Peripheral Visions: publics, power and performance in Yemen

Peripheral Visions: publics, power and performance in Yemen

by Lisa Wedeen, University of Chicago Press, 2008. Pp. 300. Index. Bibliog. Maps. Illus. Pb. ISBN 13: 978-0-226-87791-41. 

Lisa Wedeen is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, and her book is based on 18 months of research in Yemen between 1998 and 2004. In Peripheral Visions she both tests political science theories, especially on nationalism and identity, against events in Yemen and uses the theories in a way which will help area specialists see these events in a new and different light. Though some readers might be deterred by the discussion of theory, they will find a rich reward in the erudition and analysis which she brings to her subject. She builds on earlier studies, notably Paul Dresch’s A History of Modern Yemen and Sheila Carapico’s Civil Society in Yemen. The book is highly relevant to understanding Yemen today. 

She asks, ‘What makes a Yemeni a Yemeni?’In a state with weak institutions and limited government capacity, where loyalties to tribe, sect or region can be very strong, how does a feeling of national identity develop? She looks at how unity is imagined, showing that Yemeni nationalism in its present form is a product of a 20th century construct that built on an older sense of a Yemeni distinctiveness that had rarely found expression in a single political entity before 1990. Yemeni unity is developed by political actors with different concepts of what it would mean to people with contrasting ways of imagining what unity should embody. Unification was brought about by the special circumstances in which the two distinct political systems found themselves in the late 1980s. PDRY had never fully recovered from the effects of the disastrous internecine fighting in January 1986. Its regime was fearful of losing authority if not power, as it struggled to overcome its economic problems and the loss of its main source of external support: a Soviet-led bloc in the grip of glasnost and perestroika. The North, also affected by internal economic and political problems, saw its own salvation in unity and understood that the weakness of the South presented an unique opportunity. Most Yemenis in the late 1990s wanted unity but the aims and motives of the political actors had little in common and took no account of different states of institutional development, and of disparities in population size and economic weight. The euphoria of 1990 was quickly replaced by disillusion – as harsh reality overcame the dreams of what unity would bring, making it difficult if not impossible for the two leaderships to make unity work, as the events of 1994 were to show. 

Wedeen takes this further in the second section which deals with ‘seeing like a citizen, acting like a state’. She examines the 1993 elections which were held in unprecedented democratic conditions, involving over 40 political parties, many critical newspapers and energetic local campaigning. Yemen, it appeared, was in a process of transition to democracy. The Southern politicians clearly hoped that they could attract substantial votes in the North based on the social and administrative achievements of PDRY. However, moves were discreetly orchestrated to ensure that Northern politicians dominated the government. The Southerners had entered unity through an agreement that gave them much greater weight than their population and resources would have commanded. Painful adjustments would now be necessary. Disappointment, disillusion and personal antagonisms could only be resolved in the civil war of 1994. The 1997 elections were less democratic but by then the die had been cast. Looking at how the tenth anniversary of union was celebrated, Professor Wedeen observes that the former Southern leader was airbrushed from photographs of the unification ceremony of 1990. Though many Southern politicians continue to play prominent roles in Yemen, the current unrest in the old PDRY suggests that the present form of unity is not what they imagined in 1990. 

Throughout the book, Wedeen points out that Yemeni nationalism may now be a powerful concept but that national solidarities are not developed through state institutions but through the actions of people in everyday life – performative politics as she calls it. She uses a vivid account of a hunt for a mass murderer to illustrate the weaknesses of institutions in unified Yemen. When institutions are weak people resort to other means of expression. In the fascinating third section of her book, she examines the role of qat chews in the political process. Such chews can consist of like-minded individuals who will often choose subjects for discussion and invite speakers. They may be democratic but in many ‘chews’ the place setting of participants reflects a hierarchy. They can also be quasi-public events in the sense that politicians and officials can use them for often very frank discussion and debate. She describes one such occasion where up to 80 people attended a qat chew at which the late Jarullah Umar argued for the need for electoral politics to enable the Yemeni Socialist Party to survive. Suchgatherings are not that different from the diwaniyah in Kuwait or the majlis in other parts of the Gulf. As Wedeen notes, the regime has to tolerate the critical discussions of the qat chews because it cannot suppress them, and in some cases seeks to use them to its own advantage. 

In the final sections, she turns her attention to the respective influences of tribal, religious and local loyalties as a background to understanding sectarian conflict and in particular the emergence of ‘BelievingYouth’and the well documented fighting around Sa’ada in recent years. She develops this by looking at the rise of political Islam in various forms and how promotion of piety can be enhanced, if not intentionally, by the application of neo-liberal economic reform programmes. Her analysis provides useful background to understanding the politics of the General People’s Congress and the Islah party. It also links into her main thesis that the individual can owe strong allegiance to tribe, region and sect and that these affect how Yemenis see the state and interact with it, particularly a state with weaklydeveloped institutions. 

Some of the facts will be familiar but in setting them in a broader world Professor Wedeen enhances our understanding of what it means to be a Yemeni. The specialist reader will thus find much of interest in this original, elegant and imaginative study. 

Noel Brehony

Author: 
Lisa Wedeen