His administration began on a sour note as a result of his alleged involvement in the assassination of his predecessor, the popular President Ibrahim Muhammed al-Hamdi.

Though at first Saleh commanded little popular support, in time his modest efforts to broaden political participation, unify the nation, establish the rule of law, and develop the economy won him the respect or at least acceptance of his countrymen.

In 1990, Yemen proclaimed a new constitution, calling for a democratically elected president who would serve a maximum of two terms. Saleh interprets this clause to allow him to finish his robber-stamped term of six years before putting himself up for election. If the people elect Saleh twice, he will have been president for 31 years.

As a result of such backsliding, the United States no longer cites Yemen as the model of emerging Arab democracy. Now, Yemen appears on the U.S. political horizon only when its policies run counter to America's priority in the Gulf: the protection of friendly oil-rich regimes.

Yemen's anti-coalition position in the Gulf war, however, seriously antagonized U.S. policymakers and led to the immediate suspension of its aid program. Since then, relations have thawed considerably with the rapprochement between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, symbolized by the recent exchange of high-ranking officials and the completion of a border security agreement. This year's withdrawal of the USAID mission in Yemen is characterized by U.S. officials as a purely budgetary decision.

The Washington Report asked several prominent Yemenis in August to assess the transition to democracy. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.