By Mohammed al-Asaadi
- Robin Madrid, former director of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, left Sanaía earlier in November, after five years of passionate yet challenging work on NDIís mission in Yemen. Madrid, 66, told The Washington Post last year that she hates seeing people suffering.
Therefore, she decided to bring about change in Yemen, working to improve the welfare of its people through preaching and monitoring democracy. Madrid worked as an invisible teacher of democracy, playing the role of broker between the ruling General Peopleís Congress and the Joint Meeting Parties. Beyond the democracy issue, she thought she could help the tribal-revenge torn areas in Al-Jawf and Marib governorates by getting them around a table to discuss, plan and create a civil society organization to tackle their issues.
She was accused of interfering in the internal issues of the country, due to what she described a ďmisunderstanding of the projectĒ. Yemen Observer arranged an exclusive interview with Robin Madrid a day prior to her departure to learn more about her experiences in Yemen.
Q: Tell us about your feelings towards Yemen, before you came here, and now, as you are about to leave.
A: Like many people who come to Yemen, I knew very little about it. I have worked with Yemenis in the United States. When I arrived, I was struck very early by the friendliness of the people, and the way you can be candid with people. We donít have to play games. Behind the scenes, people talk to each other quite honestly, [laugh] but in front of the podium or on television they say something different. My feeling was that this was a country, which although extremely poor, with a very high rate of illiteracy, had potentials to develop in democratic ways. Democracy, as I say probably too often, is not a static thing that one has, it is a process that goes forward and goes backward. My feeling upon leaving Yemen is all the same. I am as optimistic and surprised by the progress that Yemen has been able to make, and by the commitment of the people. Thereís a great deal that needs to be done in Yemen. You canít have democratic development with extreme rates of poverty and high levels of corruption. These things need to be addressed if Yemen is going to be democratic. At the same time, you canít address this poverty without democracy.
Q: The Yemeni government considers the September 20 elections a major achievement. From your perspective, how well did the elections go, and how possible is it for Yemen to gain the donorsí trust?
A: The elections were mixed. Letís be candid. It was a major achievement that a country in the Arab World let an opposition candidate really compete. This is something that Yemen should proud of. This is something that the government of President Saleh should be proud of. This is something that the opposition should be proud of. Because none of that could have happened if the opposition had not selected a good candidate, and been willing to run in competition. Both sides of that picture make the full picture. So Yemen can be very proud of that. President Saleh deserves credit for that. At the same time, there were abuses, and those abuses need to be controlled before the December elections, two parliamentary elections and the by-elections. They need to be corrected before the 2009 parliamentary elections. Those abuses include the use of government resources to promote the candidacy not only of President Saleh Ė the GPC candidate Ė but also of the local council candidates. I understand the problem. I think it is a problem that needs to be acknowledged by the ruling party as well as by the opposition. This is a country where it is difficult to control people. Look at the way Yemenis drive [laugh]. They have a law if it is convenient; if it is not convenient they do whatever they want. But this has an impact. I think many Yemenis Ė this is a message is very important from my perspective Ė thereíre many people out there around the country who did not think it is a very bad thing. They did not think it is a very bad crime to distort the elections, to influence people, to use government resources. They didnít think it is like killing somebody. But cumulatively, it has a very bad impact. It was not necessary to the presidential race, because we all knew the country would re-elect Saleh. It was not necessary at the local council level, and it happened at all these levels that people broke the law because they are accustomed to breaking the law. And they thought it was a little thing. Now, we will be issuing a report because we monitored the elections. It will come out after the supplementary and parliamentary elections. Weíll include those. So, we are hoping that some of those things that did go wrong will be corrected then. Ultimately, though, I think that it was a step forward that thereís a good opposition candidate and that the election commission, which made a lot of mistakes that will be pointed out in our report, did see that Shamlan (the opposition candidate)ís rallies and speeches were properly covered. Yemen has to be congratulated for that, and that is a step forward. Now whatís needed is a lot of honest Ė behind the scenes Ė dialogue between the opposition and the GPC, with President Salehís blessings.
Q: Do you think the abuses you just mentioned affected the results of the elections?
A: Certainly they affected the results, if you are talking about the proportion. I personally do believe that Shamlan got a higher vote than was recorded. Do I believe that he would have become the next president of Yemen [laugh]? No. You have to clarify your terms when you say that. At the local council level, I think there were places the vote would have changed. On the other hand Ė this is very important Ė because Yemen has such a good opposition Ė they make mistakes and the GPC makes mistakes Ė it forced the GPC to run much better candidates this time than they ran in 2001. Thatís very good for the opposition, the ruling party, and the people.
Q: Some observers say that you contributed to the formation of the JMP. From your point of view, how sustainable will this alliance be, and how visible in the continuation of its mission?
A: First of all, I have heard people say that before. I really had nothing to do with the forming of the JMP. That was in the works when I had barely landed in Yemen. The [late] Jarrallah Omar (from the Socialist Party) was talking; al-Yadomi (from the Islah Party) and whoever. All of that I was not a part of. If I had a part, it was in being able to help them continue dialogue among themselves, and not being torn apart by tensions and efforts from outside.
Q: What about the ideological differences?
A: There are huge ideological differences. I think that one of the wonderful lessons that Yemen can learn from the JMP is that people of very different ideologies can work together. So if the Yemen Socialist Party and Islah can work together, surely the GPC and Islah can ; and the GPC and YSP can. What the nationís needs right now, is that people should compete honestly but fiercely during an election, but in the interim, you need to be able to criticize each other, back and forth. Yet the tone needs to be different. Yemen needs to have people criticizing each otherís policies, not each otherí person or history. Letís go after politics.
Q: Why do you think political parties did not keep their promises to women in the recent elections?
A: Because they are men and politicians [laugh].
Q: Was it cultural or political?
A: It is cultural and political. It is a male-culture around the world, which assumes that Ďthe girls know a lot but not as much as we do,í rather than recognizing that ĎI know this stuff and they know this other stuff.í They really need it. Have I been granted advantages because I am a woman? No way. I have an advantage as a woman. I know things and skills that I know and men donít. Likewise, they know things and have skills that I donít have. Yemen canít afford throw away the knowledge, skills, and hearts of half of its population. How can they say, ďnow, you go home and look after the children...Ē It is crazy. But the political side of it is that political leaders will never ever ever incorporate other people just it because it is a good thing to do. They will only do it when they feel threatened. Thatís nature of competition, which is trying to get something over on the other party. So you know they elect women only when they think they should. But only if you think that if you do vote for women, the women will vote for you. Thatís the only way it is going to happen.
Q: Okay, but what should women do?
A: The women have to get tougher. Yemeni women are tough. But they have got to start saying to the men in the party: ďLook, I do this for the party; I do that for the party, and I do the other thing for the party, and you donít let me play a role in the decision-making! If you donít open up a space for me to be a candidate, I am not going to do this; I am not going to do that.Ē This is the only way it is going to happen. And even if Yemen gets a quota system, everybody will start again talking about quota. Quotas are good. It is not the silver ball. You know what will happen if they are going to get the quota. They will nominate women to the seats they are going to lose. Unless women say: ďNo way.Ē
Q: Whatís your evaluation of the role being played by civil society and the media in Yemen?
A: The civil society is still developing. It is new to Yemen, only about 14 years old. It needs a different kind of support from the international people. Unfortunately, we worked with civil societies in the past, and they disappear. When thereís an election, they come back again. We have to correct this pattern. Thereís a desire among all civil society in Yemen to become a monitor of the development and democracy in Yemen. They need to become professional. Yemen doesnít have a good monitoring culture. I am hopeful for it. All players need to be moving forward. The media in this election did improve. Thereís still room for improvement. The election commission should be congratulated on the television coverage of the Shamlanís rallies. Official media is a clearly tricky creature. I personally donít approve it. I donít think it is good for a country to have an official media. I think Yemen should move away from official media.
Q: So, whatís the major challenge ahead to Yemen?
A: You have to look at it from two different levels. The challenge to Yemen as a country is the terrible poverty. You cannot maintain this level of malnutrition, illness, infant mortality, maternal death...etc. You cannot continue like that. Water. What is Yemen going to do? Yemen has got to address its huge birth rate. People donít seem to understand that it doesnít have enough people working to support all those children. Those children are a drain. I am sorry to put like that, but they are. These are sort of big questions. Now, the question is, how are you going about addressing them? This government has made a lot of promises. The president made many, many promises to the people: ďRe-elect me and I am going to address corruption.Ē People are very aware of the issue of corruption. Every single person can show me a second house built by the minister of this or that. The people know whatís going on. You canít sustain that level of anger. People want change, and their voices will be heard and the government will be accountable. These things can happen, but it is very, very hard for it to happen. Itís going to hurt. Some ministers will have to be thrown out, because they are allowing corruption in their ministries. That canít be easy. You canít make a change without paying a price. But there is a big prize on the other side, which is continuing the evolution.
Q: Is it visible within an armed society?
A: Yes, it is. Guns are a problem in Yemen. At the same time, in a lot of places fighting is going on, in Al-Jawf, for example. People fight because the have nothing. The anger and tension builds, and you have this kind of violence. I donít think itís weapons that make it difficult to fight corruption. It is a political will, and it is a willingness to bear the pain. Itís gonna hurt.
Q: What went wrong with your program for the sheikhs of Al-Jawf? It created a lot of controversy. Whatís your future plan regarding this project?
A: I think that the project is for the government and the international development workers in those areas, and could be a valuable contribution to Yemen and development. There was a misunderstanding about that project, which was to teach people strategies to deal with conflicts, and to come to agreements, by which some areas become safe havens, such as around the hospitals, schools...etc. They need to learn how to launch negotiations before the tensions have built to the point at which the guns come out. Those people have the right to establish their civil society organization, like all people in Yemen.
Q: Do you think that will contribute to the democratic development in Yemen?
Q: Has the tribe been a threat or a challenge to democratic transformation in Yemen?
A: I think the tribes are used. People frequently say: we canít do this because of the tribe. Usually they know nothing about the tribes, and they use that as an excuse. Yes. It is circular. There are problems in rural areas and you donít address those problems. You donít do development in those areas, which a bigger problem. It is a sort of self-fulfilling cycle. What we wanted to do was to intervene in that cycle of violence. We were asked to do that by the tribes. We were doing nothing other than that. But there were people who did not like this, either because they just donít want anybody else to work down there, or because they donít understand it at all. I had a very good meeting with the president. I though that those misconceptions were clarified. There will be acceptance of a democracy-building program with tribal areas. I am sure I made mistakes in the way I brought the program to the government. I am sure that I thought that people understood things about it that were not understood. We will do a better job this time.
Q: Did the government threaten to throw you out of the country?
A: I was not threatened to be thrown out of the country. There was never something like that. The president was not happy with me. I talked with people who had access to the president saying: ďLook, this is what we are doing, and thatís we are not doing.Ē We just went along slowly and easily. I was never threatened to be thrown out of the country. The president can throw me out if he likes. I am an NGO. If you donít want a foreign NGO in your country, of course you can close it down.
Q: How do you envision Yemen seven years from now?
A: I never, ever, ever, ever predict. I will make my hopes. I hope that Yemen will continue to open up; to create dialogue among different forces and different people with different ideas. I told people that one of the reasons America has become as strong as it is, is because we are a nation of immigrants. That means so many different voices. You donít have to be immigrants, but certainly you have to listen to each other. You need to have a ruling party, an opposition, women, etc. at the table. We learn so much from talking to each other. My hope is that over the next seven years, the dialogue will continue, and people will be more forgiving of each other and more ready to talk and exchange ideas.
Q: Finally, your major recommendations to your successor?
A: Actually, we had so many discussions. I have recommended that dialogue between the parties be emphasized. There needs to regular meetings between the ruling party and opposition; and between the opposition and the election commission, at which the commission can update the opposition and listen to their opinions. SCER need to listen and to be balanced.
Q: Personally, what did you like most in Yemen?
A: My work. I loved my work. I had a wonderful time. Yemenís beautiful; people are candid. Some call me and say they did not like what I did here or there. But I loved it.
Q: What did not you like?
A: People didnít come on time. They donít follow through. It is not that they make promises they donít want to keep. It is that they make promises and they think it is done. Let me add one thing. I am not sure if you want to run it or not. When I go outside the cities and see people working in the field. I was struck how hard Yemenis work in rural areas and how not hard they work in business and the government. Thatís a form of corruption. When people leave their jobs at 2:00 in the afternoon, they are stealing from the people.
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