In Yemen, unlike in most other Arab countries, Sunni Islamists have had more than a decade of experience in politics, according to a U.S. Institute of Peace report. And politically active Yemeni Islamists mostly identify with one party, the Islah (Reform) Party. Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, where Islamists are largely split between ultraconservative Salafis and less conservative groups, the Islah Party “is a collecting basin for a broad range of Sunni Islamists,” according to Philip Barrett Holzapfel. But this leads to complications between the moderate leadership and some extremist voices inside the party, some of whom are allegedly associated with al Qaeda. The following are excerpts from the report on Yemen’s transition.
Yemen’s Sunni Islamists
It is common wisdom that the classical Western left-right dichotomy is not applicable to the Arab world. Instead, the main difference that has come to characterize countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, and others is between Islamism and, for lack of a more accurate term, secularism. Although this fault line has been more muted in Yemen than elsewhere, Sunni Islamists unmistakably are a center of gravity to contend with in Yemen’s domestic politics. Sunni Islamists in the region, whose origins go back to the demise of the Ottoman Empire, have been waiting their turn to govern for many decades. The void left behind by the official end of the Islamic Caliphate in 1924 was a source of deep frustration for many Muslims and a clear sign that Islam, not just as a religion, but also as a political ideology, had to be both revived and rede-fined. Until the overthrow of Egypt’s democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, Sunni Islamists were afloat in most countries of the Arab Spring. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and even relatively stable monarchies like Jordan and Morocco, they have recently won elections.
In Yemen, unlike in most other Arab countries, Sunni Islamists have had well over a decade of experience in politics. The Yemeni Islah (Reform) Party is a collecting basin for a broad range of Sunni Islamists—from moderate Islamic conservatives to hard-core Salafis. Its leadership is pursuing a notably moderate course, unequivocally endorsing the principle of a civil state with-out shying away from spelling out the principles of good governance and democracy in public. However, they do not seem willing or able to dissociate themselves from the more radical voices inside the party, such as the Salafi cleric Sheikh Abdul-Majid al-Zindani, who is on the UN Sanctions List of individuals associated with al-Qaeda.
The movement was the first party to be founded after the introduction of a pluralistic system following the unity deal in May 1990. Its founder, the powerful tribal leader Abdullah al-Ahmar, who headed the leading clan within the Hashid confederation until his death in 2007, was an ally of President Saleh. Consequently, his party was considered a pillar of the regime for more than a decade after unification. Saleh’s right hand, Major General Ali Muhsin, the commander of the First Armored Division, is also associated with Islah. On the most extreme end of the Sunni Islamist spectrum, Yemen has also become a strong-hold for al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and its local affiliate in the south, known as Ansâr al-Sharia (Supporters of Islamic Law). Another militant Islamist group known as the Jabhat al Nosrah (Front of Supporters [of Allah]), whose ties to AQAP are unclear, has recently emerged in the northern province of Saada. In the context of the transition, the Sunni Islamists saw themselves as at the forefront of the uprising against Saleh. One of the pioneers of the protest movement, Tawakkul Kerman, who later received the Nobel Peace Prize for her activism, was also a leading Islah member. Other Is-lah figures belonging to the more traditional elites, such as General Ali Muhsin and the sheikhs of the al-Ahmar clan, also adopted revolutionary rhetoric early on. As the best organized opposition party across the country, Islah considered itself the natural leader of the revolution and entitled to harvest the fruits of regime change as much as its peers in Egypt and Tunisia. It was soon criticized by other camps for trying to dominate the protest movement. After a national consensus government formed, Islah members were then accused of trying to consolidate their grip on the administration through nepotism and patronage. Vis-àvis the international community, they have been eager to present themselves as a constructive actor within the transition process.
The long-standing conflict between Islamists and liberals across the Middle East has a presence in Yemen. Although its impact was muted at the beginning of the uprising, its recent escalation in the region conditions the readiness of Yemen’s conflicting parties to coalesce and confront the perceived threat of a Sunni Islamist takeover. Perhaps the most significant feeder of this fault line in Yemen’s domestic politics is Egypt. When the Muslim Brotherhood won the elections in Egypt, their Yemeni counter-parts felt emboldened to the point of believing that power was within their reach as well. In turn, when the Egyptian military took government out of the Muslim Brotherhood’s hands again, al-Islah considered the move an attack against itself. Meanwhile, some GPC leaders displayed a triumphalism over the military takeover in Egypt that was equally un-called for. The extent to which Yemenis overidentified with their respective Egyptian allies is best illustrated by the sit-ins in support of President Morsi in Sanaa and the appearance of Saleh’s nephew Yahya, shortly after being removed from his command of the paramilitary Central Security Forces, at an anti-Muslim Brotherhood rally in Cairo. So far, however, all of this has been little more than posturing. Another pertinent example of this fault line is the conflict in Syria, in which the anti-Assad coalition between moderate and liberal forces (mostly abroad) and hard-line Islamists (mostly inside Syria) has fallen apart. The Yemeni government’s official position has gradually moved from being somewhat pro-Assad to being against him, which also reflects the decreasing influence of Assad’s allies within the Yemini government. So far, however, the impact of the Syrian crisis on Yemeni politics has been limited.
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