Politics of Change in the Middle East and North Africa
Is democracy possible under an authoritarian regime?
Theoretically yes, practically no
Yemen is a country in the Middle East supposed to be an autocratic, undemocratic country because of the lack of an electoral system. Lisa Weden, however, contends that Yemen is an autocratic country withdemocratic elements. This interpretation of democracy challenges a view of democracy, called minimalist. In her book Peripheral Visions, she argues for an alternative understanding of democracy based on everyday practices of vibrant political contestations. In Yemen, these spheres for political discussion take place in groups for qat chewing. Although theoretically her argument offers hope for amove beyond a minimalist definition of democracy, her ethnographic materials and methods fail to convince the reader of the practicality of her understanding of democracy.
Yemen fails to be democratic in the most dominant use of the term. Political scientists have developed a fetish for equating democracy with the formal celebration of elections. This conception of democracy is consideredminimalistic. Przerosky et al. define democracy minimalistically as: “a regime in which those govern are selected through contested elections” (Weden, 107). Weden observes two main problems with this approach. First, “the definition rules out substantive, as opposed to procedural, conceptions”(Weden, 113). Minimalist democracy disregard the existence of varying degrees of democracy that better describethe political scene of cases like Yemen. Second, “it [the minimalist definition] generates… a binary classification system…a regime is either a democracy or is not…” (Weden, 113). This conceptualization fails to capture the multidimensional nature of democracy’s connotations. Contested elections deflect attention from important forms of democratic practices that can exist within authoritariangovernments. The very activity of deliberating in public contributes to the formation of democratic personas (Weden, 145).
Organized around qat chewing, Yemenis have developed a vibrant space of civic participation, dialogue and deliberation. Public group qat chews take place between people with different backgrounds, diverse classes and sociopolitical positions under an “equality-inducing”environment. These gatherings have a political connotation because of their ability to engender policy decisions – with the participation of people from the regime-, enhance power negotiations between the ruling and the ruled and cultivate the people’s “political self-fashioning” (Weden, 114) Qat chewing “enables people to learn about events and the views and interests of others”(Weden, 132). Theyprovide civil awareness of the different ways people can view political problems, messages that find their way into popular media and public policy. The exchange and deliberation that takes place in qat chewing “are the very substance of both the development of practice of democracy” (Weden, 140). Przeowrksi et al. would disregard the role these type of activities play as showcases of democraticprinciples. For Weden, democracy requires citizenship participation, continual accountability, and an informed population that can engage in discussions: "In short, democrats can exist without procedural democracy. Democracy (in substantive representational terms) may not even need a ballot box." (Weden, 140)
At a theoretical level, the argument presented by Weden is powerful. It succeeds atpresenting a convincing case for the need to “deromanticize the ballot box” (Weden, 112). Through the protests that have recently been occurring in Yemen, the public sphere that is created by qat chewing demonstrates their role as spaces for political civil discussions. In comparison the protests in Egypt, which were not lead by a clear leader, had no specific platform or a singly dynamic figure, the...