Yemen: Exporting Democracy

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Exporting Democracy: A Call From the Sheiks

U.S. Ideals Meet Reality in Yemen

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By David Finkel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 18, 2005

SANAA, Yemen -- On the first day, which would turn out to be the best day, the one day of all 180 days when everything actually seemed possible, the president of Yemen hadn't yet dismissively referred to an American named Robin Madrid as an old woman.

The president's foreign minister had yet to insist that a program of Madrid's -- funded by the U.S. government to bring democracy to Yemen's most lawless corners -- had to end immediately.

The president's interior minister had yet to restrict her from traveling to these corners.

The official newspaper of the president's political party had yet to publish a story suggesting that she was a spy.

On the first day, June 15, 2005, none of the 14 tribal sheiks who gathered in a conference room to meet with Madrid about her program had been followed by the internal police. None had been called by the police in the middle of the night. None had been summoned to the president's palace and told that Americans aren't to be trusted. And none had been hurt, killed or nearly killed, which would happen to one of the men on the 88th day of the program when he would be ambushed by three carloads of men with machine guns in an ongoing tribal war, the very thing that Madrid and the men hoped the program could end.

"So much of this work is done in the dark, or at least the dusk," Madrid would say wearily when that happened. But on the first day, she was so happy to have even reached the point of a first day that the very first words she said when she stood to address these 14 men weren't about war or death or terrorism, all of which would come up soon enough, but about the promise of the moment at hand.

"Let me congratulate you for the courage and the vision to start this," she said with an earnestness that would be painful in hindsight, and as she paused so her words could be translated into Arabic, there was a good, wide smile on her face.

Now the men were smiling, too.

Now they were clapping.

And that's how this began.

What happened over the next six months -- a period of time that ended three days ago -- was an experiment in the very meaning of democracy.

How it ended is this: Yemen, as of Dec. 15, was an embryonic democracy of 20 million people, 60 million guns, ongoing wars, active terrorists, extensive poverty, pervasive corruption, a high illiteracy rate, an infamous port where al Qaeda attacked the USS Cole in 2000, a notorious patch of valley that is the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden, and a widespread belief that the United States is the reason life here for so many is so miserable.


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