In January, Yemen hosted a high-profile conference on democracy, human rights and the role of the international criminal court, attended by more than 800 officials from 52 countries. Conference participants signed the ambitious "Sanaa Declaration," committing their respective countries to uphold democratic processes, institutions and values. Yet, it is unclear to what extent Yemen itself is actually moving toward democracy. During the past decade, Yemen has experienced two strong, countervailing trends of pluralism and authoritarianism.

For several years after the 1990 unification of republican North Yemen and Marxist South Yemen into the Republic of Yemen, the new country enjoyed a degree of political pluralism unique in the Arab world. A free press developed, non-governmental organizations proliferated, and a wide range of political parties formed. Yemen's first multiparty parliamentary elections occurred in 1993. The People's General Congress (GPC), the former ruling party of the North, emerged as the leading party, but the Yemeni Socialist Party, the former ruling party of the South, was given a share of power in the new government. The Islamist Al Islah (a party close to the Muslim Brotherhood) had a strong showing and was given six ministries. But Yemen's burgeoning pluralism rested on a foundation of "armed pluralism": the two former ruling parties of the North and the South had retained their military forces after unification. This situation facilitated a sort of political equilibrium because each party had to take the other's resources into account, but it also increased the possibility of violent conflict.

Severe tensions between northern and southern political forces, exacerbated by the GPC's quest for domination, soon disturbed this fragile balance. In May 1994, a brief but decisive civil war erupted in which the North defeated its long-time southern rival. To solidify its control of the political scene, the GPC began placing restrictions on pluralism. The YSP, severely weakened, responded by boycotting the 1997 elections. No longer dependent on other parties to legitimize its rule, the GPC did not feel the need to bring Islah into the new government. This was despite the fact that the GPC had relied on Islah in the 1993 parliamentary elections and in the 1994 war to help marginalize the YSP.

In the September 1999 presidential elections, the authoritarian tendency grew even more pronounced. In theory, these elections were the first pluralistic presidential elections on the Arabian Peninsula. In reality, the GPC was assured victory from the beginning. President Ali Abdallah Saleh's only competitor came from his own party, since the GPC-controlled parliament had invalidated the YSP's candidate (the validation required a vote at a time when the YSP had no representation in parliament). Saleh won with a reported ninety-six percent of the vote. By 2000, Yemen had basically regressed to the standard Arab political formula of rigged elections and more or less autocratic rule.

Autocratic rule, however, has its limits in Yemen because the regime lacks the economic or military resources necessary to be an "ordinary" Arab authoritarian state. Yemen's governance relies on a distribution of power among the regime, the tribes, and the Islamic movement, which has both political and social influence and a privileged link with the tribes. Sheikh Abdallah Hussein Al Ahmar, the leader of the most influential tribal confederation, Hashed, and also the chairman of Islah, embodies this balancing formula. Al Ahmar is always elected as the speaker of parliament, despite the fact that Islah controls few parliamentary seats.

Since September 11, the position of the regime toward Islah has become more ambivalent, with negative implications for democratization. Democratization requires the possibility of political alternation—a possibility that the 2003 parliamentary elections suggested is remote. In a bid to reassert itself in electoral competition, the YSP sought a dramatic alliance with its former enemy Islah. But in December 2002, the YSP's second-ranking official, Jar Allah Omar, was assassinated on the very day he had solemnly confirmed the alliance in front of the Islah party congress. The GPC swept the contest winning more than seventy percent of the seats, although Al Ahmar was eventually reelected as speaker of the parliament.

Western countries' policies add further incentives for the regime to embrace authoritarianism. The American counter-terrorism strategy in Yemen relies upon building up the Special Forces—headed by one of President Saleh's sons, Ahmed—in order to strengthen the central government's control over the tribes. The United States and European countries seek to decrease the presence not only of Islamist militants in the country, but also of more moderate Islamic actors inside the system, even though Islamist participation is essential for a functioning pluralist system and indeed for democratization in Yemen. Breaking the symbolic link between the Islamic movement, the remains of the tribal system and the regime would allow the GPC to further tighten its grip, and would take Yemen far away from the Sanaa Declaration's democratic promises.

François Burgat is a political scientist at the Institut de Recherches et d'Etudes sur le Monde Arabe et Musulman in Aix-en-Provence, France. He was director of the French Center for Archaeology and Social Sciences in Sanaa, Yemen from 1997 to 2003.