The Democratic Future for Yemen

By Salloum, Habeeb | Contemporary Review, November 1992 | Go to article overview

The Democratic Future for Yemen

Salloum, Habeeb, Contemporary Review

ABD al-Aziz Abd al-Ghani, deputy head of the Mu'tamer Party General Popular Congress), the largest political organization in the country, was firm when he asserted that democracy was in the Yemen to stay. |The problems are enormous but we are convinced that a new society is in the making.' In the mind of this young leader of a party which was the main force in uniting North and South Yemen, the democratisation of his country was on a path of no return.

No one would have ever thought in the early 1960s, when Imam Ahmad ruled North Yemen in a ruthless fashion, that less than a few decades later his country would be the leading democratic land in the Arab world. A cruel tyrant, he kept the masses illiterate: many believed that Yemen was the whole world and that when the sun disappeared over the Red Sea it had reached the ends of the earth. The Imam had hoodwinked some of his people so thoroughly that even after the Imamite was overthrown in 1962, it took near a decade of civil war for the country's revolution to survive.

Today, when one visits the newly unified Republic it is almost impossible to think that in the 1950s the despotic ruler of the North governed a country which had virtually no modern industry, roads, schools or medical facilities, and little trade with the outside world. At that time, no one in their wildest dreams could have predicted that barely 30 years after his demise and the subsequent years of civil war, Yemen would be well on the way to becoming a progressive modern state. Yet, amazingly, this is what has happened. North and South Yemens have merged -- an unexpected event according to most observers-and in all areas, today's united country is progressing at a break-neck speed.

After foreign intervention was halted in the early 1970s, the North Yemen military government began to organise the country to fit into the twentieth century. Yet, even with the fast progress rapidly achieved, there was something missing. Most of the inhabitants felt that the country was not complete. The vast majority of people, in or out of power, wanted unity with the South, once a British colony. In the meantime, South Yemen, occupied by the British for many years, fought a war of independence, then a series of civil wars -- the last very bloody -- but there was no stability. Its inhabitants, in site of being indoctrinated for almost two decades with communist ideology, passionately desired union with the North.

After a number of border skirmishes and years of discussions, on May 22, 1990, the longing for unity was achieved. The president of the North, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Ali Salem al-Beidh, the leader of the South, signed an agreement of unity. In the subsequent days, integration in the economic, educational, legal and military fields, quickly began to be implemented. However, it was not the merger of the two countries, but the achievement of a democratic system which surprised both Arab and foreign observers alike.

Immediately after unification, political parties were legalised and in the following months, freedom of expression and press became more widespread than in any Arab or Third World country. Today, in the unified Yemen, there are 46 political parties, ranging from the far right to the extreme left. Freedom for journalists expressing their opinions in the 106 newspapers and magazines which proliferate the newstands is almost without limit. All this, it must be remembered, when under the Imam, only two small weekly newspapers were published in the whole of North Yemen.

According to Sa'id Na'aman, a member of the General Popular Congress which, in coalition with the Yemen Socialist Party (the transformed former ruling party in the South), govern the country, Yemen is a citadel of democracy in the Arab world. He stressed that after the November 1992 election, the democratic system will be firmly established and there will be no turning back. Nevertheless, in spite of the optimism in all strata of society, there are dark spots on the horizon. …

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