Overview: Yemen’s Democracy, Military and Politics

Before anything else, it is necessary to provide a brief background of the country in question. According to a factbook by the Central Intelligence Agency (2008),  the Republic of Yemen is located in Southwest Asia’s Arabian Peninsula, having a land area of approximately 530,000 sq. km. Said area is comprised of over 200 islands, the largest being Socotra in its southern region. Its capital city is Sana’a and is governed by a republican government – the only country in the Arabian Peninsula under such an administration.As already noted by the CIA, Yemen is a presidential representative democratic republic. It was formally established on May 22, 1990 via the merger of the Yemen Arab Republic (North) and the Marxist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South), with its constitution having first been drafted on May 16, 1991. It is ruled by a president, or the head of state, as well as a prime minister, or the head of government – the current ones being President Ali Abdallah Salih and Prime Minister Ali Muhammad Mujawwar, respectively. The country chooses its president every 7 years, the most recent being in 2006. The president, in turn, appoints the rest of the government officials.In terms of military strength, the Republic of Yemen is said to have a sizable military under its command, a sizable portion of which is made up of conscripts. In fact, their armed forces is the biggest in the Arabian Peninsula, second only to the Saudi military; in 2001, for instance, their armed forces personnel alone numbered at 67,000 (International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2001). According to the Library of Congress (2008), this number further balloons by 71,000 when the Yemeni paramilitary force is taken into account. That the Yemeni government places great importance on their military cannot be denied, placing it as one of their three biggest annual expenditures. As of 2006, their defense budget amounted to $2.1 billion – 6% of the country’s GDP. Of course, this does have the unfortunate side-effect of the country’s other important aspects being neglected and getting the short end of the stick.Further compounding its national troubles is that it has gained notoriety for being a sanctuary and breeding ground for the forces of global jihad (BBC News, 2010). Such an issue was first raised just the previous year when Afghanistan and Pakistan – both countries, it should be noted, with their own track record for terrorist turnouts – expressed fears of elements of al-Qaeda raising militancy among Yemeni citizens. Fortunately, good developments have been happening in this regard; the admission of a Yemeni al-Qaeda terrorist cell to a failed attack on a US airliner helped fuel the government’s resolve against Islamic radicals. The recent bilateral truce with the rebels in the northern regions should only help them better focus their attention on these terrorists.Finally, its legal system, while nominally a democracy, also takes some of its aspects from the Shari’a, or Islamic law – as stated in articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution of the Republic of Yemen (1994). This may have played a part in its poor track record with regard to human rights. For instance, among other things, the government has been accused of torture, inhuman treatment and extrajudicial execution of suspected enemies of the state. The justice system is likewise marred by corruption, inefficiency and frequent executive interference. Freedom of speech also leaves something to be desired, especially where press and religious freedom are concerned. This then brings the discussion to another issue; namely, that regarding Yemen’s concept of law enforcement and human rights. Such concerns will be addressed in succeeding portions of this research.Human Rights and the Lack of It: Women’s Rights, Freedom of ReligionAs already mentioned, Yemeni citizens often do not have much in the way of human rights. It is supposedly a democratic country, yet freedom of speech is horribly inadequate. Women are treated as second-class citizens, often being forced into arranged marriages at age 9 or even earlier – in stark contrast to the equal rights promised by the constitution. Taking into account the numerous human rights agreements Yemen is a party to, such as the 1994 Geneva Agreement, the government really ought to be called on the numerous human rights violations they have condoned.First among the points that should be addressed is the fact that the Republic of Yemen has Islam as an established state religion. While citizens are allowed to be part of other religious denominations, Muslims are forbidden to convert to another religion, nor are they allowed to be proselytized (United States Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, 2007). Otherwise, though, the Yemeni government is actually rather tolerant of other religions, having diplomatic ties with the Vatican for instance. Moreover, they even issue residence visas to priests who wish to minister to their flock.The more problematic issue related to the instatement of Islam as the state religion is that its laws, Shari’a, form the basis of all Yemeni legislation. These laws are quite notorious for their severity, such as their mandate of death for an apostate. Another fact about these laws is that they are quite biased against women and sometimes, despite the surprising lack of religious discrimination, even against people adhering to the tenets of other religions.As already mentioned above, girls can be forced into arranged marriage even before they are physically capable of pregnancy, thanks in part to preconceived notions on female virginity and integrity. The problem here is that when a girl’s anatomy is not yet fully developed, pregnancy can in fact be more dangerous than it already is. In the worst cases, underage mothers may even die giving birth to their child, or worse, die with their child (Uzan, Seince and Pharisien, 2004). Coupled with the sometimes less-than adequate conditions in which babies are delivered, multitudes of Yemeni females end up not fully growing up. The limited access women have to medical care only aggravates the situation.Even discounting this, early marriages often come with the unfortunate side-effect of the girl being forced to prematurely drop out of school. According to UNESCO (2005), Yemen has the unfortunate distinction of having the lowest female enrollment rate of all Middle Eastern countries, and the widest literacy gap between adult males and females – a staggering 38 percent (Library of Congress Federal Research Division, 2008). In general, most Yemeni parents are reluctant to send their daughters to mixed-gender schools due to concerns regarding chastity. Such concern, while understandable, should not be prioritized to the detriment of the welfare of these girls.Other factors that hinder women’s education also come into play. For starters, most Yemeni educational facilities are subpar compared to those found in other nations. The number of schools in a given area is usually not many, and even existing educational institutions often suffer from overcrowding and an overall low quality of education. Neither does it help that the teachers, most of whom are male, often exhibit a conservative attitude towards their female students. Coupled with the fairly large distance between schools and rural areas, low-quality teaching materials, and most importantly lack of financial resources, Yemeni families in general have little interest in educating their daughters.The women who have it worst of all are the ones who never wanted to get married in the first place and therefore want out. In contrast to men who can file for divorce anytime and anywhere they like, no questions asked, women have to undergo a lot of scrutiny as to why they want a divorce in the first place. As written by Amal Basha of Freedom House (2005), no thanks to the horribly backward Personal Status Law, women are forced to contend with unnecessary practical, social and financial consequences associated with divorce. The Human Rights Watch (2001) further laments how authorities often turn a blind eye towards violence against women, yet whose hearts bleed for violence against men.Conclusion: Modernization as the SolutionJudging from the previous statements, it can be convincingly argued that the Yemeni government’s excessive fixation on Islamic law as the backbone of its legislation is largely responsible for most of the issues plaguing the country. What is more, the country’s current state and condition can also serve as proof that when the church dictates how the state runs its affairs, disaster happens. Handelman (2009, p.1) explains how such countries “still show few signs of forward progress”. Thus, this researcher proposes that the Republic of Yemen can rise up from its current state by means of modernization. More specifically, considering how Islam has a penchant of breeding conflicts described as “intense and violent” (Handelman, 2009, p.57), the Yemeni government needs to discontinue its reference to Islamic law for its legislation.Modernization, which refers to a society’s transition from a traditional focus to a modern one, has and is being widely used for those countries who wish to accelerate their development. Where developing countries are concerned, says Qian Chengdan (2009), their modernization works best when based on the experiences and lessons gained from the development of other countries. Compared to their more traditional counterparts, modern countries generally enjoy a higher standard of living, with their citizens accorded more rights and freedoms. This is undoubtedly something the Yemeni people are in dire need of.Adam Przeworski and Fernando Limongi (1997) further characterize modernization as consisting of a gradual differentiation and specialization of social structures; that is, different social structures are created to perform different functions. This would ideally help in setting apart the political structures in particular. In this process, various sequences are involved, including but not limited to industrialization, urbanization, education, communication, mobilization and political incorporation. Ultimately, the end result would be a true democratic system for the country concerned.It should be noted that such a theory is very much applicable to Yemen’s current state. The social and religious structures must be separated from the political structures; specifically, Shari’a should be abolished as the basis for all other Yemeni laws. This is not only because of how draconian said laws are, but also because while an overwhelming majority of Yemenis are Muslim, there are still a handful who do not belong to the Islamic faith. The state should only be concerned with matters of state, leaving religious issues to those more qualified to handle them.Mashhur et al (2003) have said that most Arab countries today badly need to initiate reforms in the system. Unfortunately, due to the overly conservative stance of the Yemeni government, modernization will definitely be something they will find difficult to swallow. Griffiths (2010) also adds how Western nations are most often resented for their habit of intervening (some would say interfering) in the affairs of other nations. This, he says, is the “fundamental flaw in the West’s strategic thinking” (p.20), which will probably be how the idea of a modernized Yemen will be perceived. Until they learn how to be more open-minded – until they learn that the spirit, not the letter of the law is what matters, and that an unjust law is not a law at all – they will find that accelerating their development will be very difficult indeed.