The Birth of Modern Yemen - Chapter 5

An e-book by Brian Whitaker exploring theunification of north and south Yemen in 1990, and its aftermath

5. The multi-party system

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THE UNIFICATION of Yemen brought a period of unprecedented political freedom and diversity. These changes – and the sense of excitement that accompanied them – were not unlike the political spring that occurred in parts of eastern Europe shortly after the fall of communism. For the Arab world, however, the openness of debate and the range of opinion – from Stalinist to Islamist – found in Yemen during the early 1990s was unique. Suddenly the rights which most states grant to their citizens on paper, but less often in reality, could be exercised by anyone who chose to do so, with little fear of the consequences. Within a few months more than 40 political parties had sprung up, together with dozens of new newspapers and magazines. The parliamentary elections originally scheduled for 1992 were to be the first in the Arabian peninsula under a multi-party system with universal suffrage.

The transformation was all the more unusual because, far from being achieved through popular struggle, it was introduced from above by two regimes which had shown only a limited interest in democracy in the past. Although democratisation continued the evolutionary processes that had begun in both parts of the country before unification, the driving force was not an outbreak of libertarianism. The degree of political freedom that actually developed in Yemen far exceeded that which was originally intended. Despite the sweeping (but partly routine) declarations of liberty in the constitution, the new laws relating to political parties and the press showed that democracy and freedom of speech were intended to operate within carefully-controlled limits, but when the controls failed Yemeni democracy became permissive by default.

This happened largely because laws intended to regulate and, to some extent, restrict the activities of political parties and the press were not implemented during the first few years of unity, creating a political free-for-all. One factor in this was the historical weakness of central government in the north which meant that laws covering a wide range of activities (not just political activities) tended to be enforced selectively, if at all. A second factor was that the multi-party system had created a means for unification to take place while allowing the ruling parties of the former north and south to retain their separate identities. As serious differences between the GPC and YSP emerged, the two parties were unable to agree on government action – so restraints imposed by the law were often not applied.

In the eyes of the ruling parties, however, the main objective of democratisation was to provide legitimacy, both internally and externally, for the new regime. As originally envisaged, this presented no immediate threat to the status quo: in contrast to most of eastern Europe, it was not brought about by the collapse of the ruling party. Many of the “new” Yemeni parties had existed informally or secretly prior to unification/democratisation and simply emerged into the open. Nor was there much evidence of new parties based around popular or grass-roots movements; on the whole they represented elements of Yemen’s existing political elite – either the establishment elite or those sections of the elite that for one reason or another had become excluded from the establishment. There was therefore little in the creation of so many new parties that could be considered dangerous. The political equation was not changed by them; the elements were all familiar, their strengths and weaknesses understood, even if some of the party names were new. The principal change brought by unification/democratisation, as far as these elements were concerned, was that their existence became officially recognised, allowing them to promote their views more openly than hitherto.

Legal basis of the multi-party system

THE MULTI-PARTY SYSTEM was a relatively recent adjunct to the concept of politics in a unified Yemen. The Cairo and Tripoli agreements of 1972, for instance, had merely envisaged a “democratic” state without referring to pluralism. Although these documents did not specifically mention a one-party system either, they tended to point in that direction [see Chapter 3]. By the time of unification in 1990, however, pluralism in Yemen was not just desirable but a necessity because the two regimes had failed to merge into a single party. Even so, the new constitution made no direct reference to a multi-party system; Article 39 merely reiterated the 1972 formula in a slightly amended form:

In as much as it is not contrary to the constitution, the citizens may organise themselves along political, professional, or union lines. They have the right to form associations in scientific, cultural, social and national unions in a way that serves the goals of the constitution. The state shall guarantee these rights, and shall take the necessary measures to enable the citizens to exercise them. The state shall guarantee all freedoms to the political, union, cultural, scientific, and social organisations [1].

While this plainly granted the right to organise politically, it remained ambiguous on the question of political parties (i.e. bodies which contest elections and seek to win power). “Political organisations” were listed along with trade unions, professional bodies and the like, which made them sound more like interest groups than parties. As far as the 1991 Law Governing Parties and Political Organisations was concerned, however, there was no difference between a political organisation and a party. In its preliminary definitions, the law stated:

Party or Political Organisation = Any group of Yemenis, organised according to common principles and objectives based on constitutional legitimacy, who exercise political and democratic activities with the aim of achieving the transfer of power or sharing thereof using peaceful means. [2]

On the basis of that definition, therefore, Article 39 of the constitution could be interpreted as granting a general, unrestricted right to form parties [3]. The law then went on to state:

According to Article 39 of the Constitution of the Republic of Yemen, general liberties including political pluralism and a party system based on constitutional legitimacy are considered a right and a pillar of the political and social system of the Republic of Yemen. This right may not be cancelled, limited or restrained, and no measure may be taken to hinder the freedom of citizens to exercise it. [4]

That was as clear and categorical a statement as anyone might wish for – except that other sections of the law required parties (and “political organisations”) to register with the authorities. Regarding the right to form political parties, three alternative views of the constitutional/legal position emerged: [5]

1. That the constitution, as it stood, was specific enough to allow parties to begin their activities without the need for any further steps to legalise them.

2. That all parties should first meet the registration requirements of the 1991 law.

3. That those parties which had existed legally before unification (i.e. the GPC and YSP) could continue to operate, while new or previously underground parties should register under the law.

Whatever the respective merits of these arguments, to establish a party strictly in accordance with the 1991 law, or even to continue the activities of an existing party, a large number of legal criteria had to be met [6]. The law’s provisions were illuminating, since they reflected some of the fears about a multi-party system that were current around the time of unification – in particular, that it might jeopardise “sovereignty, security, stability, and national cohesion” [7].

To protect sovereignty, party members must be Yemeni nationals [8] and those establishing parties must also be born of a Yemeni father [9]. Gifts or services must not be accepted from non-Yemeni individuals or parties [10] and parties must not be affiliated to a political system in a foreign country [11]. This appeared to be aimed at preventing the system of “subsidies” or bribes to tribal leaders by the Saudis and others being transferred to the new political parties. However, as a concession towards the strong pan-Arab element in some Yemeni parties (the Nasserists and Ba’athists, for example), the law did allow “bilateral ties – on [an] equal footing – with any non-Yemeni party or political organisation, in a manner that is not contrary to Yemen’s supreme national interests, the constitution and the laws in force” [12].

In the general interests of security and stability, the following obligations were imposed, setting the bounds of what was considered acceptable activity:

a) Not to contradict Islam.

b) Not to endorse any of the former regimes of the imam or the sultans. “Any actions contrary to the objectives of the Revolution, the Republic, Unity and Democracy are forbidden.”

c) Not to disrupt the general order and security, or to be involved in plots or violence or to motivate others in them ...

f) Not to use mosques, or the educational and governmental facilities to promote or criticise any party or political organisation.

g) The right to use public land for political activities on condition of prior co-ordination with the relevant authorities. [13]

To protect national unity, each party “must stand on a national basis and may not limit membership to any geographical region” [14]. Neither must it be “based on regional, tribal, sectarian, class, professional, or any other form of discrimination” [15]. As an additional safeguard, the headquarters of the party must be in Sana’a [16] and, at the time of submitting an application to register, it must have at least 2,500 members from most of the provinces, including Sana’a city [17]. The most obvious purpose of this was to prevent a re-opening of the unification question through the development of specifically northern or southern parties. It also addressed a phenomenon often witnessed in new democracies (in Africa, for example) where parties have tended to be based around tribes.

An unspecified sum of money was to be set aside as a government subsidy for political parties. This would be distributed according to a complex formula under which 25% of the total would be shared equally by all parties represented in parliament, with the remaining 75% divided in proportion to the share of votes obtained by each party at a general election (excluding those which won less than 5% of the total votes). In no case was the state subsidy to exceed the total income received by parties in the form of membership subscriptions. Whatever the intention behind this, it did little to help the smaller parties and meant that, in order to receive the subsidy, they would have to provide detailed information about their financial affairs to the government [18]. This included notifying the government of any single donation over 100,000 riyals (about £1,500) or multiple donations from a single source exceeding 200,000 riyals [19].

The requirements for registering a party were both complex and stringent. Apart from meeting all the conditions set out above, the party had to present an application signed by 75 founding members and notarised in a court of law. It had to supply copies of its constitution and political programme, details of the leadership structure, assets, banking arrangements, and branch membership lists showing at least 2,500 other members distributed across the whole country [20]. Registrations were to be supervised by the Committee for the Affairs of Parties and Political Organisations, consisting of the Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs (as chairman), the Interior Minister and the Justice Minister, plus four non-party members who must be either retired judges or lawyers [21]. The law specified no grounds for refusing the registration of a party, though it did say that parties could be dissolved or have their activities suspended by court order for breaches of the law [22].

The purpose of the registration system was capable of various interpretations. At one level, it could be considered an over-bureaucratic attempt to ensure that parties conducted their affairs properly and did not receive subsidies from abroad or other undesirable sources. It also reflected the level of official wariness as Yemen took a step into the unknown world of multi-party politics. In a wider Arab context, however, intrusive regulation of political parties (if they are permitted at all) is by no means uncommon, so to some extent the Yemeni law could be considered as merely following the practice elsewhere – in Egypt, for example.

Some of the smaller parties detected a more sinister motive, arguing that the registration process, and the supervision of their finances and internal organisation proposed by the law, was unnecessarily intrusive and made it easier for the authorities to harass them or close them down (as has happened frequently in Egypt). Controversy about this was still raging in 1996 when the leader of one party commented: “If we give the rulers a list stating that these are the founding members of the party (in essence, the owners), then what happens if someone entices any number of them to split the party and lay claim to its organs and assets? We have seen this happen a few times already.” [23]

In practice, however, the restrictions imposed by the law were not an immediate problem: during the first five years of unity, no party was required to register, for a bizarre reason connected with the growing dispute between the GPC and YSP. The law stipulated that the Committee for the Affairs of Parties and Political Organisations must be chaired by the Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs [24]. When the incumbent chairman, Rashid Muhammad Thabit, a Socialist, resigned the chairmanship without resigning his ministerial post, there was no legal way to replace him. As a result, the committee was unable to meet to consider parties’ applications to register [25] and so the parties simply went ahead with their activities.

Parties and their policies

ALTHOUGH a much-quoted statistic was that Yemen had 46 political parties, most of them were very obscure. Of the total, 21 eventually contested the first parliamentary election:

1. General People’s Congress
2. Yemeni Alliance for Reform (al-Islah)
3. Yemen Socialist Party
4. Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party
5. Truth Party (al-Haqq)
6. Nasserite Popr. Unionist Organisation
7. Democratic Nasserites
8. Nasserite Correction Organisation
9. League of the Sons of Yemen
10. Unionist Assembly
11. September Democrats
12. People’s Forces Union
13. Liberation Front
14. National Democratic Front
15. National Front Popular Organisation
16. Social Nationalist Party
17. The (Legal) Union
18. Revolutionary Democrats
19. National Cohesion Conference
20. Islamic Democratic Movement
21. Democratic Front [26]

Of these, only three were numerically important: the GPC, YSP and Islah. Ideologically, none was particularly cohesive. The GPC, as an anti-party umbrella grouping before unification, had made a virtue of seeking to draw as many different elements as possible into its embrace. Islah was an uncomfortable alliance of radical Islamists and tribal conservatives, plus a smattering of business interests. Members of the YSP covered a vast area of the political spectrum from social democracy to unrepentant Stalinism. A Yemeni joke current at the time ran as follows:

First man: Which party do you belong to?
Second man: I’ve told you twenty times – I’m in the GPC.
First man: Yes, yes, but which party? [27]

The same point could be made of almost any party. For most Yemenis, deciding which to support was a matter of determining where one’s interests lay rather than choosing an ideology or set of policies which appealed. For example, when asked for reasons why voters might support the GPC, Yahya Mutawakkil, the Assistant General Secretary, said: “We are not fanatic in the Islamic area, not leftist,” – and added with a touch of understatement: “Also, the president is party chairman. He has influence.” [28] It should be noted, too, that political differences – especially in northern Yemen – are rarely quite what they appear on the surface. Political allegiances often conceal close family or tribal ties. Conversely, political differences may be the outward symptoms of some family or tribal rivalry.

In practice, the policies of the individual parties were less significant than the role each played in the three-cronered system that developed. It is therefore useful to consider their most important characteristics in terms of the way they interacted with each other:

Relationship between the GPC and the YSP:
The GPC and YSP differed more in character and rhetoric than in ideology or policies. The GPC, as outlined in Chapter 3, had been conceived in the 1980s not as a party but as an alternative to party politics: an amalgam of all political tendencies with no ideology of its own. People joined the GPC for what it was, not for what it believed in. The YSP, on the other hand, was a party in the traditional mould, with an ideological basis, specific criteria for membership and an effective local organisation – at least in the south and those parts of the north where it was active. The changes required by unification had, however, brought some convergence. The GPC began to construct a conventional party organisation but retained its inclusive nature. The YSP, meanwhile, had abandoned its Marxism (and a large part of its socialism as well), becoming much closer to a European-style social-democratic party. Ideology, however, was not a barrier to serious consideration of a merger between the GPC and YSP – a possibility which was explored in some detail after unification and came close to fruition early in 1993.

In terms of policy differences, there is a distinction between policies that the parties espoused for electoral purposes and those they actively pursued. The 1993 election manifestos revealed no fundamental differences of policy, though there were some differences of approach, with the YSP favouring a more interventionist style of government which placed greater emphasis on law and order and social justice [see Chapter 6]. The real differences lay in the policies both parties chose to pursue in furtherance of their own rivalry: the GPC presenting itself as the party of unity and the YSP as the party of democracy. In the narrow context of inter-party struggle, unity and democracy became codewords for something else: “unity” meant incorporating the YSP into the northern system without disturbing the status quo, while “democracy” meant undermining the system of patronage and tribal connections on which the GPC’s power depended.

Relationship between Islah and the GPC:
Of all the parties in Yemen, Islah was probably the most difficult to describe and the easiest to misunderstand. It had been contradictorily portrayed as fundamentalist, conservative and radical – all of which was true up to a point, but also untrue, for Islah was nothing if not inconsistent. Before unification, Islah had been one of the many elements within the GPC; it then broke away to become a party in its own right under the leadership of Shaykh Abdullah bin Hussein al-Ahmar, paramount chief of the Hashid tribal confederation – a title which made him indisputably the most important tribal figure in Yemen.

As a young man, al-Ahmar played a leading role in the overthrow of the imam and may thus justifiably be considered one of the fathers of modern Yemen. During the civil war of 1962-70 he took the republican side and later, despite often pursuing his own agenda, rallied to the president’s side in times of national crisis. The shaykh was a remarkable figure, blending his twin roles of feudal lord and modern politician with surprising ease. His home in Sana’a was guarded by his own militia, and the basement contained cells where offending tribesmen could be detained without burdening the state prison system. The outer walls of the house had large Qur’anic inscriptions carved into the stone (a fairly recent addition in keeping with Islah’s religious orientation). Though he preferred traditional dress, the youngest of his 20 children wore western clothes, spoke fluent English and took holidays in London. In 1993 he became parliamentary Speaker.

In an interview in 1992, Shaykh Abdullah dismissed all other opposition parties in Yemen on the grounds that they were merely “branches” of the two ruling parties. “Therefore Islah is the main and sole opposition party,” he said [29]. Even before the entry of Islah into the government coalition in 1993, it was a claim that stretched credulity. As with most important public figures in the north, the shaykh had at one time belonged to the GPC; Islah’s general secretary, Muhammad al-Anisi, enjoyed good relations with the president, and Muhammad al-Yaddumi, editor of the party’s newspaper, al-Sahwah, was often linked to the president’s security apparatus [30]. The president’s tribe, the Sanhan, was part of the Hashid group which, in tribal terms, made the shaykh senior to the president. Partly because of these connections, Islah has been described as “not really fundamentalist but a party of the establishment centre” [31].

The name “Islah” in Arabic means “reform”. However, the party had never developed a clear philosophy of government and remained vague about what these reforms might be. According to Shaykh Abdullah, Islah was seeking “reform in all walks of life: political, economic and social, and in relations with our brothers” (i.e. other Arabs) [32]. The reforms proposed by the party, as distinct from those advocated by some of its more extreme members, generally amounted to little more than tinkering with the system: for example, renaming the parliament “majlis al-shura” (consultative council) in accordance with Islamic usage, and firm adherence to "Islamic principles" in dealing with such documents as the International Declaration of Human Rights [33]. Dresch comments: “In these respects Islah’s public rhetoric closely resembled that of the GPC, full of unexceptionably vague resolutions on Islamic equivalents of ‘motherhood and apple pie’.” In principle the party also favoured an Islamic economic system, avoiding the faults of both capitalism and socialism – though what this might entail was not explained. Interviewed in 1992, Shaykh Abdullah agreed that economic reforms should be “for the interests of the people” and that an Islamic bank might be established, but when pressed for more details replied, “I am not an economist” [34]. Despite that, the economic policies put forward by Islah in its 1993 election manifesto led one American observer to describe it as the most pro-business of the three main parties [35].

The GPC’s principles, as set out in the National Charter in 1982 and re-issued in 1993 as part of its electoral programme, reflected similar areas of concern:

We reject any theory, whether about rule, economics, politics or social affairs, which contradicts our Islamic faith or our sharia. However, we believe that it is the right of any individual or group to express or publish their opinions and ideas, as well as to participate in proper democratic activity to accomplish these – on condition that they not deviate from the Islamic framework, for ijtihad [creative interpretation] within this framework is one of the principles of Islam.
From this belief in the totality of the Islamic way, we see that the most important bases for our practical life lie in a return to the clear sources of the creed, which consist of the Book of God and the Sunnah of His messenger. [36]

While this might suggest that the GPC and Islah were not substantially different, attitudes among the membership of Islah were more varied and covered virtually every shade of opinion from constitutional pluralism to outright rejection of parliamentary democracy. Among the religious radicals there was a small element influenced by Egyptian and Sudanese Islamists, though the home-grown version propagated by Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, Abd al-Wahhab al-Daylami, and Yasin Qubati was more influential. All this made Islah an alliance of contradictory forces, though the party did its best to make a virtue of diversity. Shaykh Abdullah once portrayed it as a bird needing both wings in order to fly [37]. Less poetically:

Islah is basically a coalition that is bound together by a flexible attitude and system. This means there is agreement on a minimum base, and beyond that there may be differences among the various members of the party. These differences lead to complementarity rather than contradictions. [38]

Islah, however, was not the only focus for radical Islam in Yemen. The Salafis, who sought to return directly to the evidence of scripture, were suspicious not only of parliamentary politics but of the state itself. They also rejected Islah as an incoherent coalition interested only in opportunism – and to that extent they were probably right.

Relationship between the YSP and Islah:
The relationship between the YSP and Islah was one in which each demonised and caricatured the other. The YSP sought to present itself as the party of democracy, modernisation and order while portraying Islah as representing the forces of disorder and backwardness. Islah in turn depicted the YSP as a secularist (or occasionally atheistic) party which threatened to taint Yemen’s traditional society with alien values. This mutual antipathy created “propaganda portraits” of the two parties which can be summarised as follows:


Secularist/atheist (’ilmaniyyah)
Statist, anti-tribal

Violently factional


Traditionalist/backward-looking (takhalluf)
Linked to Islamist terrorism

Although both portraits could be supported by selective use of quotations and examples, neither was entirely justified. The notion of Islah as a party of takhalluf (backwardness) attempted to lump together tribalism, rural life (including poverty, illiteracy, lawlessness, etc) with religious obscurantism (i.e. ultra-conservative Islam as opposed to radical fundamentalism). In part this was a legacy from the YSP’s Marxist era which regarded tribalism historically as a precursor of the state, and therefore an anachronism. This was somewhat at odds with reality in Yemen, where tribalism had adapted and, far from disappearing, had become incorporated into the state. Despite the efforts of the socialists to de-tribalise the south, much of the YSP’s own factionalism was tribal in origin. Furthermore, after unification the YSP was not averse to seeking tactical alliances with northern tribes when the need arose. The tribal-rural association was also suspect because, as Dresch has pointed out [39], tribalism persisted in the cities. Similarly with the tribal and rural links to religion: the origins of Islam were urban, not rural, and there is no such thing as “tribal Islam” (Dresch again).

Islah’s view of the YSP tended, in turn, to link ’ilmaniyyah (secularism) with the promotion of Western values, as this typical denunciation shows:

... a group of Muslims have been afflicted. They have made the abodes of the West their qiblah [their direction of prayer], and they have surrendered their minds and hearts to the enemies of our ummah who have filled these with whatever ideas and principles they wished. So they [the Socialists] have been turned into a fifth column who drive their own nations and peoples, with their wealth and potential, to be placed as a sacrifice on the altars of the West. [40]

This, again, was not only exaggerated but made a suspect connection. Until 1990 the YSP had looked not to the West, but to the Eastern bloc, and its attitude to secularism was derived mainly from Marxism. However, the party had never been totally comfortable with the Marxist hostility to religion; instead, it tended to treat religion as a personal matter which was no business of the state. In general, YSP members still regarded themselves as Muslims, even if they ignored some of the observances favoured by their stricter brethren. The party leader, Ali Salim al-Baid, had four wives in accordance with Islamic law while the prominent northern member, Jarallah ’Umar, who had studied at al-Azhar university in Egypt was adept at using Islamic texts in support of socialism. After the fall of communism, the party began to reorientate its international relations and develop links with – among others – the Americans. That was a natural response to the changed situation rather than a sign of enthusiasm for Western values. American support was not the only target for YSP diplomacy but it became an important prize in the context of north-south rivalry, especially after the Gulf War severely damaged relations between President Salih and the US. In the event, the YSP’s approaches were not fully reciprocated: the Americans were friendly but non-committal and when war came in 1994 it was Arab (undemocratic and Muslim) states, not Western countries, which proved to be the YSP’s most steadfast friends.

Amid the welter of mutual accusations, two points should not be forgotten, however. One is that despite their apparent incompatibility both Islah and the YSP contained substantial elements which in most respects were virtually indistinguishable from the GPC. The second is that during the first half of the 1990s the Saudis saw fit to support both Islah and the YSP, certainly consecutively but possibly simultaneously.

© Copyright Brian Whitaker 2009