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Société civile, associations et pouvoir local au Yémen

Sarah Ben Nefissa
Maggy Grabundzija
Jean Lambert

Chapter 3: NGO’s and Local Governance

Local Development and Politics in Mokha (abstract)

Odile Joly

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1In Yemen, as in many other countries, the problems of economic and social development are inseparable from local politics. In the 1960’s, the associations appeared on the public scene, at the time when the newly born Arab Republic of Yemen struggled to improve its economic and social situation by encouraging local initiatives. However, these initiatives, at first vigorously formulated, were very soon impeded and appropriated by the state. From the publication of the first law concerning the associations in 1963, to the decentralization law in 2000, there was a progressive process of limiting the associations’ network by the government which sometimes controlled them directly. In the 1970’s, the Yemeni government integrated these associations into a system of locally elected assemblies, thus transforming them into narrow cells subjected to the administration of the central government. This was done with a view to control politically local activities and to enhance through this system the legitimization of the Regime.

2In Mokha, the local association was founded in 1975 with such principal fields of intervention as education, health care, water supply and agriculture. Composed out of 75 members elected by the district (nāhyya), this association had as its budget primarily zakāt revenues and, additionally, the resources allotted to it by the government. If at the beginning it was quite prosperous, it was later (beginning of the 1980’s) paralyzed due to disagreements between its members, especially between its president and the head of the district who represented the government. At the beginning of the 1990’s, following the reunification of Yemen, multi-party system emerged on the local scene. The competition among the different party supporters was to politicize the social life and to aggravate the existing disputes. This resulted in the domination of the party in power, the General People’s Congress (GPC). Following the decentralization law, universal suffrage elections to a new local council in 2001 confirmed the victory of the GPC, reproducing on a local scale its national hegemony. The monopoly of the notables and the political figures either close to the government or members of the GPC on the positions of influence ended in the total control over the local association and in the formation of a new organization of different administrative levels.

3The political life in Mokha is delineated by a well-defined territorial unity: the district (al‑nāhyya), which is the smallest administrative division to have a representative of the central authorities (the head of the district or mudīr al‑nāhyya). The district itself is further divided into three sub-districts (‘uzla), headed by a traditional representative called shaykh, whose responsibility, very local however, is to represent the most important families and, at the same time, to serve as deputy of the head of the district. Thus, he is a mediator between the population and the government. The status of shaykh, often passed from father to son in the families who play a dominating role either in society or in economy, is upheld by way of exercise of local power and involvement into a broader political sphere (political parties, especially the party in power). Likewise, the GPC uses these administrative divisions as territorial foundation for its organization. At the end of 1990’s, the superposition in the administrative, political and social spheres embittered local splits, enhancing population division and creating rivalries that were used by the Party members for their benefit. Starting from the time of elections, the Party offices look for the candidates whose social status could make the victory possible (the central authorities having always an opportunity to direct and even to impose a candidate of their choice). The electoral alliance between the leaders of the GPC and the local shaykh‑s is, therefore, essential: by letting them control the district of Mokha, the regime allows the traditional notables to safeguard their dominant positions. In the light of this, economic and social development with the resources which it can provide is a major political objective for the political figures that strive to derive financial and symbolic benefit from it in order to consolidate their legitimacy among the population.

4It was in April 1997 that the project entitled “The Model Integrated Health Development Project”, the product of cooperation between the Yemen authorities of the region of Taez and Rada Barnes (a Swedish non-governmental organization representative) was launched. It is difficult to analyze a posteriori a project whose achievements are few. On the other hand, the analysis of the conflicts which surfaced from the very beginning between the project and the major political figures (some of which strived to get new positions while the others attempted to keep their power), clearly shows the real challenges which it aroused on the local political scene. In order to illustrate the political technicality of the project, we will mention three programs: the promotion of women, education and health care.

  • The feminine association al‑Zahra was established in 1998 within the framework of the project. This independent structure soon became a center of interest for the political parties. Since the office members were able to provide a large number of women’s votes for the elections, formation of the office became a major political objective: its members were quickly co-opted by the GPC.

  • Concerning the library at Mokha, the project was suspended because of the difficulties that aroused during the nomination of its director: the GPC blocked the nomination of a person close to another party, imposing its own representative and gaining all the credit for the creation of the library.

  • Finally, in the domain of health care, formation of the health care services management group and the cost collection program met numerous difficulties: tensions arose between the committee and the director of the hospital; they became more intense as illegal activities (private medical practice within the establishment) were detected. The conflict divided the staff of the hospital into two camps, and was only resolved after several years, following the local elections of 2001. This incident shows the government’s tolerance towards private practices within public services and the process of services becoming market goods.

5In these three cases, the development of the project and the possible social mobility restructuring which could have ensued caused its direct political seizing by the party in power. In its quest for legitimization in order to enhance its control over the local leaders, the GPC’s local office came forward as the main factor of the development, suspending in fact the mobilization of the community which had started already and which could have flourished. At the same time, the GPC ostentatiously showed off where the mobilization had taken place. In general, the resources allotted for the development served rather to reinforce the established order and the political clientele. This fact highlights that any attempt of social change directed from outside is at risk of failure in Yemen.


International Consultant

© Centre français d’archéologie et de sciences sociales, 2008

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