What it means… Yemeni Islamists’ stance on democracy

What it means…  Yemeni Islamists’ stance on democracy

Yemen’s fledgling democracy faces numerous challenges related to underdevelopment and ubiquitous mismanagement, especially from the political aspect. Political predicaments seem to overwhelm the already miserable conditions of daily life.

Active in this atmosphere are the parties concerned about the country’s present and future. Trying to work out a solution to the problem, some opposition parties are instead considered a part of the problem itself. The evidence, some claim, is that the opposition inadequately interacts with the people’s issues and does nothing to ward off the authority’s oppression and suppression, from which no social class is spared.

Since reunification in 1990, Yemen’s democracy, despite superfluous democratic manifestations, has not made progress regarding the peaceful transfer of power. On the contrary, one single party’s dominance has intensified and led to a suspiciously illegal monopoly of authority.

Yemen’s Islamic parties understand well the relation between Islam and democracy, and see no contradiction between the two. This is a healthy position which fostered the union of democracy and political pluralism with reunification. The Islamic parties found themselves responsible for democracy as a national option, without which Yemen would be unable to catch up with modern civilization.

There is another point that helped strengthen the Islamist-democracy link: Islamists are as much in need of liberty and democracy as the community is in need of Islamic interpretive judgment to cope with contemporary dilemmas and changes. Islam is the nation’s culture, heritage, and identity. It is, above all, the faith the nation believes in, the bright side of its history and civilization and the guarantee that can ensure its present and future well-being.

Hence, the relation between the Islamists and democracy in Yemen appears to be quite positive. This, however, does not mean that this relation and its actual results are not uneven and distorted. This is ascribed to the Islamists parties’ positions on certain points of democracy when the general concept of democracy is uncompromising and requires parties to fully adapt themselves to every principle and rule of democracy.

During the last quarter of 2006, Yemen saw unprecedented public rallies for the presidential elections being held at the time. The opposition (Joint Meeting Parties)’s most remarkable election stunts were performed by the leaders, members and advocates of the Islah Party, seen as the most significant Islamist movement in Yemen and in the Gulf States.

No doubt, if it were not for the Islah Party’s support for President Saleh’s rival, the election would not have taken on such importance and momentum, regardless of the officially announced results that, of course, were unfair to the JMP.

In addition to the Islah Party, the JMP includes four other parties, two of which are Islamist: Al-Haq Party, and the Public Forces Union Party. This implies that the Islamists in Yemen have joined forces to oppose the existing regime to restore balance to political life and correct the democratic course with the peaceful transfer of power as a paramount goal.

In a nutshell, the position of Yemen’s Islamist parties have transcended theory and proved in practice their advocacy of democracy and peaceful civil struggle against the authority’s inequity and corruption.

Islamists within the JMP have agreed on an ambitious political reform program that aims at consolidating republicanism, establishing a good and fair form of governance that maintains balance among the three authorities, allows democratic expressions, ensures rights and freedoms, broadens the base of political participation, meets the conditions of peaceful transfer of power as a firm ground for political stability, and empowers Yemeni women to practice their constitutional and legal rights and play a positive role in public life.

Nevertheless, some still see the political Islamist movement as anti-democracy. They consider the positions of such parties and movements on democracy in the Arab World as the biggest stumbling stone in the way of democratic transformation. Yemen is no exception as it houses an anti-democracy Salafi movement. This movement regards democracy as a West-crafted project targeting Islam and dividing Muslims. They offer their Islamist interpretative evidence of their stance on democracy within a self-contained Salafi methodology that detests the spirit of the era.

Concern heightens when we realize that this Salafi sect somehow has a presence inside the Islah Party. However, an observer of Islah Party positions and political and media discourse will perceive that the liberal streak actively prevails. The party’s practical experience has so far contributed to a stronger democracy and institutionalism within the party itself, as well as acceptance of and coexistence with others’ opinions, and emphasis on the partisan approach over the religious one. This means that the Islah Party is not subject to the Salafi position on democracy. Unluckily, this does not eliminate the doubts of many people who maintain that some Arab parties’ pro-democracy stance is not grounded on actual beliefs and is a pragmatic tactic for rising to power.

Such an accusation is not limited to Islamic parties. Totalitarian ruling parties in most Arab states lift the “democracy” slogan as a means for remaining in power, giving unessential concessions that cause no harm to their authoritarian rule.

Added to that, Arab regimes have excelled at circumventing and voiding democracy. Yet, while ruling elites resort to election manipulation to preserve their interests, another political class, including the Islamists, gets the invaluable experience of practicing pluralistic politics.

Parties are a herald of political modernization, but their potency is contingent on the presence of vigorous diverse political institutions. One should not gloss over the role of the cultural environment within which parties function. If this environment hosts notions detrimental to parties, such as glorification of rulers, distrust of authorities and institutions, inability to work as a team, etc., no positive political activism whatsoever will come into being.

As such, many believe that the democratic process depends on awareness and existing social structures and that it can never stand isolated from the historical context. The potency of parties is related also to the framework of the political system; parties can never be at the heart of the political process without the appropriate political framework manifested in the rule of constitution and law, free elections of legislators, rigorous overseeing of the executive authority, and an autonomous judiciary.

These conditions are exactly what the Islamists in Yemen call for. The more the regime is responsive to these benchmarks, the more parties become active and enhance democracy. What ails democracy is the fault that happened in the transfer to political pluralism. That process was initiated by the ruling elites and was not the result of those elites being truly satisfied with democracy as a national option. The rulers adopted democracy as a tactic to achieve pragmatic objectives, leading to the paramount goal of remaining in power. This is why Yemen’s democratic project is disfigured and incomplete. Unless the political forces, both ruling and opposing, take action, Yemen will fall into the abyss of failure and disintegration.