The Politics of Deliberation: Qāt Chews as Public Spheres in Yemen
During a televised interview with the London-based Middle East Broadcast Corporation, Yemeni president ‘Alī ‘Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ rationalized his plans for his son Aḥmad’s succession by claiming that another republic, the United States, had provided the example: George W. had inherited his position from his father, former president George Bush. President Ṣāliḥ was then asked whether he was aware of the U.S. electoral process by which President Bill Clinton had succeeded the elder Bush and then won a second four-year term. Ṣāliḥ laughed and said that Clinton was a muḥallil, or legal facilitator. According to Islamic law, or sharī‘a, for a divorced woman to remarry her ex-husband, she must first marry a muḥallil, an interim husband who makes possible the return of the actual one. In this view, the Clinton presidency amounted to a mere formality, enabling junior’s succession and putting the Bush family back in the White House ((MBC interview, February 2001 [facsimile transcript]; ‘Alī Muḥsin Ḥamīd, private communication). As analogies go, the comment was rather weak, casting Clinton as the stooge or dupe, a political facilitator whose own role amounted to getting screwed in the process of the Bush family’s reascension to power. Yet to Yemenis, Ṣāliḥ’s impertinence concealed a more serious matter. As one Yemeni diplomat complained, “We fought hard to overthrow the monarchy. And now the republics are becoming monarchies. Worse, some of the monarchies are better than our republics!” The easy transition from father to son in Syria, from Ḥāfiẓal-Asad to his son Bashshār, established the precedent, signaling to other aging fathers in the region that their sons too could assume power and “screw the people.”1
Ṣāliḥ’s sarcastic comment may have sparked ire or disapproval among some Yemenis, but it also cast aspersions on American democracy, reversing the conventional assumption whereby a country such as the United States is unquestionably democratic while a country such as Yemen is at best arguably so. The statement thus invites questioning anew what democracy means and how scholars recognize it in particular countries.
This essay centers on three principle concerns. First, it shows how a minimalist, procedural definition of democracy as contested elections, popularized by Joseph Schumpeter (1976 ) and now taken for granted in many areas of political science and in policy-making circles, is deeply problematic and in need of revision. My claim here is that the stripped-down notion of democracy as contested elections — represented by influential scholars such as Adam Przeworski (1991) — deflects attention from important forms of democratic practice that take place in authoritarian circumstances. Second, I enlist Habermasian “public sphere” theory as a way of analyzing the substance of such democratic practices, the ways in which public sphere activities work politically. By taking a close look at Yemeni qāt chews, I show that such lively public sphere activities are analogous to Habermas’s seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European salons and coffeehouses in the sense that they work to produce important forms of political engagement and critical debate.2 Third, this essay demonstrates how everyday practices of political contestation outside of electoral channels confound aspects of both the minimalist and the Habermasian frameworks. I argue here that the formation of democratic persons occurs through the very activity of deliberating in public, but in conditions fundamentally different from the ones Habermas identified as seminal in Western Europe. Qāt chews are nevertheless public spheres. And they occasion the performance of specifically democratic subjectivities — presentations of self as deliberative persons — in the absence of electoral institutions. Or, to put it differently, I show how thinking about democratic practices in the absence of a democratic regime enriches our empirical and theoretical understandings of politics more generally.
Minimalist Democracy: An Overview of a Standard Paradigm
For more than fifty years, scholars and policy makers have taken it as an article of fact that in order for a government to be democratic, political succession must be accomplished by competitive elections in which outcomes are uncertain and losing candidates agree to abide by results in hopes of coming to power in subsequent elections (Schumpeter 1976 ; Przeworski 1991).3 In a particularly influential contemporary example of this approach, Przeworski et al. (2000: 15) define democracy as “a regime in which those who govern are selected through contested elections.” Contestation exists when there is an opposition that has “some chance of winning office as a consequence of elections” (16). Operationalizing this definition entails the specification of classificatory rules that delimit the nature of a democratic regime: the chief executive and legislature must both be elected in a multi-party system in which alternation in office via elections is observable. Alternation in office is “prima facie evidence” of such contestation, which requires “ex-ante uncertainty, ex-post irreversibility, and repeatability” (16). Uncertainty does not imply unpredictability, according to this view, because “the probability distribution of electoral chances is typically known. All that is necessary for outcomes to be uncertain is that it be possible for some incumbent party to lose” (17). Outcomes are uncertain because even though Chicago’s Mayor Daley, for example, never loses, the rules and procedures are institutionalized so that he could.
The formalistic, minimalist definition has much to recommend it, if the goal is to pursue a large-N, transhistorical study. Yet despite its attractions and value, the definition also has limitations for scholarly thinking about democracy. Although there are a variety of problems with this scheme unnecessary to go into here,4 the primary issue is that a binary classification system — in which a regime is either a democracy or is not — results from a shared reliance on a formalistic, procedural notion of what democracy is. Other definitions could conceivably yield different classification systems, but the authors’ conceptualization forecloses such possibilities. A binary classification system relies on a definition too narrow to capture democracy’s substantive connotations — the intricacies of its grammar and the conventions of its use. Such a definition also works normatively to validate current electoral arrangements in Western democracies, while allowing scholars to ignore a wide range of democratic practices in nonelectoral contexts. Framed in terms external to the historical and ideological conditions of its emergence, the definition has become a key point of reference — displacing historical and philosophical uses of the term with a particularly narrow, incomplete (if seductive) scholarly one.
Adopting a thin, or minimalist, definition is, in part, a way of facilitating coding in the interests of scientific testing. Yet this commitment to the scientific method comes at the cost of ignoring much of what is political and important about the practices of democracy. One key point of my engagement with this work is to suggest that studies purporting to be about democracy when they really mean contested elections might be better off avoiding the term democracy altogether. The overall objective of such studies would then be to explain the relationship between contested elections and, say, economic development or growth, without producing general accounts of democracy that preclude thinking about political participation and accountability within and outside of electoral confines. By identifying the general relationship between regime type and economic well-being, many authors evacuate politics of the messy stuff of contestation — of initiative, spontaneity, self-fashioning, revelation, ingenuity, action, and creativity — which often occurs outside the domain of electoral outcomes.
As this essay will show, the example of Yemen demonstrates that any political analysis that fails to take into account participation and the formation of public spheres as activities of political expression in their own right falls short of capturing what a democratic politics might reasonably be taken to include. I do not argue that Yemen, in being more democratic in some ways than other countries in the Middle East, is a democracy in either the sense of possessing fair, contested elections or of offering adequate experiences of substantive representation. Rather, I argue that there are different sites for enacting democracy, and a robust democracy needs to be using them all. Thus, a consideration of democracy also requires theorizing about aspects of substantive representation that are evident in Yemen, namely, the widespread, inclusive mobilization of critical, practical discourses in which people articulate and think through their moral and material demands in public.
Viewed from a perspective of citizen influence, impact, and participation, moreover, the fact of an armed population, of a courageous, harassed press, and of civic associations operating independently of state control does indeed make Yemen more democratic than most countries in the Middle East. Human rights associations and related groups pressing for women’s rights, a free press, fair treatment of prisoners, and a thorough and transparent judicial process hold conferences, sponsor debates, and publish articles in local newspapers. Mosque sermons often address social inequalities and openly criticize the government, paying particular attention to political corruption and instances of moral laxity. No visitor to Yemen can help but notice the vigorous forms of nonelectoral activism that animate daily life (Carapico 1998).
Yemen thus invites us to shift our attention away from formal considerations of electoral outcomes to the phenomenological dimensions of participatory politics. In this essay, I do so by examining Yemeni qāt chews in a way that engages and problematizes a Habermasian conceptualization of the public sphere.
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I conducted over eighteen months of fieldwork throughout Yemen from 1998 to 2004. All interviews and analysis of qat chews are based on my field notes, and all translations and transliterations are my own. I am grateful to the many colleagues, students, and friends who provided helpful comments on drafts of this paper. Versions of the chapter from which this essay draws were delivered at the Midwest Political Science Association conference, the University of California at Santa Barbara, the University of Chicago, Columbia University, Harvard University, New York University, Northwestern University, the University of Washington at Seattle, and Yale University. I am indebted in particular to Nadia Abu El-Haj, Sheila Carapico, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Anita Chari, Jean Comaroff, John Comaroff, Yasmin Dawood, Michael Dawson, Susan Gal, Mona El-Ghobashy, Andreas Glaeser, Rohit Goel, Loren Goldman, Lisa Hajjar, Engseng Ho, Adria Lawrence, Rochona Majumdar, Patchen Markell, Brinkley Messick, Don Reneau, Aram Shahin, Michael Silverstein, Anna Wuerth, and Iris Young for their generous feedback. Parts of this essay appeared in preliminary form in “Concepts and Commitments in the Study of Democracy” (2004).
- A joke, told by an educated, self-identified northern woman from a well-known conservative family to her northern and southern women friends, reiterates this understanding of the Yemeni president’s rule: ‘Alī ‘Abd Allāh Ṣāliḥ, Bill Clinton, and his wife, Hillary, were going for a swim. They took off their clothes and went into the water. Afterwards, Hillary turned to Bill and said: “ ‘Alī ‘Abd Allāh’s penis is so big. . . . I didn’t expect that from such a short man.” Bill said, “Well, he’s been screwing twenty million people” (January 2002)
- Habermas (1989) locates these new institutions in Great Britain and France: coffeehouses emerged as popular gathering places in around 1680 and 1730, respectively, and the salons became important sites of critical debate in the period between regency and revolution. For a discussion of public spheres and counterpublics in the Middle East, see, for example, Hirschkind 2001; Asad 1993; Eickelman and Anderson 2003; Lynch 2003, 2006; and Tétreault 2000.
- The comparative politics literature on democracy, democratization, and transitions is simply too voluminous to be treated adequately here. Key texts include Lipset 1959, Diamond 1999, O’Donnell and Schmitter 1986, Huntington 1993, Putnam 1993, Powell 2000, Collier 1999, Linz and Stepan 1996, Boix 2003, and Boix and Stokes 2003. At the risk of riding roughshod over important differences, it is fair to say that few of these works spend much time problematizing the concept of democracy or investigating ordinary practices of political participation, performances of democratic subjectivity that exist outside of electoral confines. Most of these authors see themselves as exploring the causes of democracy or the relationship between economic development and democracy, some of them explicitly invoking a minimalist definition of democracy and some suggesting that elections are an indicator or instrument of democracy but not the thing itself (e.g., Powell 2000). Putnam 1993 is a partial exception and is invoked in latter parts of this essay.
- In Peripheral Visions: Political Identifications in Unified Yemen, I attend carefully to the specific logics of the discourse on democracy put forth by minimalists, and I demonstrate the ways in which the arguments both reflect and instantiate distinct epistemological assumptions and convictions. These minimalist analyses contribute to an ongoing political project. They tend to be userfriendly for international agencies, for example, in a situation in which the labeling of a country as democratic or authoritarian can have far-reaching and sometimes devastating effects on international funding or on relations among states.