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Sunday, April 04, 2004


Continuing from the last post.

Dispensing with the “Weberian fantasy” of state power, Wedeen starts off with a abridged history of modern Yemen:

“President Ali Abd Allah Salih has been in power for twenty-five years, as the leader of North Yemen since 1978, and of unified Yemen since its inception in 1990. Yet in spite of the regime’s durability, the Weberian fantasy of a state that enjoys a monopoly on violence—legitimate or otherwise—is not remotely evident. In a country of 18.5 million people, there are an estimated 61 million weapons in private hands.2 The state is incapable, moreover, of providing welfare, protection, or education to the population.”

The state – or at least the faction in charge of the state – was capable, in 1999, or mounting an election. Wedeen’s description of it is interesting as much for the analogy to Iraq, and what one suspects the CPA would like to do, as for its Yemeni context. Ali Abd Allah Salih’s government disqualified the one opposition candidate that could threaten it even in a minor way – a man named Muqbil. Instead, they appointed their opposition. It did not go unnoticed that this simple maneuver made the “opposition” meaningless:

“To replace the opposition’s candidate, the regime nominated one of its own Southern members, Nagib Qahtan al-Shaƒbi. The son of its first President, who was deposed and imprisoned in 1969 during a coup
d’état carried out by socialists, Nagib and his family had fled to Cairo where they had received support and protection for years from the anti-socialist North. Election day, then, offered people the choice between two candidates from the same party, the ruling President from the North, and the puppet-like contender whose origins were identifiably Southern. One published cartoon depicted Nagib as a wind-up toy. Ajoke echoed this sentiment: “Nagib is elected and is then asked, “What is the first thing you are going to do?’” He replies: “Make “Ali Abd Allah Salih President.”

Perhaps this was the model that the CPA was thinking about in their first draft of the ‘elections’ that would legitimate the occupation after June 30. Wedeen’s point, however, isn’t merely that the government both embraced democracy and made a mockery of it, but that the state’s assertion of power here was excessive – unnecessary. . Muqbil didn’t have a chance of winning, given the fact that the state exerted rigid control over the election procedure. It is the margin of over-control that puzzles Wedeen. Her answer is that we have to throw out the Weberian model of rationality and understand power, here, in terms of the logic of excess. That is, excessive acts, by gaining compliance, actually function to make the citizen “see” him or her self in terms of the state – as belonging to the state by voting for, or pretending to vote for, who runs the state. That important distinction – the essential instability of the place of the ruler in a democracy – is replaced by the merger of ruler and state, with the state’s democratic self-definition being something more in the nature of one of those entrenched boasts that identify the powerful. By the logic of excess “The elections communicated this absence of actual alternatives by presenting a bogus one.” We couldn’t help but think of the coalition’s own use of democracy. Again, there is the refusal to separate the state from its rulers – to accept the central instability at the heart of democracy. Again, there was the curious attempt to deform the process and form of election into a ritual of confirmation that would signal the absence of alternatives. In the CPA case, the original idea was to create caucuses of American vetted committees that would select slates that Americans had previously approved of. The American project in Iraq failed on this preliminary point, since the Shi’ites – through the intervention of al-Sisteni – blocked them. In doing so, the Shi’ites have been subjected to the kind of propagandistic treatment one expects in the American press – have been accused, basically, of wanting solely to gain power. The accusation has had the effect of disguising the fraudulence of the only American plan for democratizing Iraq -- by the radical and thorough extension of anti-democratic power. The caucuses were meant to make Iraqis complicitous in the American fraud -- to see themselves as subservient to the American scheme. But it didn't work.

The second thing we should point to in Wedeen’s essay is the issue of security. In Yemen’s case, the security issue came up in the course of a private crime, not a guerilla war. Still, the confrontation between the state’s use of direct power to perpetuate itself and its inability to exert power to protect its citizens is relevant to the Iraqi case. In fact, we suspect that the inability of the Americans to prevent the bombings in Baghdad and in Najaf in recent months have, more than anything else, undermined the acceptance of the occupation in Iraq. On the one hand, the CPA’s power is based on that most direct use of violence, invasion; on the other hand, their day to day use of that power is directed mainly towards protecting … Americans. The loss of life of Iraqi civilians is given amazingly short shrift in, say, the NYT, where more attention will be focused on the death of four American mercenaries than on the death of 200 Iraqis or 100 or 50 that are blown up or fired upon in any number of incidents over the past four months. This isn’t just the inherent racism that frames the entire US/Iraq encounter – it is centrally about the logic of excess by which the CPA has installed itself in Iraq.

But let’s turn to Yemen.

Here’s the story:

“The “murders in the morgue” case became public knowledge on 10 May 2000,when two mutilated female bodies were discovered at San’ a University. Two days later, police arrested a Sudanese mortuary technician at the medical school, claiming that he had confessed to raping and killing five women.
Muhammad Adam U’mar Ishaq (whose full name was rarely reported) was a forty-five-year-old Sudanese citizen who allegedly admitted to an increasing number of murders—sixteen in Yemen and at least twenty-four in Sudan, Kuwait, Chad, and the Central African Republic (The Observer, 11 June 2000). The Nasirist newspaper reported stories that he had killed up to fifty women (al-Wahdawi, 16 May 2000). It was said that Adam also implicated members of the university’s teaching staff who, he said, were involved in the sale of body parts. According to Brian Whitaker’s account in The Observer one month later, Adam “had enticed women students to the mortuary with promises of help in their studies, then raped and killed them, videotaping all of his actions. He kept bones as mementos, disposed of some body parts in sewers and on the university grounds, and sold others together with his victims’ belongings” (11 June

Wedeen shows that the story of these killings, reported in different forms in different newpapers, provoked outrage not just at the killer, but at the state itself. There were street demonstrations as well as editorials; there were student demands; there were articles in the Army paper. All of which she shrewdly analyzes:

“Debates in newspapers, in the streets, during Friday mosque sermons and qat chews, and in government offices laid bare how easily civic terror can be generated by perceptions of ineffective state institutions, and how public appeals can be made on the basis of the moral and material entitlements that citizens of
even the most nominal of nation-states felt were due them (see Comaroff and Comaroff 1999). People were outraged that the university had not done more to protect its students or to investigate the disappearances. Criticisms focused on the incapacities of the state, the corruption and potential complicity of the regime, and the need for the seeming elusive but desirable “mu’assasat aldawla” (state institutions). In one qat chew I attended someone went so far as to claim that serial killings could never happen in the developed United States (a point I hastened to correct).”

The press, lately, has concentrated on the meme of the ‘complaining Iraqi’ – the Weekly Standard, which alternates between bile and hubris, sent Fred Barnes to Iraq (another neo-con cruise – surely some travel agency should take advantage of these pilgrims), and he returned to report that everything was going swimmingly, but that the Iraqis were distressingly ungrateful. They complain and complain.

The distance that has opened up between the American p.o.v. and the Iraqi p.o.v. is where the action will take place in the next phase of the occupation – its meaningless abdication on June 30 to a council that will still takes its orders from the CPA.

Wedeen’s essay concludes with such a rich expansion of the concept of “belonging” that we urge our readers to go and read it, especially for the way in which she takes discourse as a distributor of “belonging to” – a rather brilliant stroke. Alas, however, it is time for this post to stop.

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