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Yemeni Congregation for Reform

By:
Laurent Bonnefoy
Source:
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Yemeni Congregation for Reform

The Yemeni Congregation for Reform (Al-Tajāmmuʿ al-Yamanī li al-Iṣlāḥ) or Iṣlāḥ Party—commonly known simply as al-Iṣlāḥ—was established on September 13, 1990. It quickly emerged as a prominent party, endorsing democracy and participating in all elections and playing an active role in the educational and social sectors (through the network of teaching institutes it controlled until 2002 and through the al-Iṣlāḥ Charity Society). Although its base of membership is complex, as it aggregates different social groups and has no fixed ideological corpus, it is often described as the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Iṣlāḥ is said to comprise two distinct branches: Muslim Brothers or ideological Islamists such as ʿAbd al-Majīd al-Zindānī, Muḥammad Qaḥṭān, and Muḥammad al-Yādūmī, and tribesmen such as ʿAbd Allāh al-Aḥmar (who headed the party until his death in December 2007 and was simultaneously paramount chief of the large Ḥāshid tribal confederation) and Sinān Abū Luḥūm.

Inside al-Iṣlāḥ, such an alliance of different groups appears as the result of the historical specificities of contemporary Yemen, where tribes continue to play an important role and where the alliance between Muslim Brothers and tribal shaykhs in the 1960s managed to rally the people around the Republic (an accomplishment the nationalist revolutionaries were incapable of achieving on their own). Bluntly describing al-Iṣlāḥ as an Islamist party is therefore inaccurate, as it is a heterogeneous alliance drawing together different tendencies, some of which have been accused of supporting terrorism in the framework of the “global war against terror.”

Calling al-Iṣlāḥ an opposition party is equally inexact. Since its creation, its relations with the government of President ʿAlī ʿAbd Allāh Ṣāliḥ have been ambivalent. Indeed, in the context of the unification of North and South Yemen in the early 1990s, al-Iṣlāḥ became an alternative ally for the General People's Congress (GPC), the ruling party, which experienced tensions with the Socialists. Between 1993 and 1997, al-Iṣlāḥ participated in government, controlling important ministries. Its leader, ʿAbd Allāh al-Aḥmar, was consistently elected speaker of Parliament between 1993 and 2007 with the support of the ruling party, and in 1994, al-Iṣlāḥ militants assisted the national army in its war against Southern secessionists headed by former Socialist rulers.

Since the end of the 1990s, al-Iṣlāḥ has been experiencing a slow and hesitant transformation, accepting its role as an opponent of ʿAlī ʿAbd Allāh Ṣāliḥ's rule. A common platform, called the Joint Meeting (al-Liqāʿ al-Mushtarak), was elaborated with the different opposition groups, including the former Socialist enemies. During the 2003 parliamentary elections, local agreements were signed, and in 2006, the opposition parties chose a common candidate to compete in the presidential election. Fayṣal bin Shamlān managed to win more than 22 percent of the vote. Yet some inside al-Iṣlāḥ rejected such an alliance: ʿAbd Allāh al-Amar as well as ʿAbd al-Majīd al-Zindānī never formally endorsed the candidate designated by their party. Such opposition illustrated the reluctance of some Islamists to cooperate with “impious” socialists and also exposed a generation gap that could well be overcome with the emergence of a new generation of activists after ʿAbd Allāh al-Aḥmar's death in late 2007.

See also SOCIALISM AND ISLAM and YEMEN.

Bibliography

  • Bonnefoy, Laurent. “Yemen.” In Global Survey of Islamism, edited by Barry Rubin. New York, 2008.
  • Schwedler, Jillian. Faith in Moderation: Islamist Parties in Jordan and Yemen. Cambridge, U.K., 2006.
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