Interview with Ahmed Saif Hashed

Democracy as a Personal Mission

Ahmed Saif Hashed, an independent delegate in the Yemeni parliament, has been frequently attacked in recent years for his commitment to democracy and civil rights. Sarah Mersch talked with Saif Hashed about his work and the political system in modern Yemen

Ahmed Saif Hashed (photo: private copyright)
Saif Hashed: "For me freedom is a mission that I must pursue – regardless of whether I am a citizen or a representative, regardless of the financial costs and dangers"

​​ Mr Hashed, you are an elected MP in Yemen – a presidential republic. Tell us about the parliamentary system in your country.

Ahmed Saif Hashed: The Yemeni parliament has two chambers: the House of Representatives, whose members are elected by the people, and the Shura (Advisory) Council, whose members are appointed by the president. In theory, the parliament has the right to receive information from the government and to withdraw its confidence. But the reality is quite different: The overwhelming majority of parliamentary delegates are members of the General People's Congress, the governing party.

As a result, parliament does not control the government, but is subordinate to it. The president is also commander-in-chief of the military. He can dissolve parliament and impose a state of emergency. Parliament has no control in this matter and cannot call him to account – except in the case of high treason – although this again is purely theoretical.

To what extent does the government abide by the constitution?

Saif Hashed: The reality is that the government is almost constantly violating the constitution. The weakness and dependency of the judiciary is very convenient for the government, as is parliament's limited powers. A separation of powers does not exist in Yemen. Instead all three powers are unified in the hands of the president. Judges are supervised by the Ministry of Justice. Thus here is where corruption is most often detected.

Ali Abdullah Saleh (photo: AP)
In 2006, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemeni president for 31 years, was confirmed in his office for another seven years

​​What does this mean in political practise?

Saif Hashed: According to a report from the organisation "Idea", the governing party pumped between 40 and 60 billion rial (approximately 150 to 230 million euros) into the 2003 elections in order to buy votes. Estimates from "Transparency International" show Yemen to be one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Most of this corruption takes place in parliament itself.

You say that human rights are not respected in Yemen. What makes you say this?

Saif Hashed: Our laws still have articles that discriminate against people on the basis of their gender and conscience. There are legal mechanisms to protect human rights, but they are empty and meaningless. Human rights organisations in Yemen suffer from repression and control by the authorities.

The organisation "Change – For the Defence of Human Rights and Democratic Freedoms" was denied a licence for a year – without any justification. There are prisons operating illegally – more than can be counted. Thousands of suspects and innocent people have been sitting in these prisons for years without a trial or a legal justification. All of this, however, is just the tip of the iceberg.

You have been an independent delegate in the Yemeni House of Representatives. What are the advantages and disadvantages of not being a member of a party?

photo: AP
Free elections or staged? The governing party allegedly allocated up tp 230 million euros to the last elections to buy votes in its favour

​​Saif Hashed: With my independence, of course, I enjoy more freedom than if I belonged to a party, even though I receive less support from other parties. Sometimes the parties join forces against me. In 2003 I was nominated rapporteur of the Freedom and Human Rights Committee. Since there were no other independent candidates, all the parties serving on the committee united against me to elect my rival – the Minister of the Interior's son.

How do you finance your work?

Saif Hashed: I still have debt from my last election campaign. Fourteen independent candidates managed to be elected to parliament. Ten of them are now with the governing party. The party leadership offered financial incentives. Only four have remained independent and have refused their support. I was one of them. For this I have paid a high price. My freedom and rights are violated by the authorities; those in power destroy the security of political opponents and opinion makers.

What about freedom of speech in Yemen? As a representative and journalist, is it easier for you to express your opinions than for ordinary people?

Saif Hashed: The government conceals information. In Yemen today it is still forbidden to start up private radio and television stations as well as satellite channels. Over a year ago I applied for a licence to start a news service via text messaging. I still have not received it. In the Internet I operate the Web site "Yemnet". The Ministry of Information blocked it for more than a year. Then they lifted the block for a short while. Recently it was blocked again. For my newspaper "Al-Mustaqilla" ("The Independent") I waited over a year to obtain a licence.

You have also repeatedly received physical threats. Your family lives in constant danger. Why do you still hold onto your office?

Map of Yemen (source: WIkipedia)
Yemen is at the crossroads: Will "big change" happen or will the country descend into a hotbed of instability and terrorism?

​​Saif Hashed: The price one must pay to resist repression and to fight for rights and freedom in a country like Yemen is very high. Freedom for me is a mission that I must pursue – regardless of whether I am a citizen or a representative, regardless of the financial costs and dangers.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have a degree of influence over the situation in Yemen and its politics. How is this influence manifest?

Saif Hashed: Saudi Arabia is in the position to exert pressure. The country's influence on political decision-making in Yemen is readily apparent. Saudi Arabia is also in the position to influence several tribes that receive financial support from Saudi Arabian leaders.

We are observing a strong presence of Salafis (a Sunni fundamentalist movement, Ed.) in Yemen. This group has Saudi-Yemeni support. Many educated Muslim scholars are very aware that the Salafis pose a great danger to modernism and development and that their culture is the basis for violent extremism, which could be very dangerous for Yemen.

Are there other threats?

Saif Hashed: The support of Salafis by those in power is in contrast to the persecution of the Zayidia – an Islamic community close to the Shiites. Their rights have been restricted, their adherents repressed and persecuted. They are not allowed to celebrate their religious festivals. As a result, they have become an influential religious and political movement. They have close ties to Iran and are a growing power in Yemen.

In your view, what are the most important changes that need to occur in Yemen?

Saif Hashed: Yemen is being consumed by corruption on all levels. Business and politics are increasingly in decline. We are currently in the midst of a serious crisis, and there are no prospects in sight for a peaceful and democratic transformation. In short, Yemen is at the crossroads facing two possible directions. One is the so-called "big change" – the opposite of the currently prevalent corruption and repression and hunger. The other path would be the "Somalisation" of the situation, meaning that Yemen could descend into a hotbed of instability and terrorism.

How realistic is it that this change will happen in the near future?

Saif Hashed: I hope that everyone will work together without threatening peace and security. But this is not realistic, because the current government is falling out of favour and wants to take everyone with it.

Interview: Sarah Mersch

© 2009

Ahmed Saif Hashed, born in 1962, lawyer and publicist, has been an independent MP in the House of Representatives in the Yemeni parliament since 2003. In recent years Hashed has been the victim of repeated physical attacks because of his political work. A few years ago he barely survived an attack that killed his driver.

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