Jarallah Omar’s Democratic Yemen Still Elusive

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A Yemeni woman shows her palm painted in colours of her national flag and reading in Arabic "Congratulations" during a demonstration in Sanaa on 20 December 2012 (Photo: AFP - Mohammed Huwais)

By: Wamid Shakir

Published Saturday, December 29, 2012

Sanaa – A decade ago, hundreds of thousands of Yemenis took part in the funeral of Jarallah Omar, deputy secretary general of the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP).

Omar was shot to death on 28 January 2002 after taking part in the third conference of the Yemeni Congregation for Reform, simply “Islah,” or reform, in Arabic.

On that fateful day, something else was buried along with Omar: the investigation into his murder, which many blame on former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and his allies in the 1994 war.

Today, it is both difficult and unlikely for Omar’s assassination case to be dug up under Yemen’s current administration that came to power through the Gulf initiative. Indeed, the latter granted immunity to regime heads, and instituted a Transitional Justice Law that calls for reconciliation and forgiveness rather than accountability.

Though Omar is gone, his dream for a Yemen that reflects its “diversity, greatness, and unity, [as well as] the plurality of its intellectual and political currents” is still present.

When Omar, who was 60 at the time, leaned on the rostrum to address the opening ceremony of Islah’s conference, he wanted to reaffirm this dream. That is, just before he was shot twice in the chest by an Islamist hardliner.

Omar wasn’t able to finish his three-page speech that day, in which the word democracy was mentioned no less than 15 times. For a veteran of socialism, his words about democracy came across as a rebel cry that resonated with many.

Yet Omar was only expressing the passion he had had since his youth, when he chanted slogans during the student demonstrations that erupted in Sanaa before the revolution of September 1962. The young man soon grew to become a national political leader who would occupy official posts, but even as an official, his passion remained with him until the day of his death.

Following the events of January 1986, when tensions among members of the YSP’s politburo in Aden escalated into a civil war, Omar called for political and partisan pluralism at a time when South Yemen was ruled under a one-party system.

Omar refused to allow the new victors in the one-party regime to get too comfortable. Instead, he spoke out strongly in favor of political and partisan pluralism.

For the slain YSP deputy secretary general, democracy meant “empowering the opposition.” This is the key principle that underlies the idea of the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), which was the brainchild of Omar. He sought to put it into effect following the 1994 war, and before the elections of 1997 – when the Opposition Supreme Coordination Council was established, bringing together Yemeni opposition parties, including socialists, Nasserists, Baathists, and Zaydi Shia Muslim factions, in a tactical electoral coalition before it became the JMP.

Since opposition was the essence of democracy from Omar, he called for it to be enshrined within political parties as well, since this would ultimately empower the opposition in the public political life.

Yet Omar’s specific vision turned out to be unsuccessful. To be sure, the JMP today is a ruling partner that controls 50 percent of the cabinet portfolios of the national unity government in the transitional phase. Practically speaking, the JMP is no longer an opposition coalition, not just because of its ruling status, but also because it has shifted the opposition from the street into power, emptying the national political scene from any opposition.

This situation requires a youthful voice like Omar’s, the one that chanted in student demonstrations in Sanaa before the 1962 revolution. On some levels, it resembles the chants heard in student marches today. “Ana Nazel,” many chant, meaning “I'm taking to the streets.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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