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Politics of Qat by Peer Gatter: Qat and the political uprising.

Photo by Volker Mantel

The cover page shows an old man with an apprehensive look in his eyes, half-smiling as he hands you a bunch of qat leaves. In the background there is a wild-eyed teenage boy, cheeks swollen from the qat that fills them, peering into the camera.

This 862 page hard-cover book published by Reichert Publications is a weapon in all senses of the word. Besides documenting the ever growing role qat plays in Yemen and in the life of Yemenis, the book also analyses Yemen's qat policy, the tribal qat economy, and the qat connections of our decision makers.

I had this huge publication lying by my bedside for months before I summoned the courage to pick it up and start reading. This was not only due to its intimidating size, but probably even more so due to its topic. Qat, and the political and economic schemes around it, were to me as a Yemeni always a well-known problem. I just was too afraid to read for myself and acknowledge how I as a citizen am part of a society that enables this culture of qat.

I don't chew Qat and personally I am ardently opposed to it. But I live in a society where Qat prevails. After years of research, Peer Gatter, the author of this book, published it in 2012, offering to the world an insight into this drug and what it has done to my country. Gatter was working for many years for the World Bank and UNDP in Yemen and is now heading the Integrated Expert Program for Afghanistan of the German Development Cooperation (GIZ-CIM).

To read more about the book go to www.qat-yemen.com

Qat is at the very root of civil society culture in Yemen, even though the subject of qat itself does not figure on the agendas of most civil society organizations.

The societal opposition to qat remains poorly coordinated today and the absence of networking activities between the NGOs is remarkable. The numerous anti-qat associations that emerged after Yemen's unification in 1990 hardly see each other as fighters for a common cause, but rather as competitors over scarce donor funding.

In the past years, the internet has gained in importance for activists in fighting qat, in creating awareness on the ills of this drug, and in networking with like-minded people from around the globe through Twitter or Facebook. Through this medium, new societal groups are targeted and connected, and campaigns are announced and even launched with greater ease and at a much lower cost than organizing street campaigns--an important factor for Yemen's notoriously underfunded NGOs.

It could be said that, at least since the 1990s, qat has deserved recognition as Yemen's de facto national plant. For many Yemenis qat was the true unifier of Yemen's north and south. Government consultations between the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) and the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) that led to the unification of these two antithetical systems in May 1990 were held primarily during qat chews. The same is true for the mediation meetings after the failed secession attempt of the southern governorates in 1994.

Besides creating synergies, qat has also been perceived as an agent inhibiting change in Yemen--or rather--as a very Yemeni response to societal and political change experienced after the country's revolution and its opening up to the outside world.

This may also be a reason why the qat-abolitionist movement of the early 1970s had so little success. Government directives were understood as hostile efforts of a small westernized elite to eradicate and marginalize traditional Yemeni culture. This brought qat to the very center of attention among groups rejecting change. They felt that the government's move against qat was not merely directed against a plant with harmful impacts on the economy and on health, but was seen as an attempt to impose foreign ways of life. As a consequence, qat chewing became a way to express opposition to modernization and for affirming both the value of heritage and the own sense of self worth at a time when national identity was not yet clearly defined.

Understanding the rebellion against the usurpation by the West and by globalization, one will also understand why one rarely sees Yemenis chewing in trousers. Even smart looking business men or technocrats who wear western-style suits during the morning hours will--when heading to a qat chew--quickly exchange these for their jallabiyya. This is not only a question of comfort, but one of tradition, identity, pride, and not least tact as even educated Yemenis consider western clothes at qat chews indecent or slanderous.

When in mid January 2011 a popular uprising forced the Tunisian dictator Zayn Al-Abidin Bin Ali into exile, hundreds of Yemenis also took to the streets, protesting against unemployment, corruption, and proposals by the government for constitutional amendments that would allow President Saleh to run for office yet another time.

Yemen's "Day of Rage" on February 2, 2011, brought some 20,000 to Sana'aA[sup.3]s streets, but protests failed, at least initially, to develop the same dynamics as in Egypt where sit-ins on Cairo's Liberation Square, the Maydan Al-Tahrir, turned into over-night public festivals. Yemen's uprising ended punctually at noon when the qat markets opened. Newspapers around the world did not fail to note, that Yemen's uprising may have a different fate than those in northern Africa, and that qat was to blame.

To recompense Saleh's supporters for their dedication, the regime served a free lunch of rice and chicken in the tents and provided bottled water and a bag of Hamdani qat for each. In addition, a daily subsidy of YR2,000 ($9.3) was handed out. On February 14, 2011, the fourth day of consecutive anti-Saleh agitations, this allowance was raised to YR3,000 ($14)--four times the average salary of a day laborer.

At Sana'a University, where the phalanx of the anti-Saleh opposition had been demonstrating, after days of unsuccessful protests, self-critical undertones were also heard. The tenor of these voices was summed up--not without sarcasm--by Rashad Abd Al-Ghani, a student speaker of the Faculty of Medicine:

"As long as qat is more important to us than politics there cannot be any true revolution in Yemen. We are being instrumentalized far too easily by free gifts of qat. But you shall see, when the day has come that qat will disappear from our markets, a fierce revolution will break out all over the country! But I fear that its aim will not be democracy. It will rather be a distribution battle, a bloody war over the last bundles of qat. And you shall also see, the new president will not be he who brings freedom and development to Yemen, but he who succeeds to bring back qat into our cheeks."

Another protester joked, "If Yemenis want to get rid of the president, they simply have to boycott the qat markets for a week or two. Then the tribes will run dry of funds and come to Sana'a and chase Saleh out of office."

The violent riots that had befallen Yemen after raising fuel prices in 2005 had taught the government that de-escalation had to start in qat markets. During the days of violent anti-government protests in February 2011, outside many of the capital's bigger qat markets military vehicles with heavy machine guns mounted on the truck beds had taken position. Qat markets such as that of the Hadda and Al-Hasaba neighborhoods with their large gatherings of qat sellers and clients had in 2005 been the germ cell of anti-government agitation. From here protest marches and violence had spread throughout Sana'a. Thus when fighting between the government and tribes escalated in late May 2011 in Sana'a, a number of qat markets in locations considered to be of strategic importance were closed down.

In Yemen's south, an area having called during the past years ever more violently for secession, the government manipulated qat prices and qat supply in the hope this could help to keep people busy chewing and thus quiet. During February 2011, qat prices dropped to an unprecedented low in Aden and Hadramout despite the winter season when qat is usually scarce and expensive. Aden chewers reported that they had never seen qat so plentiful in the markets, as in the days following the euphoria of overthrowing the Egyptian Mubarak regime.

Chewing for a new era

Qat, which analysts had held in the initial phase of the protests responsible for stemming change, was soon to become the very motor for forming the new society that emerged in the discussions and minds of protesters. While in early February 2011 protests had still ended at noon as activists retreated to buy and chew qat, by late February more and more people would remain camping at the protests sites and consume their qat rations in the emerging tent city.

As an anonymous observer commented, people also adjusted their chewing habits and were now "willing to go on 3-4 hour marches starting at 4 PM, with qat in their mouths instead of being nailed to their seats."

New qat markets burgeoned around Sana'a University, as demand for the leaves increased at this epicenter of the protests. Qat had been relatively costly until mid-February due to the rising demand and the cold weather persisting in the preceding months that made irrigation in many highland areas risky due to frost. With rising temperatures and with many farmers wanting to capitalize on the protests, qat prices collapsed in late February. By intensive irrigation of their qat farms in the dry plateau and basin areas of Nihm, Khawlan, Arhab, Bani Hushaysh and Hamdan, farmers had inundated the Sana'a market with qat, rapidly leading to an oversupply and bringing prices for a bag of medium quality qat down from YR2,000 ($9.30) in February to around YR800 in March ($3.70).

Qat chews also helped to forge new alliances in the anti-Saleh camp as the agitation and communal chewing sessions soon brought together people from all walks of life and all areas of Yemen. By the end of February, the protesters, who until then had represented for the most part the young urban population, received reinforcements from the countryside, when several of Yemen's major tribes joined the uprising.

The protest camp at Sana'a University before long developed into a city within the city. An agglomeration of tents, extending for over six kilometers from the old university near Zubairi Street along Sana'aA[sup.3]s several lane Ring Road and into countless side streets past the new university as well as onto Cairo Street, from where it wound further west, reaching the 60 Meter Road. Reportedly, the tent city had a permanent population of around 100,000 that rose to 300,000 on weekends.

It was in qat sessions that tens of thousands of hopeful men and women--mostly in gender separated tents--developed a vision of a new republic. It was here that demands were formulated and that in hours-long debates a consensus for a Yemen after Saleh was built with qat as a bargaining tool.

Revolting against qat and other "little dictators"

In late 2011, the revolution went into a second phase. After having initially been directed against Saleh and his 33-year rule, it now also targeted the "little dictators"--his wider entourage and his clients in what was dubbed the "parallel revolution."

In early January 2012, Yemeni activists decided that qat should be ranked among the "little dictators" and called for a "revolution on one's self." Qat, they declared, was "as great a menace to Yemen's progress as decades of government corruption and misrule, and even harder to topple than Saleh."

On January 12, 2012, thousands of people followed the boycott campaign entitled "A Day Without Qat." The event was kicked off a week earlier by Hind Al-Iryani through Twitter and Facebook.

Anti-qat activists were quite realistic about options of change, saying that it would be impossible to ban qat. But they expressed the hope that consumption could be reduced citing as a good example the PDRY's qat law that had limited chewing to weekends.

Shortly after the boycott day the Yemeni qat protester community set another ambitious target for action--April 12 was declared as a day to rally "Towards Government Offices Without Qat." Yemen's new government endorsed the campaign. The government-run daily Al-Thawra reported intensively on the campaign and its aims. In several articles it cited recent scientific studies on qat and interviewed physicians, agronomists and economists on the hazards of qat.

The campaign entitled "The Beginning of Change--Public Facilities Without Qat" centered on Yemen's larger cities Sana'a, Ibb, Taiz, Hodeida, and Aden, where activists of youth organizations and anti-qat NGOs distributed fliers, posters and brochures in government facilities to thousands of civil servants. In Sana'a, employees of the ministries of information, education, electricity, health and agriculture were targeted as well as servicemen and employees in police stations, army barracks, post offices, public schools and hospitals. Awareness was also raised in qat markets of Sana'a and Taiz and qat merchants willingly put up anti-qat posters in their shops, not in the least concerned for their trade and not believing that the campaign could have a lasting effect.

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Publication:Yemen Times (Sana'a, Yemen)
Geographic Code:7YEME
Date:Sep 4, 2014
Words:2216
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