Yemen, and the Tunisian example

A political agreement in Yemen is under strain. But its very existence confirms the Arab revolutions' key breakthrough, says Hazem Saghieh.

Hazem Saghieh
26 February 2014

It is easy to find “negative” justifications for the revolutions that erupted in the course of the so-called Arab spring. Among the most important is the fact that the regimes that fell indeed had to fall. They had deprived their peoples of sustenance as well as freedom, denied their rights as citizens, crushed even their sense of dignity and self-worth. 

It is harder, though, to find “positive” justifications for the revolutions. These justifications have been weakened by military setback in Egypt, civil strife in Libya and Yemen, and the overlap of uprising, civil war, and regional crisis in Syria, coupled with the rise of Takfiri forces here and there. Such events have given those categorically opposed to revolutions with arguments that everywhere bolster their stance in favour of the status quo.

Such were the dominant trends, until Tunisia approved a new constitution. This act simultaneously created a new political climate, which may have even more important implications than the constitution itself. The Tunisians had thus succeeded in arbitrating their differences through politics and political institutions. In the process, local Islamists showed an unexpected flexibility, while their secular opponents pursued a non-violent path of struggle. Thus the transition to democracy was kept on track. Any military “solution” was completely ruled out: an option unthinkable to the army and intolerable to society.

It seemed that, in Tunisia’s case, the fruits of the Arab spring had finally begun to appear, and that there were indeed positive justifications for the revolutions.

A cautious promise

In Tunisia's wake, it is just possible - though far from assured - that Yemen might make another positive case. Yemenis too have reached an agreement: to transform the country into a six-region federation, with the capital Sana’a allocated a distinct status as a federal city. Yemeni authorities say the new arrangement takes many fundamental aspects of Yemeni society into consideration, including its economy, geography, and regional diversity (for example, the post of chairperson of the legislative council is rotated in order to limit the possibility of regions coming to dominate their neighbours). 

Yemenis developed the draft of this solution after enduring many bitter experiences. Among them are clashes in and around the city of Arhab, northeast of Sana’a, which lasted for weeks and claimed dozens of lives. Beyond this legacy, Yemenis' goal was to find a way to unify what cannot otherwise be unified because of divergences in history, interests, culture, and visions. These reached their lowest point in the destructive civil war fought from May-July 1994 between armed forces of the former North Yemen and South Yemen (the states had been unified in 1990).  

These internal differences were suppressed by the strict centralism of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled the unified Yemeni republic from 1990-2012 (and had previously ruled North Yemen from 1978-90). Any challenge to his power was portrayed as a threat to the homeland and its unity; the only concessions were to the elders of the country's major clans. The result was rampant corruption, widepsread unemployment, and deep poverty. These conditions sparked Yemen's own protest movement in 2011. 

Against this background, the primary task of a revolution that would end tyranny and pave the way for democracy was to end the centralist character of the state. The centralist "formula" both feeds off tyranny and makes it even more oppressive, as the iron control of the leadership is conflated with the homeland itself.

True, some southerners in the Yemeni Socialist Party (the former ruling party in the south, now in opposition) and the Houthis (a powerful armed group most active in the country's north-west Sa'ada region) have acute reservations about the new scheme, and these need close attention. The demand of southerners for a referendum on self-determination is legitimate; and proposals to amend the provisions for the various federal regions look to be in line with the facts on the ground.

The referendum idea reflects tensions that festered during the long years of authoritarian rule. Yemenis may indeed find that federalism no longer meets their aspirations and that they again need separation. It may be that Yemen will soon descend into another serious dispute, if the gap between what is offered and what is required cannot be bridged.

Nonetheless, the real issues have been put on the table without being evaded by the lies of “brotherhood” and “pan-Arabism”. The debate has truly shifted: from how to get the central state to repress the people and their diversity, towards how to dismantle the central state and allow this diversity to prosper and flourish. This is an achievement that the revolutions alone have made possible.

And what applies to Yemen applies to most countries in the region.

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