On June 28, Lebanon’s new parliament picked Fouad al-Sanyoura as prime minister. The selection of an anti-Syrian politician was the culmination of a half year of democratic agitation. In Egypt, too, popular pressure has forced President Hosni Mubarak to implement reforms. From Cairo to California, pundits seek to predict where the democratic wave will strike next. Many suggest it could reach Syria or Saudi Arabia. It may. But it is in Yemen where citizens and civil society alike are both impatient and ready for democracy.
Uneasy over events in Lebanon and Egypt, Yemeni authorities have sought to convince diplomats and governments that they are committed to reform. They often point to the success of the reunification of North and South Yemen in 1990 as a sign of commitment to reform. Unification has been popular, but the bulk of its success occurred more than a decade ago.
Yemeni journalists have taken the lead to transmit to Yemen’s 20 million citizens the success of their Lebanese and Egyptian brothers. They juxtaposed the Lebanese revolution with their own authorities’ unwillingness to address monopolization of power, corruption, illiteracy, poverty, and absence of justice and equality.
The Yemeni government soon showed the Potemkin nature of its commitment to reform. In May 2005, a Yemeni journalist and politician inaugurated a movement he called Irhalu (Leave). It was modeled after the Kifaya (Enough) movement in Egypt which stood up to Mubarak’s continued abuse of power. Irhalu founders said they chose the name to suggest that authorities should “leave their seats before bad governance further damages the country.” Not surprisingly, the Yemeni government refuses to recognize such an independent manifestation of civil society.
While Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Salih tells U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that he supports reform, his government continues to crack down on the press and nongovernmental organizations whenever they counsel political reform. Like Uzbekistan, Yemen has sold itself to the Bush administration as an ally in the war against terrorism. And like Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov, Salih hopes that the Bush administration will give his regime a pass on the drive for democracy.
The Salih administration meanwhile works to undercut its dissidents and civil society. It levels false charges against journalists in order to tie them up with litigation and criminal proceedings. Yemeni courts sentence journalists to harsh sentences in response to dubious charges. While Western journalists and the U.S. State Department often highlight the Iranian government’s tendency to close reformist papers, they seldom comment on the same practice in Yemen. Furthermore, under the Salih administration, truly independent newspapers cannot get licenses. His regime has tried to undercut demands for reform by coopting journalists with financial inducements or offers of special partnership. Largely, the government has not been successful. In Yemen, journalists have pushed the limits of freedom; most will not sell their futures. The government has also sponsored the creation of a number of new papers, each claiming to be independent, but which the government uses to slander journalists and activists who refused to tow the government line or who question Salih’s corruption. Yemenis want reform, and journalists are not willing to accept that Lebanese should have rights than they cannot.
The Salih administration has also sought to undercut dissent with legislation. It has drafted a press and publications law which restricts freedom and curtails the independent media and has further sought to monopolize the ownership of broadcast media. Independent radio and television stations are not allowed.
Nongovernmental organizations have just as much trouble operating in Yemen. Salih’s government has put already weak Yemeni NGOs on life support. It has sought to stop Yemeni organizations from reaching out independently to their foreign counterparts. Those organizations which work with foreigners outside official government sanction are accused of working for foreign intelligence services; constitutionally, this can lead to the death penalty. The U.S. embassy in Sanaa, despite President Bush’s rhetoric, remains largely silent.
And just as the Yemeni government sought to coopt the independent press, it now sponsors its own non-governmental organizations. Salih has worked to push independent groups out of business. His administration wields its monopoly over registration. Yemeni opposition parties, like many of their counterparts in Egypt, are largely impotent. Many wait like bystanders for someone else to make the first move. All sides understand, though, that any move which challenges the regime’s monopoly will not be tolerated. The main role of officially registered opposition parties today is as a sounding board when the Yemeni government pushes too far. At most, they ask the government to honor pledges concerning democracy and reform.
Next year, Yemen will hold presidential elections. As with Mubarak in Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Salih looks prepared to use all the mechanisms of state to crush dissent while positioning himself as a model of reform in the Middle East. Yemenis do not buy it, and neither should the White House. If reform is to be genuine, it must be based on more than rhetoric.
–Hafez al-Bukari is a Yemeni journalist and also chairman of Yemeni Center for Polling & Communications Research.