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Société civile, associations et pouvoir local au Yémen

Sarah Ben Nefissa
Maggy Grabundzija
Jean Lambert

Chapter 2: Civil Society and Social Changes

The Yemeni Society between the Politicization of the Tribe and Marginalization of the Civil Organizations (abstract)

Mohammed al‑Zahiri

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1In Yemen, the tribe has a preeminently political status. Its different functions and missions, such as the protection of its members against the state, its importance as a force of opposition, and its influence upon making political decisions, testify to this effect. Social and political diversity of the population comprised by the tribe can be considered as its contribution to political pluralism. Moreover, tribal solidarity proves to be a powerful element of mobilization: the tribes have attracted some political parties (especially those of Islamic or Arab nationalistic trends), creating, since the legislative elections of 1993, alliances, beneficial mainly for these parties.

2On the other hand, even if the tribal institution has some negative aspects (blood ties affiliation, occasionally politics of violence, and aloofness from the Constitution) the tribe resembles in a way civil society institutions, for in fact it represents a protection for its members and not only against political repression; the tribe can be also viewed as a form of mutual aid, palliating the absence of the state in some sectors, such as education and justice. Therefore, the tribe can be defined as a functional equivalent of civil society institutions on the local level. It performs the functions of a civil society either because the latter does not exist in the modern sense or because its institutions are too weak. The tribe palliates the deficiencies of the political parties which, too occupied with their electoral objectives, neglect economic, social and cultural issues.

3The analysis of the role of the tribe in social and political life in Yemen allows us to propose an alternative to such a model of modern civilization which would be based on the idea that the “old” should be discarded before building the “new”: in fact, this latter is still ill-adapted to the social and cultural realities.

4The fact that the tribal shaykh, unlike the party leaders, do not crave to attain supreme power, allows them to act, when dealing with political figures, as privileged partners and mediators. It seems that certain positive elements of the past can be preserved for they can be beneficial for contemporary society.

5However, an acceptable realization of this alternative model requires a great sense of responsibility on the part of the state. In fact, if the authorities brand today the tribe as a specific element of Yemeni culture, one should be aware that this specificity is only by default: in the absence of a modern civil society which could occupy its place, this specificity risks to legitimize the country’s actual state of underdevelopment and, finally, to allow those who are already in power to keep their positions.

© Centre français de recherche de la péninsule Arabique, 2008

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