Yemenis look to tribes as force for change

“We want a new system. We don’t care if tribal rules no longer play a role in that system, the rule of law that prevails,” protester says.

By JUDITH SPIEGEL / THE MEDIA LINE
June 20, 2011 21:07
Tribesmen loyal to Sadiq al-Ahmar in Yemen

Yemen tribesmen 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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SANAA, Yemen -- It is early morning in Change Square, as the opposition has dubbed the epicenter of their months’ long sit-in in the Yemeni capital. Abdulmajid Ali, a sheikh of the Arhab tribe, is standing at the front of the tent his tribe has set up at the site as tribesmen start the day by sweeping the floors and folding blankets.

“We want a new system. We don’t care if the tribal rules no longer play a role in that system, it should be the rule of law that prevails,” Ali, who is in charge of the Arhab tent, told The Media Line.

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It is a view echoed among the thousands camped out at Change Square and, if it prevails, it could bring about a new era in a country whose government and society have been built on edifice of tribes, clans and families, with a central government perched precariously atop trying to keep its balance.

Indeed, Change Square is already acting as a laboratory for a new Yemen. Not so much a square as a warren of streets and allies abutting Sanaa University, Change Square is both a temporary city replete with cafes, shops and art exhibits but a place where tribal rivalries have given away to the common cause of ousting Yemen’s president of three decades, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Saleh ruled by keeping the countries’ tribes loyal through a complicated system of payoffs and patronage. The strategy unraveled earlier this year when many tribal leaders turned on him, bankrolling the opposition movement. Saleh is gone for the time being after he was wounded two weeks ago during a battle with tribesmen and is now convalescing in a Saudi hospital.

His exit could open a new chapter in the history of Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world. Few doubt that the countries’ tribes and their leaders will play a decisive role. But while the tribes are in the democratic opposition, many analysts fear that they are a barrier to change, opposed to economic development and the emergence of a modern centralized government employing the rule of law. Indeed, they have been accused of providing aid to al-Qaida.



In Change Square, however, the tribesmen themselves say they are ready for modernization.

Arif Al-Sabri belongs to the Madhazj, a small tribe from the area of Taiz. He doesn’t fit the stereotype of a turbaned man with a grizzled face and a rifle in his hand wandering a barren desert landscape. An unemployed engineer, Sabri wears Western clothes and speaks near-perfect English. He has been protesting against Saleh’s regime since strikes broke out in February. But he is a loyal tribesman nevertheless.

“Of course, I belong to a tribe. We all do. Belonging to a tribe gives people a sense of dignity, of pride. Tribes are the root of Yemen,” he told The Media Line.  “It doesn’t matter whether Yemen is tribal. It matters whether people are educated.” 

Tribal divisions are an essential part of Yemeni society and no one doubts they will disappear in the post-Saleh era. Almost every Yemeni belongs to one and can identity another’s affiliation usually by their last name. The only major exceptions are people at the very top and bottom of Yemeni society -- the qarar, who are unaffiliated and considered lower-class, and families believed to be descendants of the prophet Mohammed and therefore enjoy a higher status than the tribesmen.

Many experts argue that it isn’t the tribes that bring underdevelopment but the other way around: Tribes fill the gaps of a failing state apparatus with their own law and order. Daniel Corstange, who teaches at the University of Maryland, came to that conclusion after conducting a survey of attitudes among 1,400 ordinary tribesmen.

While he found variations among those who view tribal law and institutions positively, depending on education, tribal affiliation and gender, Corstange concluded that Yemenis fell back on tribal law for lack of a better alternative from the central government. “The second-best alternatives provided by tribal law are clearly preferable to nothing,” he wrote in a 2008 study.

“Of course conflicts happen, like in Western societies. There, however, the police step in,” Nadwa Al-Dawsari, director of Partners Yemen and expert on the tribes in Yemen, told The Media Line. “Here, the tribal areas have no functioning institutions like the police or courts, so the tribes maintain security and stability by mediation. That is their traditional role and we have to admire the fact that conflicts aren’t escalating.”

Sabri, the engineer, admits that the tribes play host to al-Qaida fighters, which the US regards as the single biggest danger in Yemen today, not because they sympathize with the movement’s Islamic extremism but out of a tradition of hospitality and protection. “If you ask a tribe for protection, they will give it to you. This is tribal custom,” he says.

But Dawsari disagrees. Under tribal custom, she says, criminals cannot be protected and must be brought to justice. Some al-Qaida militants who belonged to important tribes were expelled by their tribes and have been forced to stay on the run. Moreover, she says, al-Qaida is competing with the authority of the tribes, for whom it has little respect.

“They preach an Islam that isn’t compatible with the version of Islam of the tribes,” Dawsari says. “In fact, the Islam of al-Qaida speaks very poorly of tribes.”    

That doesn’t mean that if the state becomes stronger, tribes will disappear, but they will become repositories of culture and tradition. Saudi Arabia, for example, has many tribes, but they no longer play a role in the maintenance of law and order, Dawsari says.

For Sabri, being a member of a tribe is a matter of tradition and identity, not of politics. He waves his arm towards the tent behind him. There, his fellow tribesmen are chewing [the narcotic-like plant] qat, watching television and discussing the situation. “Silmia!” they shout to passersby, which means peaceful.

“If this revolution succeeds, this country will be modernized and, of course, the role of the tribes will change as well. The current influence of the tribes is caused by a failing state system” Sabri says. “Because the state-based law does not work in Yemen, tribal power is still strong.” 

Yemeni tribal leaders aren’t after political power in their own right, says political analyst Hassan Al-Haifi. They prefer to throw their support behind leaders, typically the one who pays them the most. “Tribal leaders don’t want responsibility, and other tribes would never allow that. They are only after the overthrow of the regime,” he says.

Dawsari says the tribal system is disintegrating. While the sheikhs have retained their power, they have lost the loyalty of many of the younger generation by growing rich on government subsidies and favoring their children with education and other benefits while their followers remain poor.

“We saw that during the uprising. Many of the young and educated tribe members joined the youth. They no longer follow their sheikhs. They are enrolled in the normal political process. Within a tribe, people vote for different political parties,” she says.

Because Saleh never tried to break the power of the tribes, that job awaits Yemen’s next leader. But many fear that he will be replaced by a president who continues with his policies. Among the likely candidates are Saleh’s son and military leader, Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Hamid al-Ahmar, a businessman and one of the leaders of the Islamic Islah-party; both of whom are regarded as too stuck in the ways of the old regime. 

Indeed, the failure of Yemen’s next generation of leaders to reform the system and revive the economy could provide al-Qaida with an opening to seize power. Poor and frustrated and lacking any role in the political decision-making process, younger people are likely to turn to Islamists.

“That is the biggest danger,” says Dawsari. “If the youth on the squares in cities like Sana’a or Taiz don’t get what they want, they will be extremely frustrated. They are the new recruits for al-Qaida.”

“Of course conflicts happen, like in Western societies. There, however, the police step in,” Nadwa Al-Dawsari, director of Partners Yemen and expert on the tribes in Yemen, told The Media Line. “Here, the tribal areas have no functioning institutions like the police or courts, so the tribes maintain security and stability by mediation. That is their traditional role and we have to admire the fact that conflicts aren’t escalating.”

Al-Sabri, the engineer, admits that the tribes play host to al-Qaida fighters, which the US regards as the single biggest danger in Yemen today, not because they sympathize with the movement’s Islamic extremism but out of a tradition of hospitality and protection. “If you ask a tribe for protection, they will give it to you. This is tribal custom,” he says.

But Dawsari disagrees. Under tribal custom, she says, criminals cannot be protected and must be brought to justice. Some al-Qaida militants who belonged to important tribes were expelled by their tribes and have been forced to stay on the run. Moreover, she says, al-Qaida is competing with the authority of the tribes, for whom it has little respect.

“They preach an Islam that isn’t compatible with the version of Islam of the tribes,” Dawsari says. “In fact, the Islam of al-Qaida speaks very poorly of tribes.”    

That doesn’t mean that if the state becomes stronger, tribes will disappear, but they will become repositories of culture and tradition. Saudi Arabia, for example, has many tribes, but they no longer play a role in the maintenance of law and order, Dawsari says.

For Sabri, being a member of a tribe is a matter of tradition and identity, not of politics. He waves his arm towards the tent behind him. There, his fellow tribesmen are chewing [the narcotic-like plant] qat, watching television and discussing the situation. “Silmia!” they shout to passersby, which means peaceful.

“If this revolution succeeds, this country will be modernized and, of course, the role of the tribes will change as well. The current influence of the tribes is caused by a failing state system” Sabri says. “Because the state-based law does not work in Yemen, tribal power is still strong.” 

Yemeni tribal leaders aren’t after political power in their own right, says political analyst Hassan Al-Haifi. They prefer to throw their support behind leaders, typically the one who pays them the most. “Tribal leaders don’t want responsibility, and other tribes would never allow that. They are only after the overthrow of the regime,” he says.

Dawsari says the tribal system is disintegrating. While the sheikhs have retained their power, they have lost the loyalty of many of the younger generation by growing rich on government subsidies and favoring their children with education and other benefits while their followers remain poor.

“We saw that during the uprising. Many of the young and educated tribe members joined the youth. They no longer follow their sheikhs. They are enrolled in the normal political process. Within a tribe, people vote for different political parties,” she says.

Because Saleh never tried to break the power of the tribes, that job that awaits Yemen’s next leader. But many fear that he will be replaced by a president who continues with his policies. Among the likely candidates are Saleh’s son and military leader, Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Hamid Al-Ahmar, a businessman and one of the leaders of the Islamic Islah-party, both of whom are regarded as too stuck in the ways of the old regime. 

Indeed, the failure of Yemen’s next generation of leaders to reform the system and revive the economy could provide al-Qaida with an opening to seize power. Poor and frustrated and lacking any role in the political decision-making process, younger people are likely to turn to Islamists.

“That is the biggest danger,” says Dawsari. “If the youth on the squares in cities like Sanaa or Taiz don’t get what they want, they will be extremely frustrated. They are the new recruits for al-Qaida.”

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