Democracy and Tribalism in the Land of Sheba

IN Sheikh Ahmed Hussein al-Azeizi's mafraj, a traditional Yemeni reception room of impressive proportions, Kalashnikov assault rifles are hung on hooks. The men of his clan sit chewing qat, a shrub whose leaves have a mildly stimulating effect, while discussing poetry and politics.

Opposite the weapons, in alcoves above the arched window, are large stone fragments with Himyarite inscriptions, remnants of the dynasty that dominated Yemen 1,600 years ago. The windows look down on the beautifully terraced fields that form the economic backbone of this fortified village near Dhamar in Yemen's northern tribal heartland.

Sheikh Azeizi and his clansmen are representative of at least half of the country's 14 million people who have retained a tribal identity. While states have risen and fallen over the centuries, tribal structure has remained northern Yemen's basic political unit.

Governments in Sana have tried for 30 years, since the overthrow of the archaic Imamate monarchy, to bring the tribes under central control. But there are still large parts of the mountainous north where the Army has little chance of interceding. Tribes here are heavily armed, much of their arms supplied by Saudi Arabia as a means of maintaining influence.

In a country that held the first democratic elections on the Arabian Peninsula last month, tribal identity and autonomy would seem to contradict political liberalization. But Yemeni tribal members see no conflict.

A young doctor in Sana who comes from a powerful tribe is one of the first generation of Yemeni women to be educated. She still believes in tribal structures.

"Can you imagine if the government in Sana had been able to control the whole country? We would have had complete dictatorship. But instead the tribes were part of consensus building," she says.

Azeizi favors a more historical perspective: "There was democracy here before there ever was in the West - going back to the Queen of Sheba."

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