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Société civile, associations et pouvoir local au Yémen

Sarah Ben Nefissa
Maggy Grabundzija
Jean Lambert


Civil Society and Civil Activism in Yemen (abstract)

Sheila Carapico

Entrées d'index

Texte intégral

1Studies of civil society in the Arab world too often begin with a very romantic, pastel cityscape of orderly, dignified, secular free agents practicing their democratic rights and liberties in an atmosphere of congenial tolerance. Confusing philosophy with sociology, this utopian vision fails to distinguish between the best ideals of the European enlightenment and the actual, very conflictual history of struggles within the Western public civic sphere. Unfortunately the equation of civil society with NGOs not only legitimizes maneuvers by governments and/or donors to define what constitutes legitimate “civic” participation by licensing NGOs, but it encourages scholars to focus almost exclusively on activities inside office suites and convention centers. In Yemen, of course, one finds neither utopian civil society nor a plethora of formal civic institutions. And yet there is a history of activism, documented here.

2The thesis of my book, Civil Society in Yemen: A Political Economy of Activism in Modern Arabia, was that activism in the civic sphere is shaped by political, legal, economic, and institutional conditions. In turn, civic activism, as distinct from the coercive and bureaucratic functions of the state, the profit-seeking of private sector businesses, or the personal realm of the family, influences political, legal, economic, and institutional development. In other words, civil society is fluid; it includes inchoate movements and special events as well as formal organizations. But even as successive states restricted and manipulated civic activism in the name of the rule of law, civil society has demonstratively influenced governance, sometimes in indirect, even dialectical ways.

3Until at least the middle of the 20th century, Yemeni communities provided their own education, community water management, support for widows and orphans, and other services. There was also autonomous practice of Islamic and tribal law by local judges to resolve disputes and maintain social order. There were mechanisms for waqf endowments, spending local taxes, zakāt, raising alms, sadāqah, or other contributions, rallying men for work projects, or otherwise pooling local resources. Traditional community activism might be called al‑mujtama‘ al‑ahlī rather than al‑mujtama‘ al‑madanī: both can mean “civil society”, but the first was rooted in a traditional agrarian economy, when the second is relatively more modern and bourgeois. My argument is that many mechanisms and symbolic resources we think of as “tribal” or “religious” are available to modernizing civic activists.

4I argue that civil society took different shapes and roles in the 20th century, depending on local, national, and international circumstances, following three main phases:

5In Aden Colony, a cosmopolitan, capitalist city, upper class associations, militant labor unions, migrants’ groups, and other formations gave rise to political parties, newspaper publishing, social clubs, public demonstrations, and other activities in the civic sphere.

6In the 70’s, in many villages and cities of North Yemen, civic activism took the form of a self-help movement. The Ta‘awwun movement brought innovative services, especially roads, secular schools, water and electricity supplies, clinics, and tree-planting. Again the shape of civil society was affected by national conditions like a weak central government and remittances from Saudi Arabia, as well as by local geography and social structure.

7Following unification in 1990, along with multiparty elections, there has been rapid growth in the voluntary or NGO sector, the civic realm between businesses and the state. Charities, human rights groups, formal intellectual qat chews (maqiyal), and mass public meetings all became more common. There’s been more space for private universities, legal practices, publications, and political campaigns. At the same time, however, independent civic groups face state pressures and legal measures designed to contain their impact and direct energies toward the interests of government.

8In Yemen, as elsewhere, therefore, civil society can offer a buffer against state absolutism, and almost always faces legal or political maneuvers at cooptation and/or censorship. This dynamic extends even to tribes which are capable of mobilizing people to resist government encroachments in local affairs.

9Globalization penetrates civil society in an ambivalent way, offering possibilities of material and symbolic resources but also bringing new political controversies. Several researchers offered evidence of how foreign donors and international factors affect the possibilities for civic activism in contemporary Yemen.

10Each of the papers presented in this book contains insights and details I could not explain in this brief summation. Certainly there are differences among scholars concerning the role of tribes and traditional practices; the nature of relationships between government and civil society; and the influence of international donors on processes of development and democratization. Also there is considerable variation between towns and farm communities, the highlands and the lowlands, the area once ruled by the British and the domain of the former imams, and even between different projects in the same micro-environment. The array of examples as well as our alternative points of view on some matters made for lively debates during the Conference, and left panelists as well as a very engaged audience with much to consider and some new questions for further research. Because of the nature of the subject, and because such a meeting is itself a kind of public civic participation, and because the civic realm is continuously debated and contested, our discussion, like civil society itself, was also very political.


Associate Professor at Richmond University, Department of Political Sciences

© Centre français de recherche de la péninsule Arabique, 2008

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