Yemen's Aborted Opening
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Journal of Democracy 13.4 (2002) 48-55



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Democratization in the Arab World?

Yemen's Aborted Opening

Jillian Schwedler


In 1990, North and South Yemen surprised the world by announcing that, along with the unification of the two countries, the new Republic of Yemen would bring democracy to the Arabian Peninsula. Rapid democratization seemed unlikely, given that Yemen is a mostly rural country with poor economic development, a lack of basic services in many areas, and low levels of literacy. But the first years after unification were promising. The country had a vibrant public sphere and the 1993 national elections produced a pluralistic parliament. Today, however, the government more closely resembles the autocracy of the pre-unification North than a country in democratic transition. Although President Ali Abdallah Salih continues to call Yemen an "emerging democracy," 1 he seems uninterested in moving the country beyond tactical liberalization and toward a genuinely open political system.

The Republic of Yemen was formed in May 1990, when the leaders of the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen)—the Arab world's only Marxist state since winning independence from Britain in 1967—agreed to unify their countries. 2 While the embrace of democracy was largely a strategic choice by which each intended to prevent the other from dominating, talk of unification dated to the 1970s, and South Yemen's leaders had been debating democratic reforms since the 1980s. With unification, each believed that it would do relatively well in the elections, maintaining its own base while winning support in the territory of the other.

Unification took place fairly quickly. While some aspects of the North-South power-sharing arrangement were formalized, such as having the [End Page 48] government based for six months of the year in Sana'a (the capital of the North) and for the other six in Aden (that of the South), other aspects were agreed to informally by the North's President Salih and the South's President Ali Salim al-Bayd. They decided that a five-person transitional Presidential Council would consist of three northerners and two southerners, while the transitional parliament would simply combine the two existing assemblies. Salih would be the first president, with al-Bayd as his vice-president. And regardless of electoral returns, the two would form a coalition "unity" government, although separate armies would be maintained until the system was institutionalized and mutual trust was established. The North's political elite became a party called the General Popular Congress (GPC), the name of the former North's umbrella assembly, while the leaders of the South kept their preunification name as the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP).

Opening and Closing the Political System

By the time of the first national elections in 1993, Yemen already had a well-developed civil society, North Yemen having benefited from a lively public arena even before unification. 3 Some two dozen political parties had emerged, 4 as well as research institutes, women's and human rights groups, and some 20 newspapers. Tribal organizations, political parties, and civil society groups all organized conferences and rallies as the elections approached, and the press published quite freely. Most of this went on in the major cities, and the majority of Yemen's then 14 million citizens lived in villages and rural areas. Yet even among the tribes of outlying areas, there were open debates about liberalization, and major political parties held lectures and rallies organized through their local branches. Mosques served as important locations for public debate, as did afternoon diwan gatherings (where qat leaves are chewed for their mild stimulant effect). Meanwhile, Salih created a number of "shadow" civil society organizations that mirrored the goals and activities of—and endeavored to divert support away from—independent groups. Nevertheless, Yemen had the makings of a meaningfully pluralistic political system.

The largely free and fair elections of April 1993 returned a multiparty assembly 5 : The GPC won 123 of 301 seats, and the YSP, 56. The new Yemeni Islah party, a coalition of tribal and Islamist groups established in 1990...