- Regionalism and Rebellion in Yemen: A Troubled National Union, by Stephen W. Day
In Regionalism and Rebellion in Yemen, Dr. Stephen Day builds on almost two decades of research and active engagement with political developments in the country to produce a well-written account of sociopolitical transformation after the unification of the former Yemen Arab Republic and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in 1990. As the title denotes, the book seeks to explain Yemeni politics by highlighting [End Page 487] the roles of different Yemeni elites based on their regional and tribal affiliations. The author divides the country into seven distinct regions, in order to show the degree of regional representation in national politics and explaining the reasons for local discontent.
However, Day’s proposed regional division of Yemen is rather problematic, because it places different areas on a par with each other, glossing over historical particularities, and more importantly subregional inequalities. For instance, the capital Sana‘a and the former president’s tribal strongholds of Sanhan are grouped together under “highlands” with the far north Zaydi areas, which have arguably suffered more than any other under Salih’s regime. Therefore, when, the author speaks of highland rule over the country and tribal elites, the notion of who actually belongs to the patronage network of the regime becomes distorted. Moreover, such an approach can lead to unnecessarily deterministic conclusions, insofar as individual and collective interests are being fixed to specific regions. Actually, what has become apparent in the context of the recent youth uprising, is that local identities, and indeed regional boundaries in Yemen, are in constant flux and are being renegotiated in response to developments at the national and regional levels. The fact that the Yemeni population adheres to a number of different tribal, regional, and subnational identities which overlap and complement each other can be a useful tool for the understanding of certain political and social phenomena, but it cannot be used as a lens through which to scrutinize the complex picture of Yemeni affairs.
The main strength of the book lies in its exhaustive reconstruction of Yemeni politics after the 1994 civil war, which coincides with the author’s fieldwork. Day draws his materials from a large number of interviews with politicians, state officials, civil society activists, and intellectuals from almost every part of the country. His narrative paints the picture of an emerging civil society which struggles under the authoritarian stranglehold of the Salih regime, and its divisive policies. Equally useful are the analyses of his data on electoral results, cabinet members, and government officials by region. They offer a rare glimpse into the ways in which President Salih was able to establish his control over the country, which eventually also led to his own downfall.
However, in the author’s interviews lies an avoidable pitfall. He appears to be repeating uncritically the anti-tribal rhetoric of his mostly urban middle class informants, which has dominated the Yemeni political discourse in both North and South since the 1960s revolutions. He consistently ascribes political corruption, under-development, and indeed, criminal activity to a backward tribal culture (p. 150). Had he consulted the seminal works by Weir on tribal law and politics in highland Yemen, and by vom Bruck on the Zaydi elite families, he would have been able to draw a line between the rich tribal traditions of Yemen and their misappropriation by the regime.5 The Yemeni regime is no more “tribal” in its policies of exclusion, nepotism, and corruption than any of the other Arab autocracies.
Unfortunately, the book is beset by a number of factual errors and omissions. For the record, the name of the Qu‘ayti sultan is Ghalib bin ‘Awad (not Fadhl bin Ghanm; p. 175). The languages of al-Mahra and the island of Socotra are distinct from each other (p. 44). Also, Haydar al-‘Attas served as president of the Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) from 1986 until unity, with ‘Ali Salim al-Bayd only assuming the...