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The democratic future for Yemen.

ABD al-Aziz Abd al-Ghani, deputy head of the Mu'tamer Party General Popular Congress), the largest political organization in the country, was firm when he asserted that democracy was in the Yemen to stay. |The problems are enormous but we are convinced that a new society is in the making.' In the mind of this young leader of a party which was the main force in uniting North and South Yemen, the democratisation of his country was on a path of no return.

No one would have ever thought in the early 1960s, when Imam Ahmad ruled North Yemen in a ruthless fashion, that less than a few decades later his country would be the leading democratic land in the Arab world. A cruel tyrant, he kept the masses illiterate: many believed that Yemen was the whole world and that when the sun disappeared over the Red Sea it had reached the ends of the earth. The Imam had hoodwinked some of his people so thoroughly that even after the Imamite was overthrown in 1962, it took near a decade of civil war for the country's revolution to survive.

Today, when one visits the newly unified Republic it is almost impossible to think that in the 1950s the despotic ruler of the North governed a country which had virtually no modern industry, roads, schools or medical facilities, and little trade with the outside world. At that time, no one in their wildest dreams could have predicted that barely 30 years after his demise and the subsequent years of civil war, Yemen would be well on the way to becoming a progressive modern state. Yet, amazingly, this is what has happened. North and South Yemens have merged -- an unexpected event according to most observers-and in all areas, today's united country is progressing at a break-neck speed.

After foreign intervention was halted in the early 1970s, the North Yemen military government began to organise the country to fit into the twentieth century. Yet, even with the fast progress rapidly achieved, there was something missing. Most of the inhabitants felt that the country was not complete. The vast majority of people, in or out of power, wanted unity with the South, once a British colony. In the meantime, South Yemen, occupied by the British for many years, fought a war of independence, then a series of civil wars -- the last very bloody -- but there was no stability. Its inhabitants, in site of being indoctrinated for almost two decades with communist ideology, passionately desired union with the North.

After a number of border skirmishes and years of discussions, on May 22, 1990, the longing for unity was achieved. The president of the North, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Ali Salem al-Beidh, the leader of the South, signed an agreement of unity. In the subsequent days, integration in the economic, educational, legal and military fields, quickly began to be implemented. However, it was not the merger of the two countries, but the achievement of a democratic system which surprised both Arab and foreign observers alike.

Immediately after unification, political parties were legalised and in the following months, freedom of expression and press became more widespread than in any Arab or Third World country. Today, in the unified Yemen, there are 46 political parties, ranging from the far right to the extreme left. Freedom for journalists expressing their opinions in the 106 newspapers and magazines which proliferate the newstands is almost without limit. All this, it must be remembered, when under the Imam, only two small weekly newspapers were published in the whole of North Yemen.

According to Sa'id Na'aman, a member of the General Popular Congress which, in coalition with the Yemen Socialist Party (the transformed former ruling party in the South), govern the country, Yemen is a citadel of democracy in the Arab world. He stressed that after the November 1992 election, the democratic system will be firmly established and there will be no turning back. Nevertheless, in spite of the optimism in all strata of society, there are dark spots on the horizon. Yahya Shamic, a member of the politburo of the Socialist Party indicated that locally, forces working to divide Yemen again are of some concern and, on the outside, there are countries wary of Yemeni unity and the democratisation of the country. He went on to say that tribal society, for thousands of years the backbone of government, is also impeding the evolvement of Yemen into the modem age.

On the other hand, traditionalists like Abdullah al-Ahmar, head of the Islah, the chief Islamic and third largest party, wants the tribes to be the basis of an Arab-Muslim type of democracy. However, this vague method of a political system is not in the cards as far as the General Popular Congress and Socialist Parties are concerned, and they call the shots. Combined, they have an overwhelming majority in the 301 seat parliament. Both have decided to overcome peacefully the chaos of tribal society. Outwardly, all political parties have chosen democracy as the way for the future. The Popular Congress, the ruling party of North Yemen before unification, is a centrist organisation and the main political power in the country. It has a grass rot power base, leaving local decisions to local organisations. The Socialist Party, the next largest, has discarded the belief in one party rule, and chosen the democratic path. Like social democratic parties in other countries, it is striving to turn Yemen into a modern state where there is freedom, justice and equality for all.

The platform of the party does not appear to be all political propaganda. During its term of power in South Yemen, its central committee had a number of women. Laws were passed prohibiting polygamy-repealed after unification-and giving women equality with men. In addition, women were appointed as judges and some were elected to parliament. When the two Yemens merged, they became members of the united parliament. Today these women, and those elected from the former North, constitute about four per cent of the members of parliament, and include one deputy minister. There is little doubt that women in united Yemen have come a long way since the time when a woman had to get permission from the all powerful Imam even to give birth in a hospital.

Throughout the country, in all areas of life, there have been tremendous advancements. During the rule of the Imam there were no government schools and only about 5,000 students in the whole North and, in the South, a British possession, it was not much different. All modern education in the North began after the Yemeni revolution in 1962 and, in the South, the few students in schools during the British occupation were gradually increased after the communist takeover of the country. As the years went by, the student population, in both Yemens, has swelled to the present 2,500,000.

In the field of higher education, at the beginning of the 1970s some colleges were established in Sana'a, beginning with 100 students, as a basis of a university. Faculties were added year after year until today there are about 40,000 students and if one takes into account the University of Sana|a's branches in Taiz, Hodeidah, Ibb and Dhamar, the number increases to 55,000. In addition, Aden University has 4,000 students and plans are underway to build a branch in Mukalla. The staff for all these centres of higher learning, which once was almost all from other countries, is at present two-thirds Yemeni. The University of Sana'a has advanced to such a stage that it is offering PhDs in a number of subjects.

In the field of medicine, students were first sent to other countries until, in 1982, a Faculty of Medicine and Health Science was established with twenty-five students. The Kuwaiti government donated a splendid Yemeni style building to house the facility. Student enrollment increased continually until, at present, there are over 3,000 medical students. There are plans for post-graduate studies and it is intended that new doctors must serve two years in outlying areas-a much needed service for the rural population. In the 1950s, there were only a few, mostly foreign doctors serving the whole country. Today, according to Dr. Fouad Mohamed al-Khalli, physiologist in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Science, there is one doctor for every 700 -- a respectable figure when compared to most countries in the world.

The road system in the last two decades has improved tremendously. At the time of the revolution in North Yemen, there was only one paved road connecting Hodeidah and Sana'a. Travelling throughout the unified Yemen a short time ago, I was surprised to find excellent highways connecting all major cities. From Sana'a to Taiz, Aden and beyond, the roadways can match the best of any non-industrial nation, and this it must be remembered, in a country which is very mountainous. The road system is being extended constantly. A new 310-mile highway connecting the ancient town of Ma'rib to the famous skyscraper city of Seyoun in the Hadramout, is in the works. There are also plans for expanding the miniscule tourist industry. The monumental ruins of ancient civilisations, fantastic historic cities, majestic terraced mountains, long sandy coastlines and friendly, honest people make the country an ideal mecca for visitors, especially those seeking the exotic. Plans are underway to build a series of hotels and tourist oriented companies are gradually being established. However, much more is needed. The litter-strewn streets in almost all the cities and towns must be cleaned up and tourist information offices with literature are a necessity in the large urban centres.

Officials know what has to be done, but they have problems. The top priority is the absorption of the over 1,000,000 Yemenis expelled after the Gulf War from Saudi Arabia. A great many have come back to work the land in their villages but, in the main, their return has caused a tremendous strain on the country -- the rial has lost about two-thirds of its value. Absorbing the returnees and improving the economy needs money, and Yemen could just possibly find it. At present, 220,000 barrels of oil per day are produced and, due to the recent oil and gas finds, production is expected to rise to 500,000 near the end of 1993. This figure could even go higher. Canadian, US and other foreign companies are discovering new oil fields almost monthly. Officials hope that the expected petro dollars will solve their pressing financial problems and help in the industrialisation of the country.

In addition, Yemen has other cats in the bag. Government officials are hoping the nation's Red Sea location will make it a major trade and manufacturing centre serving East Africa and the Arab world. Reforms are in progress to facilitate free transfer of hard currency, joint ventures, arrangement for foreign loans, exemption from custom duties and the elimination of frustrating bureaucracy. Aden has already been declared the country's economic capital and a huge free zone is in the process of being established. With these future plans, the expected increase in oil production, and a hard working labour force which did much of the construction in Saudi Arabia, it is expected that Yemen, especially if it receives some technical assistance, will solve its pressing problems and industrialise quickly. All signs point to a bright future for a land which has leaped in just a few decades from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century.

In the political field, it is just possible that Yahya Shamie is right when he says that Yemen, one of the four poorest countries in the Arab world, could emerge as a leader in the democratisation of the Arab lands. Amazingly, most Yemenis think this is possible. A people, who in the 1950s were living in a medieval world, have taken on the free parliamentary system with a passion. Despite the fact that a few tribes and individuals are trying to push the country back to the Ottoman era, if not before, it is hoped that the country which has committed itself to democracy will stand fast -- becoming the beacon for the Arab world.
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Author:Salloum, Habeeb
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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