Sunday, June 19, 2005

Democracy and Unicorns in Yemen

What a good con artist Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is. He had me fooled for quite a while. One of my earliest tip-offs came when he gave a beautiful speech about democracy being "the rescue ship of all regimes." But he didn't let the journalists into the democracy conference. Or the human rights groups.

The Children's Parliament is an institution that I thought demonstrated Saleh's commitment to educating young Yemenis about the institutions of democracy. But then I learned that the Adult Parliament has never initiated any legislation. The Parliament's greatest accomplishment to date has been blocking a very few of Saleh's proposed laws. The real lesson Saleh teaches children in Yemen is that even the adults have no power.

If the Transparency International report is correct in listing Yemen among the most corrupt states, then the government bureaucracy is not a meritocracy but something more like a mafia, with government jobs and positions of authority given on the basis of connections not intelligence, of poor moral character not ability.

I was impressed when some women were finally appointed to high ranking positions. Later I learned that 70% of women in Yemen are illiterate, so the appointments are not a significant indication of the enfranchisement of our Yemeni sisters in the political system.

I had thought that Yemen was voluntarily cooperating in the War on Terror. Then I found the Freedom House 2003 report which said Saleh refused to take any actions against the Cole bombers until the US threatened military action in 2002. Odd how those jihaddis seem to escape from prison so frequently.

One person in jail getting beat up regularly is Abdul Karim al-Khaiwani. He's a newspaper editor who reported on government corruption. He was jailed for some opeds that "insulted the president." Insulting the president takes guts when the president is also the chief judicial officer. If al-Khaiwani's case is any indication, if you insult the president in Yemen, you don't get a fair trail, a defense lawyer, or an appeal. If you're a journalist, reporting the truth is against the law because Saleh is the law.

President Saleh is opening a regional democracy center and has hosted democracy conferences. If he opened a building and called it the unicorn study center and talked frequently about unicorns, would the West believe there were unicorns in Yemen as well as democracy? Clearly both are myths.

Am I the only one who notices that President Bush never mentions Yemen? In President Bush's truly gratifying speeches about the importance of encouraging and assisting the growth of democracy in the Middle East, somehow Yemen is consistently left off the list. Realpolitik meets idealism in Yemen, and it results in a democracy building where free speech is prohibited.

The truly sad part is there's a palpable yearning for democracy in Yemen among the middle class and intellectuals. As Saleh prepares to give the presidency to his son like a used car to a good boy, the Yemeni democrats are under siege, the journalists censored, and the people imprisoned in their own country. Reforms in Yemen are no more real than unicorns but apparently just as pleasant to believe in.


Jane Novak is an American oped columnist and political analyst blogging at Armies of Liberation. Footnotes availabe upon request.