The Birth of Modern Yemen - Chapter 14

An e-book by Brian Whitaker exploring theunification of north and south Yemen in 1990, and its aftermath

14. Muddling through

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THE NEW Republic of Yemen was born from a three-way struggle revolving around national unity, democracy and power. In a unified state there can be only one ultimate centre of power. Whoever has power controls the army, the security forces and the whole state apparatus. When two states are unified, there has to be a mechanism for determining where ultimate power lies, for turning two centres of power into one.

Unification occurred during what proved to be a temporary lull in the long battle for domination between the northern and southern regimes. After the British left Aden in 1967, that rivalry became the main reason for the failure of north and south to unite: with their shared sense of national identity, there were no ethnic, religious or linguistic grounds for keeping them apart. But although the regimes on both sides espoused unity as a goal, they were unable to achieve it – and for most of the time they probably had no desire to do so unless in the process they were able to gain control over the whole of Yemen. For both regimes, though, this failure had its positive side: the mere pursuit of unity enhanced their claims to legitimacy and allowed them to further their own separate interests while seeking to dominate each other.

Before 1990 the pursuit of unity also served to some extent as a form of conflict management. Despite the political machinations and occasional fighting, the fact that both sides claimed to be seeking unity helped to reduce the risk of a truly damaging conflict. By the same token, it might be argued that actually achieving unification removed what, until then, had been the customary means for preventing the total destruction of one or other regime.

By 1990 both sides were still reluctant to cede power but both had compelling reasons for wanting a unified state. This was particularly important in the south, where the socialist leadership, in the midst of a dire economic crisis and dependent on evaporating Soviet support, felt especially vulnerable as Marxist regimes collapsed in Europe. The end of the Cold War not only removed one of the main obstacles to unification but also, from the south’s point of view, made it almost an imperative.

The suddenness of these changes meant than in the event, despite all the off-and-on discussions over the years, the union was ill-prepared. In more propitious circumstances a trial marriage in the form of confederation might have been appropriate but the crisis in the south ruled that out. Apart from a few small steps – the removal of travel restrictions and interchangeability of the currency, for example – there were no prior moves towards integration. The two parts of Yemen thus found themselves officially unified but not amalgamated. Unification not only failed to bring integration of the two states but failed to bring integration of power: it thrust the two regimes together in a power-sharing government which did nothing to resolve the old rivalry, while the retention of two separate armies gave both sides the means to continue pursuing their claims to power.

The democratisation that accompanied unification in 1990 had two distinct strands. One was democratisation for its own sake, the other democratisation as a means to achieving unification.

Even before 1990 both parts of Yemen had been moving towards pluralism. In the north, the non-party system had begun to break down, as witnessed in the 1988 parliamentary elections, while the south had announced a multi-party system five months before unification. Democratisation in the unified state was thus a natural progression – further encouraged by the birth of new democracies elsewhere in the world at that time.

Conveniently, though, the movement towards democracy also provided a mechanism to deliver unification: disagreements about the creation of a “unified political organisation” and the question of who was to hold ultimate power were temporarily put into abeyance by the multi-party system. The result was a coalition government in which the northern and southern regimes initially shared power on an almost (but not quite) equal basis.

Having allowed formal unification of the two states to take place, however, democracy then became a barrier to consolidating the union. Almost immediately, unification imposed two extremely heavy demands on the fledgling democratic system. One required its newly-established institutions to contain, harmlessly channel and ultimately resolve the rivalry between the two old regimes; the other required it to serve as a vehicle for total integration of the new state – and it failed in both. Rather than facilitating integration, the multi-party system actually impeded it by allowing the old regimes to retain their separate identities. That not only helped to perpetuate and exacerbate the rivalry, but legitimised it in the name of democracy.

The effect might have been less detrimental if electoral support for the two ruling parties had been more evenly spread across the country. But, although the GPC and YSP considered themselves national organisations after unification, their support (as the 1993 election results showed) continued to follow the old north-south lines, thus perpetuating the geographical divide. The problem here was similar to that found in other new democracies where a party system replicates pre-existing sectarian or tribal divisions (for example, in many parts of Africa).

The concentration of YSP support in the south and its failure to make an electoral breakthrough in the north meant that whatever power-sharing agreements might be made initially, in the longer term it was doomed to becoming a permanent minority party since Yemen’s southern population accounted for only about 20% of the total. A further divisive effect was that the geographical concentration of the YSP’s support gave it leverage – by using the threat of secession – to demand more favourable treatment than its numerical strength warranted.

It is possible that many of the outstanding problems of unification might have been resolved if there had been more willingness to give and take, and a greater level of trust. During the first few years after unification, however, there was a distinct lack of trust – and trust was further damaged by the series of political shootings and bombings directed mainly, but not exclusively, against the YSP (see Chapter 8). The result was that problems, far from being resolved one step at a time, tended to become interlinked and ever more intractable with the passage of time until eventually the decision-making processes of the unified state became totally paralysed.

Strategies of unity and separation

Once unification occurred, President Salih was firmly committed to maintaining it: he had staked his reputation on its success. The GPC, as one of the president’s closest associates remarked, was determined “to preserve and protect unity at any cost”. [1] Taken to its logical conclusion, that meant that any attempt by the southern leaders to secede would be met with force. Politically, though, the electoral and demographic arithmetic gave the northern leadership the upper hand, so it had no reason to favour a military solution unless the union was seriously threatened. The north had failed to win two previous wars against the south and many observers believed it would fare no better in a third.

The southern YSP, on the other hand, had been more ambivalent about unification from the start. It seemed willing to go along with it so long as there was a prospect of some tangible benefits for the south and an acceptable level of influence over decisions in Sana’a – which was not, as it turned out, very long. The YSP, therefore, needed an exit strategy for use if the union failed to deliver or as a threat to secure concessions from Salih.

It seems likely that Ali Salim al-Baid had concluded as early as 1992 during his absence in the south that he could not work with Salih in the long term but felt it would be better to return to Sana’a until after the elections which, at the very least, would give his party an electoral mandate in the south. The result of the elections and the acceptance of Islah into the government coalition then set the YSP on a collision course with the GPC. In effect, the YSP’s position reverted to what it had been before 1990: support for unity in principle, but not under the regime in Sana’a.

One question that raises is whether the 1994 war was unavoidable. There were several steps which, if they had been taken at the time, might have led to a different outcome, though it is by no means certain that they would have done so. Each was problematic in its own way.

1. A more gradualist “convergence” approach to unification where the two regimes learned to work together through steadily increasing cooperation and integration. This seems to have been ruled out mainly because of the urgency of the problems in the south.

2. Merging the two regimes to form a single political organisation as envisaged by the Cairo and Tripoli agreements, accompanied by rapid integration of the armed forces. The rivalry between the two regimes meant this was never very likely, and merging the two parties might simply have shifted the struggle for power on to different ground.

3. Withdrawal of the YSP from the ruling coalition after the 1993 election. This would have strengthened democracy but the YSP would have been obliged to relinquish control of the southern army.

4. Implementation of the Document of Pledge and Accord. Although the document offered a way forward, by the time it was signed the breakdown of trust had gone too far.

5. Resignation of both Salih and al-Baid. Both men mentioned this possibility during the crisis preceding the war. Although the relationship between them was an important factor in the crisis, it was not certain that the underlying problems would be resolved by a change of leadership.

This, in effect, brings the argument full circle. Once unification had been officially declared, unified leadership became impossible to achieve by non-military means since neither side was willing to cede power and the democratic processes were incapable of delivering a solution.

It is perhaps also worth considering what might have happened if the south had succeeded in breaking away. Most probably, there would have been a return to the previous status quo between north and south, with both sides trying to undermine each other – and with the oil reserves that straddled the border providing an obvious flashpoint. It is also difficult to imagine a breakaway southern state enjoying much independence. Heavily indebted to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states as a result of the war, it would have had to rely on their continued support – in effect exchanging domination by Sana’a for domination by Riyadh. In the north, President Salih would have been deeply humiliated, though perhaps not fatally wounded politically. To survive, he too would probably have had to do the Saudis’ bidding. Most probably both parts of Yemen would have found themselves subject to constant manipulation from the kingdom next door – an unattractive outcome, and a bad one for the country as a whole, considering that Riyadh’s strategy at the time was to keep Yemen weak and divided, though not so unstable as to threaten Saudi security.

Aftermath of the 1994 war

The war lasted slightly more than two months and when it was over there were wildly conflicting claims of its cost human life. Soon afterwards, President Salih announced that 931 soldiers and civilians had been killed – a surprisingly low figure. A year later, however, he conferred posthumous medals on 3,000 military “martyrs”. If that was a more accurate reflection of casualties among troops on the victorious northern side, an overall death toll in the region of 8,000-10,000 sounds plausible, taking into account civilians killed by shelling or bombing. There are no authoritative figures, however, and several years after the conflict a senior northern politician continued to maintain that casualties had been remarkable low.

United Nations officials estimated the cost of physical damage at $3 billion. Yemeni government estimates were generally much higher, possibly in the hope of encouraging aid. Shortly after the war ended, President Salih put the damage at $7.5 billion but a year later claimed that 80% of it had been repaired. If the both these figures were accurate Yemen would have spent about $6 billion on rebuilding in just 12 months which, given the country’s economic difficulties, is most unlikely. It is almost impossible to give an accurate figure because of the number of different factors involved. One was the cost of the military campaigns. The weapons and equipment were for the most part quite old, having been purchased years earlier, and there was no immediate need to spend money on replacing them. Many of the new weapons acquired by the south during the war were paid for by foreign interests and later captured by government forces. These included several new MiG-29 warplanes.

Damage to the economic infrastructure included the oil refinery in Aden, an oil installation at Ma’rib, several power stations and Aden’s water supply. Although this damage was estimated at millions of dollars, it was less serious than it might have been, and much of it was quickly repaired. The most severe destruction came at the end of the war, when businesses and public buildings in Aden were looted. It should be remembered also that the war was mainly confined to six of the country’s 18 provinces, and the damage to property was concentrated in relatively small areas. Other parts were affected in different ways: apart from damage caused by the fighting, agricultural and manufacturing production throughout the whole of Yemen decreased dramatically during the war. Finally, the war brought a surge in inflation as the value of the Yemeni riyal fell dramatically. On the other hand, the war did bring a decisive end to the political crisis which, in its own way, had also been damaging the economy for many months.

With the ending of the war, the Sana’a government moved quickly towards reconciliation. In the interests of unity, surrendering southern forces were treated magnanimously and there was an extended amnesty during which those who had gone abroad were invited to return. The only exceptions were the 16 “ringleaders” accused by Sana’a of treason and war crimes [2]. Aden was declared the “winter capital” of Yemen – a conciliatory but mainly symbolic gesture. In less-conciliatory fashion there were also persistent complaints of northerners seizing property in Aden.

The emphasis on national unity in the wake of the war meant it was essential to form a new government that could claim to represent the whole country. The problem was how to achieve this without the Socialists who, before their military defeat, had dominated the south. The solution was to replace them with ex-members of the YSP. Many supporters of Ali Nasser Muhammad, the ousted PDRY president, had fled north during the internal coup of 1986, and four of them re-appeared as ministers in the new government, representing President Salih’s party. A fifth, Abd-Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, became vice-president, while a sixth was appointed as the army’s chief of staff. This meant that the new government could claim connections with all 18 provinces.

The other notable feature of the new government was the growing strength of Islah, which increased from six posts to nine (against 16 for the GPC and two independents). Its gains included education, the portfolio it had eagerly sought, but failed to get, after the elections in 1993. Even so, this scarcely bore out claims by exiled southerners that war had left President Salih at the mercy of Islah. Considering Islah’s invaluable support for the president during the conflict, three extra cabinet places were a rather modest reward. There was, in any case, an argument for involving Islah in government on the grounds that the responsibilities of office might help to moderate its policies, whereas exclusion might – as in Algeria – push it further towards extremism [3].

The new government adopted a tougher approach to law and order, especially where international terrorism was concerned, though its success proved somewhat limited. Partly, this was aimed at improving relations with Egypt and other countries affected by Islamist violence at the time, and partly at controlling domestic extremism. In addition, the government scored a propaganda point with the extradition to Germany of Johannes Weinrich, said to be an associate of the international terrorist, “Carlos the Jackal”. Weinrich was arrested during a security sweep in Aden shortly after the war ended, adding weight to claims that the YSP’s much-vaunted policy of combating terrorism was both insincere and selective. Carlos himself had close links with the YSP before it abandoned Marxism and sometimes travelled with a passport issued by the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen [4].

Finally, Salih promised a “revolution against corruption” [5]. There were reports of president driving incognito along the Aden-Sana’a road to experience at first hand the bribes collected at wayside checkpoints. He also – for a while – made a practice of arriving, unannounced, at various government buildings to check on absenteeism. On finding a room empty, he would lock it and remove the key. According to the Yemen Times, this led to the suspension of several civil servants the demotion of a number of military officers [6]. On the whole, though, such gestures did little to change the culture of institutionalised corruption.

National unity after the 1994 war

Although southern leaders continued to insist that unity could never be imposed by force, there was ample evidence on the ground that it could. With the struggle for power finally resolved, the process of integration, which had been halted by disputes shortly after unification, was able to resume. The remaining southern forces were either disbanded or absorbed into the new national army. Duplication of jobs in the civil service (a consequence of unification) was reduced by large numbers of dismissals – almost entirely in the south. A single currency was eventually introduced, and the two airlines were merged.

It was widely acknowledged, even by erstwhile supporters of the YSP, that the southern leadership had miscalculated the strength of popular feeling in favour of unity [7] and that proclaiming secession was a fatal mistake. Within three months after the end of the war, the defeated southern leaders appeared to be retreating from separatism and threats of imminent guerrilla war while vowing to continue their struggle against northern domination – a project for which they appeared to have ample funds. Seven of them, led by Abd al-Rahman al-Jifri, arrived in London to announce the formation of a National Opposition Front (“Mowj”) [8] with the declared aim of confronting “the forces of hegemony, tyranny and authoritarianism in Sana’a”. A 1,200-word statement made no mention of their attempt to establish a separate state but said they would work for national unity based on the Document of Pledge and Accord. Jifri added that although armed struggle could not be ruled out, they would seek to achieve their aims by dialogue. Prominent Socialists in the group included Salim Salih Muhammad and Haydar Abu Bakr al-Attas. Ali Salim al-Baid – though conspicuously absent – was said to be “supporting the idea”. [9]

The group argued that a combination of political circumstances inside Yemen, economic problems and pressure from foreign governments would eventually force President Salih to negotiate with them – a hope that never materialised. There was certainly discontent in the south (as in other parts of the country), but it lacked focus as well as a credible leadership. People had little reason to rally round a group of pre-war southern leaders who were demonstrably less adept, both politically and militarily, than their northern counterparts. Finally, since the south had failed to break away in 1994 when it possessed an army, and there was little prospect that it could do so in the future without one.

Mowj, which was generally assumed to be a tool of the Saudi government, continued for several years before abruptly ceasing its activities in 2000 in the wake of the Saudi-Yemeni border agreement (which included a clause prohibiting interference in each other’s internal affairs) [10]. A statement on the group’s website praised President Salih for “his ability and political will to address the urgent internal issues” and announced the suspension of opposition activity “so that we can all effectively contribute to national and regional stability and cement by our combined efforts the principle of regional partnership laid down in the Jeddah border agreement between the Republic of Yemen and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” [11]

In 2003, in a broadcast marking the 13th anniversary of Yemeni unification, Salih formally pardoned the exiled separatist leaders and urged them “to take part in building the country which has enough room for everyone”. A few days later he met Ali Salim al-Baid face to face in Abu Dhabi, for the first time since the war [12]. It was a magnanimous if belated gesture, and one Salih could well afford to make: in the previous month’s parliamentary elections, the rump of the YSP had fared worse than ever, winning only seven seats out of 301.

Democracy after the 1994 war

President Salih’s victory in the war consolidated unity but at a cost to democracy. The days of uninhibited free speech were clearly over; several newspapers closed down, while others which had been critical of government policy suffered harassment. Human rights also deteriorated, with frequent arrests of opposition figures (especially in the south) – often on the basis of little or no evidence. The war left the opposition hopelessly fragmented, with only the rump of the YSP remaining in parliament and, ironically, the main beneficiary of the multi-party system at this time was Islah, the party that had seemed most ambivalent about democracy in the beginning. It played a patient game and without making the intransigent demands that became the hallmark of the YSP before the war, gradually but steadily increased its influence.

A number of constitutional changes, aimed at consolidating the president’s position and ensuring the recent conflict would not be repeated, were rushed through parliament as the new postwar government was being formed [13]. The most important of these abolished the five-man Presidential Council whose composition had caused so much friction before the war. In future, there would simply be a president who would appoint his own deputy. Although this formally concentrated more power in the hands of the president, in fact it did little more than recognise reality. The earlier collective presidency was largely a facade, since in practice Salih had always had more influence than his other colleagues on the council. However, another constitutional amendment limited presidents to two terms and stipulated that in future they would be elected directly, by the people [14]. The price for securing these changes appeared to be a one-word concession to the Islamists making shari’a (Islamic law) “the source” of legislation rather than “the main source”. Although this issue had generated great controversy since 1990, Yemeni officials argued that it would make little practical difference [15].

The demise of the YSP as a major political force had two important effects. One was that measures which had been agreed at the time of unification, but never implemented because of inter-party rivalry, now began to take effect. As the laws regulating the press and political parties began to bite, the situation changed to what had probably been intended in the beginning. These measures included full implementation of the Law on Political Parties, with the result that parties were required for the first time to register. Similarly, a 1991 law banning party membership in the military (as well as the judiciary, police and diplomatic service) was ceremonially implemented when army officers were shown on television handing their party membership cards to the president, who declared that the armed forces must “be apolitical as of now”. The law had previously been obstructed by the Socialists, who saw it as consolidating the president’s power at their own expense. Implementation after the war seemed mainly aimed at preventing Islah from infiltrating the army; it had no effect on President Salih’s own control, since he ensured the loyalty of his northern army not through his party but by placing members of his tribe and family in key positions [16].

The other effect of the YSP’s disintegration was that the government now secure enough to adopt several causes previously espoused by the Socialists. Although the GPC had always accepted some of these in principle, it had been reluctant to put them into effect for fear that the YSP would exploit them for its own ends. Potentially the most significant in the long term was the parliamentary bill for democratic local government published in 1996. The GPC, it will be recalled, had resisted this earlier, fearing that it would provide the YSP with a back-door route to secession of the south. Now, with the YSP out of the way, it was able to proceed without risking serious damage to national unity.

The 1997 parliamentary election, which produced an overwhelming majority for the GPC, took place on schedule – four years to the day since Yemen’s first multi-party election. Despite a number of violent incidents, this time the election was better prepared and organised. Voting procedures were much improved, especially in the use of party symbols to help illiterate voters. The process was closely watched by international monitors, candidates’ representatives and thousands of trained Yemeni observers. After the controversy surrounding Yemeni observers in 1993, this time they carried out their tasks with government blessing. Perhaps because of the larger number of observers, many irregularities were reported on election day, though most were relatively minor – the result of administrative errors rather than conspiracies.

The most serious criticism centred on irregularities in the registration of voters. There appears to have been abuse on all sides – the victorious GPC itself lodged 50,000 objections. There were repeated allegations of military voters registering in areas where the government needed extra support but, despite appeals for information, observers from the Washington-based National Democratic Institute failed to find hard evidence. One area of improvement was in the number of women who registered to vote. In the 1993 election only 18% of registered voters, on average, were women. Increasing this to 28% was an achievement for which the Islah party, among others, could take some credit.

Moves by the coalition partners to squeeze out minor parties by co-ordinating their efforts were frustrated shortly before polling day when a number of candidates refused to stand down as instructed by their parties. This turned the final stages of the campaign into an unexpectedly vigorous contest.

Although aggrieved parties denounced the elections as fraudulent, reports by the international observers, while critical of some aspects, were broadly favourable. The Joint International Observer Group in Yemen, representing 13 countries and the European Commission, found that on balance, considering all the circumstances, the elections were “reasonably free and fair”. The Washington-based National Democratic Institute described them as “a positive step in the democratic development of Yemen” but said the validity or otherwise of the results was a matter for Yemenis themselves.

After the crises and conflicts of earlier years, the result appeared to be a vote for stability. Aside from the electoral flaws, the climate of opinion (so far as anyone could judge) pointed towards an overall majority for the GPC. The huge margin of its victory was attributable, more than anything, to the absence of the YSP, which – along with several smaller parties – decided to boycott the poll after announcing in advance that it would be unfair. The boycott decision caused yet another rift in what remained of the YSP, with opponents arguing that participation would have been in the long-term interests of democracy. The main beneficiary of the YSP’s suicidal tendencies was the GPC, which won 187 of the 301 seats (64 more than in 1993). Its only significant rival, Islah, won 53; five seats went to Nasserist and Ba’athist parties, and 54 to candidates described as independent. The GPC’s margin of victory was greater than it at first appeared because 39 “independents” later declared their support for the party (as well as six for Islah) [17].

It was the first time since north-south unification in 1990, and the accompanying democratisation, that a single party had held such a clear mandate. For the previous seven years the GPC had held sway by dominating the middle ground in a three-party system, alternately playing off the Yemen Socialist Party (which previously ruled the south) and Islah (an alliance of tribal and Islamist elements) against each other. That game was now over. For the YSP, it appeared to be the end of a long, relentless, and perhaps inevitable decline which had been hastened by the war of 1994.

Politically, the two most problematic areas for the GPC lay in relations with Islah and with the south, the YSP’s former stronghold. Islah failed (just) to win the 60 seats regarded as its minimum target. Its radical Islamist wing suffered heavily in the elections while the more traditional tribal elements held their ground. The party’s leader, Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar – the most important tribal figure in Yemen – was re-elected parliamentary Speaker. Initially, the GPC sought to coax Islah into another coalition government, in order to restrain it. Wisely, perhaps, Islah decided to go into opposition. In doing so, it forfeited control of the education ministry, which for three years had provided a means to spread its ideology. This also cast doubt on the future of its Islamic Institutes – schools outside the state system which had been used for recruiting party activists.

Shortly after the election President Salih surprised the country by choosing an independent politician, Faraj bin Ghanim, to be prime minister. The appointment of Dr Ghanim, a 56-year-old economist from Hadramawt, was seen mainly as a move to appease the south after its defeat in the 1994 war of secession. But it also won approval in the north because he was respected for his integrity and came from outside the Sana’a establishment. Dr Ghanim had once been a leading figure in the southern Socialist Party and was credited with the economic opening that began in the People’s Democratic Republic before unification with the north. Among the 28 other ministers there were two independents and one from al-Haqq, the small Zaidi party which won no seats in the election.

In a first step towards the creation of an upper house of parliament, the president appointed 59 members to the new Consultative Council, a body intended, according to the constitution, to “broaden the base of participation”. The outgoing prime minister, Abd al-Aziz abd al-Ghani, headed the appointees, along with a host of former ministers. The list also included such diverse figures as Abd al-Aziz al-Saqqaf, publisher of the Yemen Times, who had been arrested several times since the war for his journalistic activities, and Sheikh Tariq al-Fadli from Abyan, who had been suspected of organising the “Afghan” guerrillas responsible for the 1992 Aden hotel bombings and attacks on the YSP (see Chapter 8).

The first direct presidential election, held in September 1999, was a farcical affair in which President Salih’s only challenger was an obscure member of his own party (standing as an “independent”). This came about mainly because of the way the electoral rules had been constructed. To guarantee a competitive election, the constitution insisted that there must be at least two candidates. But the constitution also also required nominees to be approved by at least 10% of the members of parliament. Only two parties – the GPC and Islah– had a sufficient number of parliamentary seats to approve candidates. Islah decided not to contest the election and declared its support for Salih. The YSP sought to field a candidate but because it had boycotted the 1997 general election, it had no members of parliament and so could not ensure approval of its nominee. At one stage there was talk of the GPC “lending” the Socialists enough members of parliament to approve a YSP candidate, but this came to nothing. A further 23 presidential nominees also failed to secure parliamentary approval [18].

Salih’s “opponent”, Najib Qahtan al-Sha’abi, was the eldest son of a former president of south Yemen who had joined the GPC after unification and become a member of parliament. With a masters degree in political and economic science from Cairo University, he served on the parliamentary committee for development and oil but had never held a ministerial post [19]. Unsurprisingly, Salih won with 96.3% of the vote in what he hailed as “a great democratic victory”. He was immediately congratulated by Prince Sultan of Saudi Arabia and the Emir of Kuwait [20].

In 2000, as the parliament’s four-year term was drawing to a close, Salih put forward a series of constitutional amendments which included prolonging its life for a further two years. In a letter to parliament, the president suggested four years was too short a period and pointed to the high cost of holding elections [21]. The move to extend parliamentary terms to six years came just a few days after the Washington-based National Democratic Institute issued a critical report on preparations for the next elections. The NDI, which has experience of electoral processes in many emerging democracies, had taken a generally favourable view of Yemen’s 1993 and 1997 parliamentary elections, though it refused to monitor the ludicrous presidential election in 1999.

The NDI’s report, which suggested that “Yemen’s democratic progress has stalled”, highlighted a number of problems in the voter registration process which, it said, could damage public confidence in the entire democratic system. Among other things, it called for a centralised database to eliminate the registration of fictitious, dead or duplicate voters [22] The report also noted that preparations for the first local government elections were “seriously, and probably fatally, behind schedule”, pointing out that the Supreme Elections Committee was still struggling to draw up boundaries for thousands of local districts “with inadequate demographic information” and, on election day, would have to oversee voting for 7,000 public offices when the most it had handled up to that stage was the 301 parliamentary seats. Because of these difficulties, the NDI suggested postponing the local elections.

The constitutional changes were duly approved, with even the opposition parties disinclined to make much fuss. The opposition had problems of its own and in any case was ill-prepared for an electoral contest. With roots harking back to ideologies whose time has passed, the Socialists, Ba’athists and Nasserists and others were in a sorry state. Generally dominated by an ageing leadership, they had little to say that was new or more obviously relevant to Yemen’s problems than the policies of the GPC. Islah, an alliance of traditional tribal and Islamist elements, probably came closest to behaving like a real opposition party. Despite its suspicion of democracy, it often played the democratic game more cleverly than the leftists [23].

As in Egypt, the weakness of Yemen’s democratic practice is usually blamed on the overbearing character and hegemonistic tendencies of the ruling party, together with the blurred dividing line between government and party which allows the state’s funds and resources – official media, the time of government officials, etc – to be harnessed in the service of the party. Amid that, the failings of opposition parties rarely attract much attention, though often they are also an important factor. A well-functioning democracy needs an effective opposition to scrutinise, criticise and propose alternative policies but opposition in Yemen had a tendency to be equated with rejectionism – boycotting elections, trying to destablise the government, and so forth. Few, if any, of its politicians understood the art of effective opposition in a democracy.

Certainly there were many complaints in Yemen that the ability of opposition parties to organise, conduct their activities and campaign for office was restricted by the security forces, as the NDI noted. But its report continued:

At the same time, many opposition parties seem unwilling or unable to establish themselves as an effective opposition and present clear alternatives to the government in a consistent way. The delegation observed that many parties were more content to complain about their current predicament, and to insist on external conditions for their participation, than to organise themselves to expand their membership and influence. Each party needs to assume responsibility for its own situation and to consider the future of a united Yemen instead of nurturing historical grievances.

The large number of candidates withdrawing from elections, sometimes just a few days before polling, was evidence of another phenomenon: behind-the-scenes trading between parties to carve up the parliamentary seats or give an easy victory to “notable” persons. “To some degree, these arrangements serve positive or useful public purposes, such as keeping social peace and ensuring the representation in parliament of various political forces,” the NDI said. “In a young democracy such as Yemen’s, there is some value in this. The arrangements are also a reflection of a traditional political culture that values consultation, inclusion, and consensus.” But it pointed out that this can also deprive voters of an opportunity to choose their own representatives and added:

We are also concerned that many opposition parties are actually weakening themselves over the long term by focusing their energies on negotiating safe passage to parliament for a small number of their leaders rather than on expanding their outreach to voters, developing and articulating a persuasive message, and strengthening their internal democratic organisation. This approach may have been a good tactic in the early days of Yemen’s multiparty era, but … if opposition parties remain focused on negotiating a comfortable arrangement with the GPC, they will not present themselves as viable democratic alternatives. Until they are able to establish a genuine base of support among voters, these parties are unlikely to earn a permanent place in Yemen’s political arena.

With parliamentary elections postponed, the local government elections went ahead in chaotic fashion in February 2001, despite the NDI’s advice that they were ill-prepared. As 26,000 candidates vied for 7,000 seats, more than 100 violent incidents were reported across the country. At least 45 people died on election day or during the prolonged and turbulent counting of votes, according to news agency reports. In some areas tanks and forces of the elite Republican Guard were deployed. In al-Baydah, a Nasserist candidate was killed in a counting centre as he was leading by 700 votes with the last ballot box being counted. In the same province, an independent candidate was shot dead. In Ibb, an Islah party candidate was dragged away and killed after being declared the winner. Meanwhile an independent candidate opened fire with an automatic rifle after an argument with a candidate from the ruling General People’s Congress. In Saada, tribesmen fired on a helicopter carrying ballot boxes, and would not allow it to land, claiming the government had forced their candidates to withdraw.

In Marib, where it became clear during the count that Islah was winning, the army attempted to transfer remaining ballot boxes for counting inside their camp. According to the Yemen Times, tribesmen confronted the army with bazookas, and 70 vehicles bristling with armed Islah supporters blocked the road. The result was a resounding victory for Islah, which won 86 council seats there to the GPC’s 23. Voting was prevented from taking place in 200 polling stations, either by violence or technical problems such as the non-arrival of ballot boxes. In some areas the wrong ballot papers arrived and in others the party symbols on ballot papers (used to help illiterate voters identify the candidates) were incorrect [24].

A referendum held on the same day was officially declared to have given 70% approval to that constitutional changes accepted earlier by parliament, which extended the president’s term from five years to seven, and that of parliament from four years to six.

The next parliamentary elections, in April 2003, were a more sober affair, taking place less than three weeks after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq – an event that possibly helped to focus minds in Yemen. “The fall of the Iraqi regime should be a lesson for all Arab rulers,” President Salih remarked on the eve of the poll. “Today, we have to adopt democracy as a choice for ruling. It is an important lesson.” After casting his vote a day later, he told reporters: “We want all political powers to be represented under the parliament’s dome …We want all the parties to have a chance, and we don't want a 99.9% majority.”

A total of 1,396 candidates from 22 parties, plus independents, contested the 301 parliamentary seats. This time, 11 female candidates were standing (only one was eventually elected) and the proportion of women registered to vote (about 40% of the total) was among the highest in the Middle East – a considerable achievement in such traditionally-minded country.

Yemen’s parliamentary election, 2003

Votes cast % Seats


GPC 3,429,888 58.0 238 79.1
Islah 1,333,394 22.6 46 15.3
YSP 277,223 3.8 8 2.7
Nasserist 109,480 1.9 3 1.0
Ba’athist 40,377 0.7 2 0.7
Independent 721,940 12.2 4 1.3
Total (turnout 76.0%) 5,912,302 100.0 301 100.0

Source: ElectionGuide. These were the results after a number of candidates elected as independents transferred to the GPC or Islah.

As on previous occasions, the elections were marred by allegations of vote-rigging and some violence. According to the Supreme Commission for Elections, 14 people were slightly injured in “petty” exchanges of gunfire between supporters of rival candidates on polling day but it was later reported that three had died of their wounds. Even so, the violence was less than in the municipal elections of 2001 or the 1997 parliamentary elections when at least 11 died. The Yemen Times published a photograph of children aged between seven and 15 who formed a long queue to vote at a polling station in Amran province. The paper said they had been given registration cards and instructed by their teachers to vote for the ruling GPC. Despite these reported irregularities, the paper suggested the latest elections were generally better-conducted than in the past, with more transparency and more awareness among voters.

There were also signs of a maturing approach by the opposition parties. The Socialist party, which had boycotted the 1997 elections, fielded 109 candidates this time and reached an agreement with the Islah party and others in more than 100 constituencies to avoid splitting the anti-government vote [25]. Nevertheless, the result was an overwhelming victory for the GPC, with 58% of the vote and almost 80% of the parliamentary seats.

In July 2005, President Salih completed his 27th year in power and marked the occasion with a speech to politicians, diplomats, government officials and tribal leaders in which he reviewed the problems and achievements of his presidency, including the unification of north and south, the introduction of a multi-party system and the settling of all the country’s border disputes. He then surprised his audience by announcing that he was “fed up” and would not be contesting the presidential election scheduled for 2006. “I hope that all political parties ... find young leaders to compete in the elections because we have to train ourselves in the practice of peaceful succession,” he said. “Our country is rich with young blood who can lead the country ... let’s transfer power peacefully among ourselves, people are fed up with us, and we are fed up with power.” This was greeted by cries from the audience of “No, no, we want you, we want you for ever,” but the president insisted he was serious. Yemen should become a role model and show the world it is “a democratic country where peaceful passing of power is done,” he said [26].

Although his statement appeared to leave no room for a change of heart, many Yemenis were sceptical, suggesting it was merely a charade aimed at generating support for another term. (According to the constitution, a president was limited to two terms but in Salih’s case constitutional amendments along the way were regarded as having reset the clock.) In the months that followed, suspicions that the president’s “retirement” was an electoral tactic were confirmed by the lack of efforts to find a successor and in September 2006 he was duly re-elected with another huge majority. On this occasion, though, there was a wider selection of candidates. Faisal bin Shamlan, representing the Joint Meeting Parties – an alliance of opposition parties that including both Islah and the Socialists – trailed in second place while the combined vote for three other candidates amounted to less than one per cent.

Yemen’s presidential election, 2006

Candidate Party Valid votes %
Ali Abdullah Salih GPC 4,149,673 77.17
Faisal bin Shamlan Joint Meeting Parties 1,173,025 21.81
Fathi Mohammed al-Azab Independent 24,524 0.46
Yassin Abdo Saeed Nu’man Nat Opposition Council 21,642 0.40
Ahmed Abdullah Majeed al-Majidi Independent 8,324 0.15

Source: ElectionGuide.

The parliamentary elections scheduled for 2009 were postponed for a further two years after a boycott threat by opposition parties and widespread protests calling for electoral reforms to guarantee a fraud-free vote. President Salih had reportedly agreed to further constitutional changes that would give more power to parliament and introduce proportional representation [27].

The Yemeni state

As Yemen approached the twentieth anniversary of unification, the expectations aroused during the political spring of 1990 remained largely unfulfilled. On the positive side, the multi-party system seemed firmly established in principle, if not necessarily in practice. The country had held numerous elections – some of them on time, some not, and some of them more credible than others. The president himself had twice sought (and obtained) a mandate from the people. However, the maturing of Yemeni democracy cannot be said to have progressed very far and in some respects it has moved backwards, as illustrated by the fate of: the press which, since the heady days of 1990, has become more constrained over the years. Hopes that electoral politics might lead to a peaceful alternation of power seem as remote as ever.

There are various ways of looking at this. Compared with other countries that democratised around the same time – in eastern Europe, for example – Yemen is obviously not the best performer, but considering its lack of development in other areas that is perhaps to be expected. In comparison with other Arab countries, on the other hand, it has performed rather well but, then again, some of the others are particularly bad. Increasingly, though, Yemen resembles Egypt – nominally a multi-party democracy but in practice a presidential autocracy where the ruling party maintains hegemony through co-option, corruption and commandeering state resources.

Like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Salih continues to “talk the talk” regarding democracy, even if he does not walk the walk. In 1999, for instance, Yemen hosted the Emerging Democracies Forum, where representatives from 16 countries gathered “to acknowledge our democratic achievements, to address common challenges we face in the transition to full democracy and to reaffirm our commitment to democratic rights and principles” [28]. Five years later, Yemen hosted another international conference – this time on democracy, human rights and the International Criminal Court. Supported by the EU, it was attended by more than 800 delegates from 52 countries and passed off successfully, despite continued warnings from the British government that “all but the most essential travel” to Yemen should be avoided for security reasons. In a keynote speech, President Salih hailed democracy as “the choice of the modern age for all people of the world and the life-raft for political regimes, particularly in the Third World” [29]. A document issued at the end of the conference, known as the Sana’a Declaration [30], highlighted the importance of free elections, the rule of law, independent media, rights of women, civil society and a flourishing private sector. Some observers felt that airing such issues in Yemen was a positive step in its own right, while others doubted that it would change much, pointing out that there was still a substantial gap between the theory and the practice.

Politically, not much is likely to change while Salih remains in office. As the constitution stands at present, he is now in his final presidential term, which ends in 2013 when he will be 71, but Arab leaders rarely give up power voluntarily and changing the rules to keep him in power longer would not be difficult. There is also the question of who might succeed him. In Syria, Bashar al-Asad took over the presidency when his father died. In Egypt, Mubarak is clearly grooming his son, Gamal, to succeed him – laying the foundations for a “hereditary republic” as his critics mockingly refer to it – and Salih appears to have similar ambitions for his son, Ahmad, in Yemen. A key figure in determining any succession would be Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, the powerful (and much feared) military commander who hails from the president’s home village [31]. There have been reports of tension between Ali Muhsin and the president’s son, who currently commands the Republican Guard, and their apparent rivalry could be one factor in the president’s efforts to prolong his stay in power.

Largely as a result of oil revenue, the Yemeni state is somewhat stronger today than it was in the past – though it remains very weak. It does not have the means to implement government policies with anything like the certainty that is found in European countries, for example, and still faces challenges to its authority. In the words of a Chatham House briefing paper published in 2008:

It remains an incomplete state where the majority of the population live without reference to laws made in Sana’a. A corrupt, self-interested government that fails to provide the bare minimum of social services has little relevance and legitimacy outside, and even inside, the major urban areas. [32]

Internationally, Yemen is usually classed as a “fragile” state – a term which the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development applies to states that are unable or unwilling to “provide physical security, legitimate political institutions, sound economic management and social services for the benefit of its population”. Typical characteristics of fragile states include widespread poverty, low taxation and weak legislative assemblies. There is also a tendency in fragile states for the military to become involved in politics, and there are often parts of the country where tribes and non-state actors exercise more power than the authorities. In 2008, Yemen ranked 21st in the Carnegie Endowment’s Failed States Index which is based on twelve “indicators of instability” [33]. This, however, was an improvement on 2005 when it held eighth place.

Despite all that, over the last 20 years Yemen has confounded the more pessimistic predictions. It survived the upheaval of north-south unification, absorbed several hundred thousand returnees from Saudi Arabia in 1991, recovered from the 1994 war, settled all its outstanding border disputes peacefully [34] and, since 2000, has proved moderately successful at keeping a lid on al-Qaeda and its associates.

By 2009, though, Yemen was once again facing multiple crises amid further dire predictions. In Saada, in the far north of the country, the so-called Houthi rebellion – the bloodiest conflict since the 1994 war – had been running intermittently since 2004. Its origins were complex and its objectives not entirely clear, but the Houthis (the family leading the rebellion) were members of the Zaidi sect, a branch of Shi’a Islam that is prevalent in parts of northern Yemen. It was also linked to an organisation called Believing Youth (al-Shabab al-Mu’min) whose teenage members caused disruption at mosques in various parts of the country by chanting “Death to America, Death to Israel” after Friday prayers. The youths were often arrested, only to return later and do it again.

The original leader, Hussein al-Houthi (who was killed in the early months of the rebellion) insisted he had no quarrel with the government beyond opposing its co-operation with the United States, though the movement also seemed to be trying to counter the spread of Sunni Wahhabi influence in Yemen. Meanwhile the government, perhaps in the hope of discrediting Houthi, claimed he had a monarchist agenda – since the rulers of north Yemen who were overthrown in the republican revolution of 1962 had also been Zaidis. Whatever its real driving force, though, the rebellion was clearly fuelled by economic marginalisation, a lack of services and the government’s heavy-handed military response [35].

At the same time there were renewed signs of disaffection in the south, also spurred by a sense of marginalisation – to which the government responded, once again, in a heavy-handed fashion. One specific grievance was the pension arrangements for some 100,000 state employees (military and civilian) who had lost their jobs in the wake of unification and the 1994 war. More generally, though, there was a feeling that southerners were being excluded from the north’s patronage networks in business, politics and the military. In May 2009, thousands of protesters took to the streets in Lahj, al-Dhali’, Hadhramawt and Abyan provinces, chanting anti-government slogans and calling for secession and the end of “the northern occupation”. Eighteen people reportedly died in clashes between protesters and security forces, and armed groups killed a number of soldiers in attacks on checkpoints. During an earlier series of demonstrations the previous summer – in which tanks appeared on the streets and at least 17 people died – protesters had hoisted the old southern flag and torn the flag of unified Yemen.

From the government’s standpoint, the most dangerous part of this was that complaints about grievances were stimulating fresh talk of secession. Mohammed al-Daheri, a professor of politics at Sanaa University, warned: “If the situation remains unresolved, those who are calling for secession could find a sympathetic ear among the jobless and those who feel oppressed.” [36]

Perhaps even more alarmingly, on the eve of Yemen’s Unity Day in 2009, a notorious figure from the past – Tariq al-Fadli – declared himself ready to lead the south to independence. Fadli was the jihadist who before the 1994 war had been pursued by southern forces to his mountain stronghold, eventually escaping to Sana’a (see Chapter 8). After the war he had reclaimed his ancestral land in the south with Salih’s support and had even been appointed to the Consultative Council, the upper house of parliament. Announcing his break with the regime, he told the BBC: “Our demand is to separate from the north, to build a united south and secure the release of political prisoners held in Sana’a.” He also shrugged off his previous jihadism, saying that if the south achieved independence under his leadership, he would tackle terrorism and improve maritime security in the Gulf of Aden “with integrity and co-operation with the west” [37].

President Salih has survived in power since 1978 by always ensuring he has enough allies and being careful never to take on too many enemies simultaneously. Faced with trouble at opposite ends of the country, that strategy could be challenged to breaking point if the levels of disaffection becomes more serious. Those problems, however, are only part of a more generally worrying picture. As the International Crisis Group’s report put it in 2009:

Yemen currently confronts simultaneous political and social crises made all the more serious by the global financial meltdown. Increasing domestic repression under cover of an anti-terrorism campaign reflects growing state insecurity; meanwhile, massive protests are occurring in what once was South Yemen, where secessionist sentiment is on the rise. Finally, there is the Saada [Houthi] conflict, which the government has been singularly unable to end. Each of these developments is a reason for worry in a country that, a mere decade ago, was engaged in a promising and remarkable democratisation process. [38]

In addition to that, there are the long-term problems of a rapidly-growing population, steady depletion of water resources and declining oil revenue.

There has never been a shortage of experts ready to predict doom and gloom for Yemen. They have been wrong in the past and, one way or another, the country has managed to get by. Such predictions generally underestimate the resilience and resourcefulness of its highly traditional society. Though traditionalist attitudes can be blamed for many of Yemen’s problems, they have some positive qualities too – and one of them is an ability to devise flexible and informal means for managing crises and resolving conflicts. If those are eventually brought into play it is possible that the country, once again, will avert disaster by muddling through.

© Copyright Brian Whitaker 2009.