Seeds of Civil Society

Due to the current war, Yemenis can no longer count on the state in realizing their dream of establishing a ‘civil state’.

Placing the responsibility for and leadership of the country in civilian hands, while military and security personnel remain on the sidelines, is the minimum indicator of a civil state.

Today, we see combatants leading the scene, imposing their vision of the state, which is by nature a military one. It uses civilians as tools only to enable its power and to keep the status quo.

What is our role then, as intellectuals? How can we create balance between the military and the civil state? One possible solution is for us to unite and develop a civil society.

A civil society can reverse the equation and form a powerful challenge to the de facto authority by creating a civilian-led state, if it demonstrates effective cohesion and a unity of opinion and speech.

At the moment society is fragmented, and intellectuals, as the vanguards of the desired ‘civil society’, need to be involved in organizing and bringing our society together.

Intellectuals are the most solid element of civil society, and the striking force that can take Yemen out of the cycle of conflicts and wars, to a path of peace, prosperity and development.

Just as society is polarized and communities are lost to one another, so it is the case that Yemeni intellectuals are enmeshed in issues that do not concern them.

Intellectuals should set aside all political issues of dispute, and focus solely on wider culture: arts, literature and science.

The intellectual should not follow crowds, who are driven by emotion rather than a combination of emotion and reason.

If intellectuals agree to unify their efforts towards the ‘cultural act’ alone, this would set the right tone. Taking this stance – that is, to focus on the cultural act alone – is in itself a political position, and a first step towards establishing social peace.

illustration by Thiyazen al-Alawi

illustration by Thiyazen al-Alawi

Politicians engage in games and are skilled in manipulating the public, but it is unbefitting for the intellectual to follow suit and cheer on.

Thankfully, we have an abundance of individuals who are already engaged in politics. Therefore, you intellectuals are not needed. If you seek politics, you will not add anything; your natural role, where you are needed most, is to create and establish a civil society.

Civil society will not simply happen, it needs more than a thousand cultural institutions, distributed throughout the country from corner to corner.

Some will raise their voices, and say, “Cultural institutions in the thousands? This is an exaggeration!” The answer to that is that Yemen needs tens of thousands of cultural institutions to construct a civil society that seeks peace, respects law and encourages a work ethic.

These institutions, spread throughout cities, rural areas and other governorates, would include libraries, cultural clubs, art houses, cinemas and theaters, and all associated events, seminars, training and workshops. Support for writing and publishing activities, articles, cultural magazines and newspapers, in print or on social media, would accompany the movement.

Since the state is absent, the ‘living’ forces of society must unite with each other to set up these cultural institutions, one after the other, with much patience and an unrelenting determination, no matter how long it takes for change to take place.

Capital is needed, and those with capital are required to make a serious contribution to the process of spreading the seeds of civil society throughout Yemen. They are obligated to give back to the land, which contributed to their wealth and privilege.

Ahmed Jaber Afif, Minister of Education in the 1970s, set a good example by establishing a trust. He founded the Afif Cultural Foundation, a leading organization which has engaged in various activities over the years including: encouraging scientific research; raising awareness on the negative impact of qat; publishing a comprehensive encyclopedia on Yemen, alongside publishing a number of important books and several journals, among them the Yemen Without Qat newspaper.

Others, such as the family of the late Hail Said Anam, established the Saeed Foundation for Science and Culture. One of its main achievements is to support cultural life in Yemen through generous financial prizes. The mandate of the foundation contains a paragraph that is at the heart of what we Yemenis hope and aspire to:

“Supporting the development of existing scientific institutions, or contributing to the establishment of new scientific institutions and the total or partial funding of all that falls within the interests of the institution and scientific centers.”

More recently, the publisher Nabil Abdullatif Abadi took a generous step, despite his modest financial abilities, and established the Abadi Cultural Endowment to fund the activities of the Abadi Foundation for Culture and Science. The foundation aims to encourage reading, support Yemeni writers by publishing their work, and reward the best literary works published locally.

If we assume that in Yemen, at a local level alone, about 100,000 individuals have wealth that exceeds one million dollars, one can only imagine the number of cultural institutions that could take shape if they support the concept of cultural endowments. The institutions could play a great role in enlightening the youth and building a generation that is well educated and culturally refined.

illustration by Thiyazen al-Alawi

illustration by Thiyazen al-Alawi

For example, what would persuade the tribal youth to give up arms? It is absurd to imagine that a statement from the Ministry of Interior can do so! However, if cultural institutions fulfill their roles to the fullest, a proud young man could voluntarily abandon his arms. We might even see him carrying a pencil and a notebook, drawing, or writing poems and stories. Perhaps he becomes an avid reader, and is never seen without a book in his hand. He would no longer speak of politics and war, but would instead enthusiastically discuss Tagore and Tolstoy, and may even admire without reserve the book One Thousand and One Nights.