Yemen attempts to rein in outlaw tribes
Officials hope to reduce broad gun ownership and extend reach in lawless areas.
SANAA, YEMEN — Surrounded by a group of tribesmen sporting gold-trimmed robes and daggers, Sheikh Abdul- Rahman al-Marwani speaks like a man on a mission.
"The Sheikhs and the clerics have given up their responsibilities," he says. "So we have to step in and take over their tasks."
Since Mr. Marwani established his organization, The House of Peace, in 1997, he has fought a lonely and dangerous campaign against Yemen's warrior culture and the tribal violence that kills about 2,000 people a year in this remote Arab country.
The government's strained efforts to rein in its lawless tribes was spotlighted by the kidnapping of several foreign tourists by Yemeni tribes in the past few months.
But the battle to calm Yemen's tribes has been reinvigorated by a government crackdown on Yemen's arms trade, which fuels much of the tribal conflict. Yemen has come under increasing pressure from the US, a key financial and military backer, to take harsher action against the illicit trade in weapons, which experts say are funneled to militias and radical insurgent groups throughout the Middle East.
"We have expressed our serious concern to the Yemeni government on the subject of the weapons trade," says Nabeel Khoury, deputy head of mission at the US Embassy in Sanaa. "The danger is that terrorist groups can use Yemen as a shopping center. A Yemeni or a foreigner can buy a weapon almost anywhere in Yemen."
Yemen's abundance of weapons is legendary. Thanks to unguarded borders and several civil wars this country of 23 million people is said to have more than 60 million guns.
But to increasing numbers of Yemenis, that statistic is an indication of how far Yemen must travel to become a respectable member of the international community. "We believe there is no development without peace, and no development without tackling the causes of violence," says Marwani. "Violence comes from prejudice. We must be a candle in the darkness."
To spread his message, Marwani has staged theatrical performances, held demonstrations outside parliament, and handed out thousands of leaflets.
"We have to change peoples' thinking. We try to show that carrying arms is a sign of cowardice and to say that a person carrying arms should not be respected by people," says Marwani. "And the issue of revenge killings is a serious problem. If a farmer is shot in his fields by accident it can lead to war."
The government's latest attempt to limit weapons, however, is driven by more than altruism. By gradually removing guns from its citizens it can gradually extend its powers into lawless tribal areas.
"Overall, government authority over the provinces and hinterlands has increased over the past 10 to 15 years," says Sheila Carapico, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at the University of Richmond, adding that Yemen also has used a range of tactics to gradually erode the centuries-old independence of the tribes. "One of the techniques the government uses to extend its reach is to coopt selected prominent sons of sheikhly families, who are almost always also military officers, into the regime."
In fact, the government seems keener to destroy the tribes' independence than the tackle the issue of international smuggling that is the main concern of the US and its allies, some say.
"The weapons trade continues, and that is something where we would like to see some speedy and effective action," says Mr. Khoury at the US Embassy. "We're not that concerned about the average Yemeni's attachment to their personal weapons. We are more concerned with the large-scale availability of such weapons."
Progress has been slow, however, and Yemen's government itself has recently broken the international arms embargo against Somalia by smuggling a boatload of weapons into the war-torn African country, says Khoury.
Yemen's patchy approach to weapons trading makes many suspicious of the government's motives. Some say that the government is using US support to turn the country into an increasingly brutal and authoritarian dictatorship, pointing to a recent crackdown on press freedoms and the alleged use of mustard gas against Shiite rebels in the country's far north.
And as Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh prepares for a probable sixth term after Yemen's elections in September, some say that only the considerable firepower of Yemen's devoutly independent tribes safeguards the relative political freedom of the country's citizens.
"Yemen is a constitutional democracy," says Robin Madrid, resident director of the National Democratic Institute's program in Yemen. She points out that Yemen's constitutional freedoms date to agreements signed during the country's 1990 unification rather than to any grassroots movement.
"Yemen is an anomaly. You don't get democracies in illiterate, underdeveloped societies," says Ms. Madrid. "Political movements for democracy and reform usually start in urban areas with the middle class."
Whether Yemen continues to drift away from democracy may depend not on these urban literati but instead on rural and often illiterate tribesmen.
One such man is Abdullah al-Thawba, who has come to Marwani's office to seek his help in ending a war between his tribe, Wadhem, and its neighbors, the Adhamti. More than 70 people have been killed in the conflict in the past three years.
"The government promised to solve the problem but did nothing," explains Mr. Thawaba, who hails from Al-Jawf, a lawless desert province. "We need our weapons because of the lack of peace and security. The government cannot protect its own citizens."
As men like Thawaba increasingly lay down their guns, the survival of Yemen's democracy may depend on whether tribesmen like him decide to use democracy to defend their rights. So far there are signs that this might happen.
"Because Yemen is a tribal society it has an egalitarian spirit," says Madrid. "This is a good basis for democracy. I've been approached by tribal leaders who have asked for help in bringing democracy."