Tribes should be social entities not political participants, says al-Dhaheri

Reported by Zaid al-Alaya’a, Yemen Observer, Sept. 22, 2007

Dr. Mohammed Mohsen al-Dhaheri, chairman of the Political Sciences Department at Sana’a University, spoke with the Yemen Observer about the contemporary role of tribes in the governance of Yemen and the conflict between the traditional and modern authorities. He is the author of two books about the socio-political relationship between the tribes and the state in Yemen.

Yemen Observer: What do you think of the newly established National Solidarity Council, and what do you think prompted its establishment?

Dr. Mohammed al-Dhaheri: First, I would like to say that this is what we can call political meddling. Tribes in Yemen have certain mechanisms to demand their rights. For example, some tribes will block highways or kidnap foreigners to add urgency to their demands. I can not put this council in the frame of a tribal bloc. It is can not what I would call a tribal council nor is it a partisan council. You can see that politicians meet with the sheikhs and with the academics. The council represents a period in tribal meetings that Yemen has not witnessed before. You can not call it an opposition entity as it has many members from the GPC, and academics etc. As you see there is a sort of dichotomy that starts to prevail in Yemen. This council has encountered other gatherings from tribes led by Sheikh al-Shaif.

We as researchers can not judge this NSC until we see what it will do. We focus on behavior and we don’t really trust speeches in which everybody claims that they are moving towards positive change and that they are against corruption. The proof is in the behavior. This council also shows that when official authorities of the state fail to respond to the needs of citizens, they retreat to entities that existed before the state, namely tribes. Those who joined the NSC want to clear themselves from any responsibilities of what is happening in Yemen and they want to demonstrate that they are not to blame. That’s why they join and they also want to be ready to gain power 2013.

YO: Why do you think some academics, people from the GPC and oppositions have joined the NSC?

MD: Again, the establishment of this council is an indication of the failure of civil society. Organizations and parties that play a role in the council want to invest see membership as an investment in achieving particular interests. There is no partisan discipline from those members who left certain parties to join this entity. Some might be honest, but some also may exploit the council for their own interests.

YO: How will you define the ‘tribe’ in Yemen in this era of change in the country?

MD: Defining the tribe in Yemen has is tricky. Researchers in the West and in anthropological writings say that the tribe is a traditional structure that existed before the state. The peculiarity of the definition of the tribe in Yemen is that it is also part of the state and is in dialogue with the political and social sides of it. In one analysis I did in my PhD, I say that the state in Yemen embraces two political systems: an arbitrational system that is the official system in Yemen; and the political-tribal system. So, the tribe in Yemen is a group of people who inhabit a certain place and have shared conventions, customs, traditions and interests forming a political, economical and military system. This group also feels that they have a kinship connection whether this is real or not. I want to affirm here that the tribe in Yemen is political in nature and has a number of traits that make it close to politics. It is a closed structure but it resembles political parties and pressure groups in that they have some influence over political decision-makers. This is what makes the definition of the tribe in Yemen distinctive.

YO: What about the variety of tribes in Yemen and how do you classify them?

MD: There are a great variety of tribes in Yemen—it is not a solid mass. There are fighting tribes and there are peaceful tribes, there are tribes in fertile land and tribes in barren land, there are tribes with strong fanaticism and there are tribes who are less fanaticism. There are tribes that are loyal to the ruling system and those in opposition to it. So, nobody can conduct a case study on one tribe and generalize their findings, like the anthropologists do. There are places where tribes still cling to their tribal norms and on the other hand there are places where tribes have lost these norms. The core of these tribes is that each has its own leader—who we call Sheikh. These sheikhs now unfortunately pursue personal interests and pay less attention to their groups. We here in the Yemeni environment that show the worst in tribes and the worst in political parties.

YO: How would you describe the relations between tribes, the state and the society at large in Yemen?

MD: There is a direct relationship between the state and the tribe. When there is a weakness in the state, the tribe gets stronger and vice versa. What happens everywhere else in the world is that when there are modern institutions and organizations, the tribes fade. In Yemen there is coexistence between the tribes and modern organizations or civil society—coexistence between the tribe and politics.

YO: How would you describe Yemenis attitudes towards events in and outside of Yemen?

MD: Yemenis are greatly influenced by events that occur outside of Yemen. Cases in point are the reaction of Yemenis to the execution of Saddam Hussein; they were hanging up pictures of him in shops, cars and everywhere. The same thing was seen with Nasr Allah during last year’s war between Hezbollah and Israel. Nasr Allah pictures were also seen ubiquitously in Yemen. Unfortunately, Yemen is influenced by the outside world but does not interact with it. We also see this when some tribal individuals attempt to pressure the authorities by kidnapping foreigners. This is for several reasons the most important of which is a kind of absence of trust between society and authorities. Now in Yemen there is a kind of weakness in the state and also a weakness in the tribes. What happens is that there is a weakening of traditional structures—that is tribes, but also a weakness in its substitute—the modern institutions like parties and otherwise. I am not with the tribes as a political participant but with it as a social entity.

YO: What changes have occurred in some of the tribal concepts of this era?

MD: The traditions and norms of the tribe are no longer as they were in the past; they are changing completely. For example, it was prohibited to take revenge in cities (places that tribes call majjar), and also in souqs. Now we see tribesmen taking their revenge in cities, markets wherever they find their opponents. Secondly, leaders of tribes are supposed to look out for the welfare of their people and to act in their interests. Sheikhs now look after their own interests alone. Sheikhdom has turned into a game of personal wants and self gains. There used to a great sense of belonging to a certain tribe and a belief that one’s interests could only be fulfilled through one’s tribe. There is also a relaxation in the use of all sorts of arms including jambias. There are severe punishments for brandishing arms or jambias in front of any one. The traditional entity tribe in Yemen is in its worst times. Honesty and dignity as the main qualities of tribalism are fading.

YO: Do you believe that there is a certain force that benefits from the weakness of tribes in Yemen?

MD: I would like to say that we are not living in an isolated place. We live in a world of globalization and under the influence of the internet, technology, and satellites. All this has weakened the traditional entity of the tribe. This weakness has not only affected tribal norms, but also the norms and values of modern civil society. There is no obvious strategy by the political regime to weaken the tribes and provide the modern organized society as its substitute.

YO: What are the main obstacles for the presence and practice of real democracy and do you think the role played by tribes in this era hinders democracy?

MD: As I said earlier, we are living in a political environment that brings out the worst in tribalism and the worst and partisanship. Yemen is moving very slowly towards democracy. Some of the characteristics of a real democracy are the peaceful handing over of power, a strong opposition, the absolute independence of the justice system, effective law enforcement, and political pluralism with no legal ties. Yemen has a sort of democracy in the form of elections, but this democracy is painted with the traditions of Yemen. If you look at political participation in Yemen, you will find it very weak in the sense that there is very little awareness of politics and political rights. What happens in Yemen is political mobilization. Voters follow their tribal leaders and don’t pay much attention to the electoral agenda or program of candidates.

YO: How much do you think the culture of fear affects the political arena in Yemen, in particular the fear of change?

MD: This is one of the most important issues characterizing the culture of Yemen. We live in an avenging culture. When a foreigner visits Yemen and walks in the streets they will see many people and soldiers inside the main cities carrying firearms. To the foreigner these weapons are indicators of violence. However, for Yemenis these are a sort of reaction. Once I stopped a sheikh with his escorts and told him we people with pants are afraid of you and he said” look son I am afraid as someone may seek revenge against me, he may kill me any time or anywhere.” To go back to the question though, we have universities, civil society organizations and elections all of which are indicators of democracy, but if you look at the educational institutions, you find that they are still teaching in traditional ways. Students are not given a chance to think for themselves. Free elections need complete awareness from voters which is not seen in Yemen. To show or prove that a country has real democracy, there has to be strong institutions that help in policy making which is not the case in Yemen.

YO: How do you see the relationship between the state and society in Yemen?

MD: There is a mutual relationship. The best thing is to have a strong state and a strong society. The presence of a strong state implicitly means the presence of a strong society with modern institutions. In Yemen the state is not strong – strength and power lie in the hands of certain individuals and the interests of citizens are not taken care of greatly. Foreigners are getting much of the country’s riches as we have what I call an inferiority complex. In Yemen people are bullying towards each other and feel inferior in front of foreigners.

YO: What do you make of the demonstrations etc that have been taking place in Yemen over the last two months?

MD: There is a sort of political insecurity now due to the absence of basic needs. The rulers have to provide the ruled ones with their basic needs or it will cause insecurity. Any problems in Yemen have to be solved before they get too bad. The authorities do not have to wait until things are worse; they have to tackle issues in their early stages. The legitimacy of any political system comes from the satisfaction of its ruled ones. I am sure that there will be no revolutions or coups in Yemen just yet, but if what is happening continues, political insecurity will continue. As I said Yemenis confuse fate and the bad performance of the state. When prices increase some will not say it is because of a decline in economy but a test from God.

YO: How can we achieve political security in Yemen?

MD: For political security, there must be modern institutions that participate effectively in policy and decisions making and we need to get rid of political possession. The political system needs to enhance its legitimacy of power by making sure that ruled ones are satisfied. The system has to work towards providing the basic needs of citizens, improving living standards, and fighting corruption and unemployment. The society also needs to get rid of dichotomies.

YO: How do educational institutions such as schools and universities enhance the social structure in Yemen and improve the society at large?

MD: Yemen needs real and effective political breeding that can help development and enhance political security. I want to say here that the Yemeni environment is expelling any talents; universities are the pillars of a developed, democratic and modern society. The educational system needs a drastic change. I find my students take things very easy; they take things for granted without questioning the way things are. Universities have also been negatively politicized. The educational shortfalls begin well before higher education; they begin from the primary education. Universities have become graveyards for talents. Professors of universities are also affected by students. When their students are mentally lazy, teachers will not prepare and this also deprives the very few students who are intelligent and want to learn.

YO: Do you think that the state modern organizations can co-exist with the strong presence of tribes?

MD: First, I want to say that the tribes are not hindering the presence of modern organizations. Some people and researchers seek to break down the traditional entity of the tribes without thinking about the substitute. I support modern establishments like political parties and civil society organizations. People that do not know Yemen have to understand that tribes are traditional structures that carry political characteristics. Tribes help the political system and also benefit from it. There is also a great deal of social and cultural variety in Yemen. When a foreigner sees people carrying arms this is not an indicator of violence, but a mixture of traditions and customs. They will also see the honesty and hospitality of the tribes and feel welcome. The danger is that Yemenis are talking more to the outside world than amongst themselves. You also see Yemenis seeking help from outside and not from the inside.

Dr. Mohammed al-Dhaheri