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Who is "running" Yemen? - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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There is nothing worse than rejoicing at murder or death, yet (peaceful) demonstrators in Yemen’s Change Square broke out in a flurry of raucous celebrations, following the news that President Ali Abdullah Saleh and a number of state officials had been targeted by an explosion, whilst performing prayers at a mosque within the presidential palace compound. These songs and chants rejoicing at this incident completely contradict the calls that have been raised by the Yemeni people for freedom and dignity, as well as the now famous slogan “leave”. Indeed some of the president’s opponents who have been calling for change considered this incident to be a conspiracy orchestrated by the president himself in order to get rid of some members of his leadership. However after it had been confirmed that the president had indeed been injured, these [political] opponents rushed to say that they would not accept his return, after he left the country in order to receive medical treatment without paying any attention to the humanitarian situation in the country. Those who staged the demonstrations calling for change have long accused the existing regime of being tyrannical, yet the reaction to the attack on the president reveals that tyranny is a deeply-rooted culture in Yemen, and that malice is not confined to the Yemeni regime alone. It seems that even the opposition, which adopted the term “peaceful revolution” as its slogan, has no objection about taking up arms in order to eliminate the president.

Where is the democratic change and freedom that the advocates of the “Arab Spring” promised us?

In fact, democracy does not stem from the ballot boxes. According to [Professor of Political Sociology at Kuwait University] Dr. Mohamed al-Rumaihi, this is a cultural product; the fruit of the continual work of legitimate institutions, something which cannot be attained by the calls of those who seek to make individual or political gains. President Saleh today is in hospital, but despite this the demonstrators, tribes, and the armed forces who claim to be protecting them, are unable to present an alternative ruler to him. It has now been proven that even if the president falls, the [Yemeni] regime can still stand on its feet. In brief, the opposition and the thousands who gathered in Change Square have no alternative [political] project, nor are they concerned about building legitimacy or supporting the state’s existing institutions. Rather, their prime target is to expel the president and his associates, replacing them with others without securing any real change in ideas.

The problem with those who advocate the “Arab Spring” is that they are certain that overthrowing the existing regimes will result in the establishment of better ones, yet until now there have been no real signs of this. Let us take Egypt as an example, where the regime was overthrown on 11 February, largely thanks to the army; until now, the country remains without a president and under military rule. The Egyptian economy is stagnant and production remains idle, whilst the country is experiencing a state of security and administrative chaos. Perhaps the most remarkable phenomenon is that the institutions of the Egyptian state no longer enjoy the respect or legitimacy necessary for the peaceful and democratic transfer of power. It was often said that the former regime used thugs to deter the rebels, but now that most of that regime’s elements are in jail, chaos continues to prevail because state institutions and the force of law have both lost their prestige. This legitimacy cannot be restored unless the state alone is in full control, and is in possession of the mechanisms necessary to enforce the law.

Those who call for the “Arab Spring” used to tell everyone that the problem was the “dictators”, yet what we are seeing today is that both sides (the rulers and the people) are lacking in political values and awareness. Therefore, the enthusiasm for overthrowing the existing regimes will not necessarily result in a better reality. In Yemen, influential tribes and clans are fighting over power. In Egypt, only the minority is demanding the enforcement of law, whilst the majority is striving to punish the former regime and glorify the revolution.

How can it be logical for somebody seeking to build a new state to champion the revolution every day, whilst the country’s economy is collapsing? How can others speak of the martyrs and sacrifices that led to the ouster of the regime, whilst the country cannot ensure its basic requirements, and must ask others for loans and grants? What kind of [political] change will occur when those responsible for this do not know how to run a country, whether economically, politically, security-wise or legally? Are those demonstrators that are filling Arab public squares and loudly demanding change and freedom really aware of the price of their demands? Do they know how to build the institutions of a modern civilization?

In his recent book “The Origins of Political Order” (2011), Francis Fukuyama argues that good governance, freedoms, and democracy cannot be ensured unless a state of institutions is established, capable of exercising its authority via constitutional legitimacy based on a liberal culture, away from the illusions of fascist and religious ideas and beliefs and outdated tribal and popular customs. Fukuyama drew on the example of the Solomon Islands, where the popular culture relies heavily on the tribe and clan. Here the tribal leader exercises complete dominance over his people. The Australians attempted to introduce a parliamentary regime there, along the lines of the Westminster parliamentary system, and although decades have passed since this was first introduced; the results have been utterly chaotic. This is because the institutions that emerged as a result did not produce a civil democratic state. On the contrary, old traditional powers strengthened their influence and found modern tools to seize control of financial assets and the power that is metaphorically termed as the state. Fukuyama also draws our attention to the fact that replacing a dictatorial regime with a new system based on fair elections does not necessarily guarantee a successful government. The world has witnessed an increase in the number of states which are classified as democratic ever since the “Third Wave of Democratization” – as described by Samuel P. Huntington – emerged between 1973 and 1992. However despite all this, only one in every five global states classified as democratic is capable of providing its citizens with key services and ensuring the minimal requirements for a decent standard of living.

There are countries in Africa, Latin America and Eurasia where fair elections are held, however these countries cannot be described as states where democracy has produced a better life for its citizens. The Western press and human rights activists heralded Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, believing that the ouster of the Viktor Yanukovych regime would pave the way for better economic and political life in the country, yet the result was disappointing, as the opposition alliance, which toppled Yanukovych by occupying public squares in the capital Kiev became locked in struggles between its own components, which ended with them exchanging accusations of treason and then prosecuting each other. Ukraine’s economic deterioration and the opposition’s inability to run a state between 2008 and 2009 ultimately led to the re-election of Yanukovych in 2010.

Those championing the “Arab Spring” may wake up today or tomorrow to find themselves facing an angry public reaction to the huge illusions they used to justify the overthrow of regimes – even though they were authoritarian. There may be those who say that the Mubarak or Saleh regimes were – although undemocratic – better at addressing the economy and running the state’s affairs than the rebels who succeeded them. According to a statistical report published by the Washington Post (4 June 2011), 70 percent of Egyptians said they backed the change in regime for economic reasons, whilst only 19 percent said they supported the revolution for the sake of democracy.

In Yemen, Change Square is full of revolutionaries, who are indeed right to demand reform, yet the removal of President Saleh may not solve the political and economic problems that initially drove them to take to the streets. In Yemen there are those who aspire to rule the country, even if this would cause a civil war. These people are less concerned about improving the economic situation of millions of Yemenis, or meeting their basic needs; so much as they desire to rule the country even if this would cause the destruction of its already fragile institutions and divide the state.

In his book “Poisonous Wind: Saudi Arabia and the Peninsula States after the Gulf War” (2002), Riyad Najib al-Rayyes narrates the story of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s meeting with the late King Fahd (may God rest his soul) following the secessionist war in Yemen. After a prolonged talk about the future of Yemeni unity, the Yemeni President said “the difference between you and us – in the Gulf – is that you own and rule [the country], whilst we in Yemen neither own nor rule, we only run [the country]”

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi is the former Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and Al-Majalla magazine. As a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs, his research focuses on Saudi–Iranian relations, foreign policy decision-making in the Gulf, and IR theories on the Middle East. Dr. Al Toraifi holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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