The Birth of Modern Yemen - Chapter 8

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

8. Problems of the transitional period

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THE “TRANSITIONAL PERIOD” that began in May 1990 was intended to provide a 30-month space for the former regimes of north and south Yemen to resolve outstanding problems of unification and prepare for parliamentary elections. To succeed, that required a level of mutual trust and co-operation which proved to be lacking. Fundamental issues that had earlier been side-stepped in order to achieve union returned to the fore and began to put the future of the union in jeopardy. Foremost among these was the question of political power in the unified state. Having agreed that power would be shared, the former regimes of north and south now faced the challenge of making it work in practice. Spurred on by the prospect of elections within a few months, however, parties, factions and individuals competed to maximise their influence while the system was still in flux. This impeded the integration process, with the result that disputes – far from being resolved through the new democratic mechanisms – grew ever more intractable and ultimately made decision-taking impossible. The power-sharing government, insofar as it was capable of acting at all, blew with the wind, not out of pragmatism but out of weakness.

Although the first few weeks after unification were marked by public elation and the sense of a new beginning, there were already signs of tension beneath the surface. The rapid progress in the final discussions leading up to unification had been popularly attributed to a personal rapport between Ali Abdullah Salih and Ali Salim al-Baid, but the relationship was never as warm as officially portrayed at the time. Al-Baid appears to have been charmed or flattered by Salih to the extent that some of his Socialist colleagues later claimed he had been duped.

In retrospect, the government-produced posters displayed on the sides of buildings, in shops and cafes, which carried the message of unity to the Yemeni people, revealed more than their creators intended. Side by side, the identically-sized (but separate) portraits of “the two Alis” were meant to convey the idea of an equal partnership. Al-Baid’s photograph showed him relaxed and smiling, his long black hair flopping across his forehead. Salih had a more formal – almost military – pose, looking solemn, perhaps even stern, but definitely presidential. Strangely, though, there was nothing in the posters to symbolise unity: why, for instance, did the two men appear in separate pictures? Had it not occurred to anyone to photograph them together, perhaps even shaking hands? In fact, there were relatively few published photographs showing them together, and even fewer that suggested any personal chemistry between them. Apart from their political differences, the differing personalities of the two leaders were undoubtedly a significant factor in the deteriorating situation during the first four years after unification.

Ali Abdullah Salih was born in 1942 [1] into the Sanhan tribe (a minor part of the important Hashid tribal grouping). His family lived in Bayt al-Ahmar, an agricultural town not far from Sana’a, and his formal education did not extend beyond the local primary school. In 1958, at the age of 16, he joined the army and rose steadily through the ranks as a protégé of Colonel Ahmad Husayn al-Ghashmi (who later became chief of staff and eventually – for a brief period – president of the republic).

In 1974, al-Ghashmi – assisted by Salih – played a key role in the coup that brought Ibrahim al-Hamdi to power and after the coup Salih became a brigade commander as well as military governor of Ta’izz province. Hamdi was assassinated in 1977 and al-Ghashmi suceeded him as president, only to be assassinated himself just eight months later. Al-Ghashmi’s death led to the formation of a four-man presidential council, from which Salih rapidly emerged as leader. On July 17, 1978, he was elected president by the People’s Constituent Assembly, with 76 of its 96 members voting in his favour.

Initially, his position was extremely precarious and his chances of long-term survival looked slim. His political base was even narrower than that of his predecessors, since he had little support outside the army and the army itself was divided. However, during the first few years in power he worked carefully to secure the broadest possible support and to acquire political legitimacy – first through the National Charter, which he described as a guide to national life to which all republican elements could subscribe, and later through popular participation in the General People’s Congress.

What he lacked in education he made up for with his shrewd handling of people, gradually building a consensus which, besides the military, embraced businessmen and technocrats along with tribal and religious leaders, and had no particular ideology beyond republicanism and nationalism.

He was not averse to compromise and, unlike some Arab leaders – such as Saddam Hussein – he tended to listen to advice from his closest aides. Much of the consensus-building was achieved through rewards or mere cajoling: his style, far from being presidentially aloof, could be almost matey at times. This common touch was reflected in the way he was often referred to – as “the brother president”. In contrast to the giant statues that became a familiar feature of Saddam’s Iraq and Asad’s Syria, there has never been much of a cult of the presidential persona in Yemen. Although Salih’s photograph hangs in most shops and public buildings, his face does not appear on the currency and his palace, by the standards of Arab rulers, is not particularly ostentatious.

Besides the rewards and cajoling, though, Salih had a sharp eye for detecting and exploiting other people’s weaknesses. When he threatened, it could be chilling but also often rather subtle. Abd al-Aziz al-Saqqaf, publisher of the Yemen Times, once recalled a private meeting where Salih had said he would like to start his own English-language newspaper. Saqqaf, probably correctly, interpreted this as a warning that his paper would be driven out of business if it caused too much trouble.

The secret of political survival in a country like Yemen is to have plenty of allies and never make too many enemies – and Salih understood that. His opponents would be cast out into the wilderness, but it was rarely irrevocable and after a suitable period they would usually be offered a chance of rehabilitation. This even happened with the ostracised secessionist leaders from the 1994 war: Salih continued talking to them privately on the phone while publicly accusing them of treason.

The southern leader, Ali Salim al-Baid, was a far more enigmatic character than Salih, and less sure-footed politically. A year or two younger than the northern president, with deep-set eyes and long hair flopping over his forehead, he hailed from Hadramaut province in the eastern part of the PDRY. His background was in politics rather than the military and, as was the way with southern politics, he had spent periods in and out of favour. One notable occasion came in 1981 when he was dismissed from Central Committee for bigamously marrying a member of the Supreme People’s Council. Apparently this was frowned upon because it linked him with “backward” Islamic ways when he should have been setting an example of secular socialist modernity. Al-Baid’s basic problem, though, in the aftermath of unification, was that he was no match for Salih. He lacked Salih’s staying power and persistence, and – as events soon showed – his frequent response in the face of an impasse was to become sulky and withdrawn.

One of the first serious disputes came less than a month after unification when the northern military rejected the socialist defence minister’s plan for merging the two armies. Another quarrel arose over the arrival of 164 pieces of weaponry (including tanks) which had been ordered by the former PDRY. Al-Baid insisted they should be delivered to Aden.

Even at this early stage, the situation might have developed into a full-blown crisis had it not been for the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990. The resulting social and economic upheaval, caused by the forced return of Yemeni workers from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, forced the GPC and YSP to set aside their differences temporarily. In the words of one northern leader, “the Gulf war created about one year of cohesion”.

During 1991 and early 1992, amid an atmosphere of limited co-operation, a number of basic laws were approved by parliament [2]. Among the most important of these were:

  • Law of Yemeni Nationality, August 1990

  • Law to Establish the National Defence Council, November 1990

  • Law on Press and Publications, December 1990

  • Law on Judicial Powers, January 1991

  • Investment Law, April 1991

  • Law on Police Duties and Powers, April 1991

  • Law on Parties and Political Organisations, October 1991

  • General Elections Law, May 1992

In addition, in April 1991, a number of other laws were introduced by presidential decree, covering:

  • City Administration and Procedures

  • Tasks, Rights and Duties of the Lawyers’ Union

  • Organisation of Chartered Accountants, Company Licences and Account Books

  • Practice of Health Professions

  • Pensions and Gratuities for Members of the Armed Forces and Security Services

  • Organisation of Agencies, Branch Offices and Housing for Foreign Companies

  • Control of Foodstuffs

  • The Central Organisation for Supervision and Accounting

Although the new laws approved by parliament dealt with some of the most pressing constitutional issues, they did little to improve the economic and administrative integration of the two former states beyond what had already been agreed by the time of unification in May 1990. In particular, Yemen continued to have two interchangeable currencies and the thorny problem of the two armies remained unresolved. Despite agreements in principle on transport before unification, the two national airlines (Yemenia and Alyemda) continued to operate separately [3].

Limited co-operation eventually broke down in the face of a series of politically-motivated bombings and shootings which began in mid-1992. This prompted the vice-president to leave Sana’a and remain in the south, from where he issued a list of demands as conditions for his return.

A brief reconciliation came early in November 1992 when the two Alis met in Hodeida on the Tihama coast and drove back to Sana’a together. It is doubtful whether either leader expected this to bring a genuine improvement in their relations. The content of their discussions was not made public but it is likely that both recognised a mutual need: the failure to hold elections within the agreed 30 months had brought all parties to the brink of a constitutional abyss, and whatever other differences the two ruling parties had, both were in need of the legitimacy that elections would bring. Immediately after al-Baid’s return a new date was set for the elections, extending the transitional period by six months and initiating a period of tactical co-operation (but little else) which lasted until shortly after polling day in April 1993.

Despite occasional hopeful signs such as the November reconciliation, the transitional period was marked by a steadily deteriorating relationship between the GPC and YSP, leading to a stand-off. The level of trust had never been great and the more they came to know of each other the more the suspicions grew. Both sought to conserve their own power in the face of perceived threats from the other side and, if possible, to extend it at the other’s expense. Personalities apart, the factors that brought about this deterioration fall into five broad categories: the perceived threats to each of the two ruling parties, cultural and religious differences, the worsening security situation, and the impasse on the question of military integration.

Perceived threats to the GPC

THROUGHOUT the transitional period the GPC was the strongest political party in Yemen, though without political supremacy. While the newly-formed Islah party began to challenge its northern power base, it also began to fear and distrust its partner in government – the YSP – not least because the YSP still controlled an army. Reputedly, the party also had a formidable grass-roots organisation of a kind which the GPC had never possessed, and this led to a belief that the YSP was able to organise strikes and street demonstrations almost at will. This reputation was probably exaggerated, though there were indeed numerous strikes during the transitional period, and occasional outbreaks of rioting. The most serious of these hit five northern cities in December 1992 and lasted for several days, causing particularly extensive damage in Ta’izz. The fact that the riots occurred only in the north suggested they had been inspired by the YSP. GPC leaders suggested they had been intended to provoke a repressive response which would trigger the fall of President Salih or lead to a YSP coup d’étât. Whether this was correct or not, there is no doubt that it caused the GPC great alarm and seriously damaged its relations with the YSP.

Northern leaders pointed out, rather bitterly, that they had “gone the extra mile” to accommodate the YSP (by giving it a 50-50 share in government, for example, despite the south’s much smaller population) – only to be met with a churlish response. Often, the YSP’s behaviour appeared deliberately provocative, even when it made reasonable demands for modernisation and reform. For example, the YSP’s attacks on the political patronage that pervaded most areas of northern public life were interpreted as a challenge to the foundations of the northern system and the individuals who benefited from it. Political patronage had helped to keep President Salih in power and was certainly a barrier to democracy, but it had also given the north a decade of relative stability and had achieved this through favours rather than fear: the degree of state repression had been less than in many other Arab countries during the same period.

Perceived threats to the YSP

IF THE THREATS perceived by the GPC were alarming, they were at least relatively manageable. Those perceived by the YSP were far more serious, casting doubt on the party’s long-term future:

(i) The electoral system:
Democracy, based as it is upon the will of the majority, placed the south and the YSP at an electoral disadvantage. After unification the south became a minority – in fact, quite a small one, since the southern population accounted for less than 20% of Yemen’s total. The new constitution specified that the 301 constituencies should have an equal number of electors, give or take 5% – which meant that in an elected parliament only 66 seats would be in the south. The YSP therefore seemed doomed to becoming a permanent minority party. Initially it tried to prevent this by campaigning in the north and seeking allies among the independents and smaller northern parties, as well as some of the tribes, but it made little headway [4]

(ii) The rise of Islah:
Regardless of the pluralist rhetoric, the unified state had been conceived as a bi-polar system centred on the GPC and YSP, in which other parties were expected to play a minor role. The rise of a third major party – Islah – overturned that. Islah was anathema to the secularist, modernising elements of the YSP, while some also doubted its commitment to democracy. But the problem was not simply that Islah and the YSP were natural opponents; parts of Islah were politically close to the GPC, and through its leader, Shaykh Abdullah al-Ahmar, Islah had tribal links with the president. As far as the YSP was concerned, Islah became a rival contender for the president’s attention. At the same time, the fact that it stood at the opposite end of the political spectrum to the YSP allowed the president to control the centre ground, balancing the two other parties against each other.

(iii) Absorption by the GPC:
The YSP’s bleak electoral prospects suggested to some that it should take shelter under the wing of the GPC. Three options were examined: co-ordination, alliance and merger [5]. As far as the survival of the YSP was concerned, the best solution was some form of electoral co-operation which would allow it to maximise its strength in the new parliament, but at minimal cost to its political independence. This was a hazardous strategy, though: too little co-operation and the YSP would fail to reap the benefits; too much, and it would be well on the way to becoming subsumed in the GPC.

Cultural/religious differences

THE ELECTORAL THREAT to the YSP was compounded after unification by challenges to those among the party’s modernisers who had hoped to spread their own brand of “enlightenment” to the north. Instead, they soon found themselves in full retreat as northern practices spread south. The YSP leadership, because of its earlier Marxism, had always been ambivalent in its attitude to Islam. Officially, religion in the PDRY had been a personal matter and no concern of the state. The party had tended to encourage secularism, at least outwardly. Some of the women made a point of not wearing the Islamic head-covering, or hijab. On the other hand, Ali Salim al-Baid was a polygamist – though much criticised for it in some quarters. One of the most important socialists in the north, Jarallah ’Umar, had studied religion at al-Azhar university in Egypt and made a speciality of arguing the case for socialism in Islamic terms. In reality, the secularism of the YSP was superficial and the secularisation of the south had never spread much beyond Aden. The same could be said of the YSP’s attitude to tribalism. Although it had made formal attempts to de-tribalise the south, tribalism was never eradicated: even within the YSP itself, some of the factions were tribal in origin. Nor was the party averse to seeking tactical alliances with northern tribes in the run-up to the 1994 war. Tribalism began to re-emerge in the south after unification with the return of exiles driven out by Marxism – a process that accelerated after the YSP’s defeat in 1994. To some extent, then, the issues of Islam, tribalism and other aspects of northern culture which began to affect the south after unification were less dramatic than the YSP’s rhetoric suggested. Some of the changes were little more than symbolic, reflecting a good deal of posturing on both sides. But among them there were also issues of real importance:

(i) The role of Islamic law:
The need for a referendum on the new constitution created a focus for opposition by those who considered the document too secular. On April 22, 1991, the Presidential Council met to discuss the controversy and issued a statement “to clarify any misunderstanding” [6]. This attempted to defuse opposition by pointing out that the new constitution was already fully in force, “based on the ratification of the People’s Council and the Consultative Council [the former southern and northern parliaments], and based on the Unity Declaration and as necessitated by the supreme interests of Yemen.” In other words, the referendum was advisory rather than binding and, whatever the outcome, would change nothing directly. Those who wished to comment on any aspect of the constitution were invited to do so on special forms, available at polling stations, which would later be presented to parliament. In response to the specific issue of Islamic law, the Presidential Council’s statement said:

The Sharia is the basis and source of all legislation in the Republic of Yemen. Therefore:

a) No legislation may be enacted that contradicts the Qur'an and the Sunnah.

b) Any legislation that is in contradiction with the Sharia is null and void.

c) Approval of the constitution [by the referendum] means that any laws enacted in the former North and South Yemen may not be enforced if they contradict the constitution and its spirit, or if they constrain the freedom and rights of the people as stipulated in the constitution. [7]

This was substantially more than a “clarification” of the existing position. The distinction between Sharia as “the main source of legislation” or “the source of all legislation” is a crucial one in Muslim countries. Yemen’s new constitution specifically stipulated the former [8] and the Presidential Council appeared to have changed it to the latter. Strictly, that required a constitutional amendment – unlikely ever to be approved because of Socialist opposition and the need for a 75% majority in parliament. Meanwhile, the lack of a formal amendment left Islamists unsatisfied. Finally, the level of legal confusion was heightened by item (c) in the statement above which cast doubt on the validity of a wide range of laws in both parts of the country.

Three days before the referendum Islah and other opposition groups, including the southern-based League of the Sons of Yemen, held a large demonstration in Sana’a. An estimated 20,000 people marched through the streets and assembled in Saba’in Square, the largest open space in the centre of the capital:

They chanted Islamic fundamentalist slogans condemning united Yemen’s first constitution as secular and socialist. They also displayed copies of the Qur’an and banners demanding the supremacy of Sharia and denouncing price increases for basic goods … Shaykh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, one of the leaders of the Yemeni fundamentalist movement, read a statement on behalf of the demonstrators in which he noted the authorities’ continuing disregard for the demand of Yemen’s scholars, tribal leaders and many politicians and jurists to amend the constitution to bring it into line with the book of God and His Noble Prophet. The statement outlined the demonstrators’ demands, chief among which is their call that the draft constitution be amended before the referendum is held … [9]

A delegation of scholars, shaykhs and party representatives then went to the presidential building to present their demands [10]. The president met them but merely reiterated the statement issued by the Presidential Council in April.

Voting in the referendum was spread over two days, May 15 and 16, with the following result:

Spoiled papers


This amounted to 98.3% approval of the new constitution, although substantial numbers stayed away from the polls, either as a protest or because they saw little point in voting. Almost 28% of those who had earlier registered to vote did not do so, and there were large regional variations [see table below]. The highest turnouts of voters occurred in the six southern provinces, where an average of 84.3% of those registered to vote did so, compared with only 60.8% in the northern provinces. Given the huge disparity in population between north and south, the actual numbers of votes cast in both parts were surprisingly close: 635,000 in the south and 729,000 in the north. Expressed in terms of population, this meant that southerners were about three times more likely to vote than their northern counterparts. The total vote in the referendum was considerably lower than that in the parliamentary elections of 1993 where 2,232,573 people voted.

Voting in the constitutional referendum

Total votescast

% of those registered who voted

Southern provinces
Northern provinces


TOTAL 1,364,788 72.2

Source: Yemen Times

Thus, although the new constitution was approved by a huge majority, the outcome of the referendum was unsatisfactory: the constitution remained intact, but the presidential council had been forced to reinterpret it without formally amending it, thereby failing to please either the secularists or the Islamists. Meanwhile, the religious opposition had succeeded in demonstrating its potential as a strong political force.

(ii) The education law:
This was one of the few areas where the YSP gained some ground – though only because the GPC decided to support it against Islah. Parliament voted to withdraw funding from the northern religious schools which had been set up with government backing almost a decade earlier. The schools, in which some 500,000 pupils were enrolled, had been intended originally to counter leftist influence but had since come to be regarded as propagating Islamist ideas [11]. The YSP’s success in the parliamentary vote was achieved partly through concessions elsewhere, for example by allowing the marriage law and the law of evidence in court to be changed according to Islamic principles [12]. However, this turned out to be a hollow victory in practice because the religious schools continued to operate.

(iii) The family law:
Before unification, the PDRY had a family law designed to ensure equality of treatment for women in marriage. It forbade marriages arranged by the parents of a bride. There were age limits, too: the bride had to be at least 16 years old, the groom at least 18, and not more than 20 years older than the bride. The same law also limited the size of dowries and restricted polygamy. A husband had no right to divorce his wife by simple repudiation, and the grounds for divorce were equal for both sexes. Divorced mothers had the right to custody of their children (boys up to 10 years and girls up to 15). In May 1992 the presidential council issued the Personal Status Law (Republican Decree No 20) which removed a woman’s right to sue for divorce in the former PDRY unless she could prove that her husband was abusive. It also removed the restrictions on polygamy and the ceiling on dowries. The change, and the way it was enacted without prior approval by parliament, provoked strong hostility in Aden. One group of southern jurists questioned its constitutionality and refused to implement it [13]. An American team who interviewed women in the south found that almost all regarded it as a backward step [14].

(iv) The Aden brewery:
Controversy over the Seera brewery in Aden was one of the more symbolic issues. As the only legal producer of alcohol in the entire Arabian peninsula, it became an obvious target for the Islamists. Various plans were put forward to convert it to production of soft drinks or vinegar, or – as a compromise – to close it each year during the holy month of Ramadan. This provoked a backlash in Aden, where the brewery (one of the few profitable industries in the city) became something of a cause célèbre. It was eventually destroyed by Islamists in the aftermath of the 1994 war.

The security situation

BEGINNING in 1992, Yemen experienced a wave of bombings and political killings directed mainly, though by not exclusively, against the Socialist party. According to the YSP, which claimed that 150 of its members were killed during the first four years after unification, this was a crucial factor leading to the breakdown of relations with the GPC and, ultimately, to war. Security – or the lack of it – became the prime issue in YSP’s the election manifesto and in all its lists of demands for reform between 1992 and 1994. The YSP made considerable political capital out of the attacks – in the early stages by implicating associates of the president in the violence, or at least blaming the president and his party for failing to stop it – and later by claiming that Yemen was an “exporter” of terrorism.

Clearly the YSP had good reason to be concerned for its members’ safety, though before unification the YSP itself had scarcely been a model of nonviolence – as illustrated by the 1986 bloodbath and the fact that the PDRY had been designated by the USA as one of the states supporting international terrorism. Its post-unification grievances about the lack of security were certainly genuine but also tinged with opportunism. At a political level, the violent attacks fuelled the YSP’s dispute with the GPC about control of the security apparatus (including the politicisation of its leadership) and the plan to merge the northern and southern armies.

The violence of the transitional period also had a historical and social context. Political killings had been a feature of life in both parts of Yemen over many years. The northern ruler, Imam Yahya had been assassinated in 1948, as had Lt-Col Ibrahim al-Hamdi (head of the ruling junta) in 1977, President al-Ghashmi in 1978 and ex-President Ismail in 1986. President Salih had also had at least one narrow escape from assassination. In the south, thousands had died during the political conflict of 1986.

At a more general level, in the north especially, the protection of individuals had historically been regarded as a matter for families and tribes rather than the state. This was reflected in the traditional Yemeni architecture, where each house is constructed as a mini-fortress: the ground floor has one small entrance and no windows; upper floors are reached by a narrow staircase which always winds to the right as one goes up and gives defending swordsmen an advantage over intruders (assuming both are right-handed). Even in the 1990s, important or wealthy figures would routinely employ armed guards stationed at the gate of their home or to accompany them on journeys. The degree of protection varied according to the scale of the assumed threat and also the individual’s need to display status. In the case of an important shaykh, this could extend to maintaining a private militia, supplemented by reserves from the tribe when needed. At that level it was no longer just a matter a personal protection: within their own territory, tribes often assumed a law-and-order role that in other countries would be handled by the state. Abdullah al-Ahmar, leader of the Islah party and paramount chief of the Hashid tribal grouping, also maintained his own private jail where offending tribal members were sometimes imprisoned.

Even today, much of Yemen – especially the rural north – is lawless in the sense that it still conducts its affairs beyond the purview of the state and its legislation. That does not mean, however, that behaviour in these areas is unregulated; people are expected to meet the standards set by customary tribal law (‘urf) and Islam but the state tends to keep interference to a minimum, having learned from painful experience that intervention brings risks.

The tradition of self-reliance in matters of personal protection has led to what might be termed a “weapons culture” which ranged from purely symbolic display to deterrence and occasional use. At the more decorative end of the scale, the jambiyya is a curved knife worn by Yemeni men, mainly in the north, and held in place with a broad, brightly-coloured belt. The knife handles are often elaborately worked, sometimes inlaid with jewels or precious metals. While the cheapest cost a only few pounds, there is no upper limit: jambiyyas owned by the president and important shaykhs are reputedly worth millions of riyals. Nowadays they are primarily an ornament, a sign of social status and of manhood (worn at the front in a position that has obvious sexual symbolism). Nevertheless, the jambiyya is also a functioning weapon; blades are kept sharp – as can be seen at the street-side stalls set up for this purpose. Although rarely drawn, the jambiyya is a clear indication that a man is capable of protecting his family and will do so if necessary. Injuries do occur, though the most common knife injuries, according to one Yemeni doctor, are stomach wounds inflicted by wives who have seized their husband’s knife during a domestic argument. Further up the scale of weapons is the pistol or kalashnikov carried by those whose families are involved in blood feuds, or for general protection when travelling through remote or unfamiliar places [15]. Possession of a firearm brings an obvious need for practice, as well as the temptation to try it out or play with it. It would not be considered abnormal to drive out to a quiet wadi and while away the afternoon shooting at rocks and tin cans. By tradition, guns are also fired into the air at Yemeni weddings. Needless to say, accidental deaths are common.

According to the Interior Ministry in 1994, there were about 50 million privately-owned firearms in Yemen – rather more than three per person [16]. Even if that figure was only an educated guess, it was apparent from the most cursory observation that there are plenty of weapons. Apart from those carried routinely, wealthy households often had their own well-stocked armoury, and at a famous market outside Sana’a citizens with enough money could purchase anything up to a rocket launcher or an armoured car. In principle, many Yemenis recognised the desirability of controlling weapons but there was no consensus as to how that might be achieved. A few half-hearted attempts to ban guns from the cities made little difference; any serious attempt to disarm the Yemeni populace would have been met with fierce resistance from some quarters.

The inadequacy of law enforcement was due partly to the lack of means and partly to a lack of inclination. Yemen had rather less than one police station for every 100,000 people, compared with a station for every 20,000 on average elsewhere in the world [17]. As in many poor countries, the police were badly paid and thus less resistant to bribery: non-implementation of the law provided an easy way for individual officers to supplement their income.

The relative ineffectiveness of the police had three notable effects. One was the comparative difficulty of making arrests, particularly in the more serious cases where the police (or, indeed, the army) found themselves outnumbered and out-gunned. The number of reported battles with the police suggests that resisting arrest in Yemen was by no means futile. The second effect was that the military tended to become involved at the first sign of serious trouble and, if not handled carefully, that could make a bad situation worse rather than better. The third effect, which stemmed partly from the first, was that the law tended not to be enforced where there was substantial resistance to it. In some cases the law was viewed as an unjustified interference with people’s right to carry on traditional activities (such as smuggling), while those with a high opinion of their own status often felt the law need not apply to them. While this kind of attitude was mostly associated with northern Yemen, it was well illustrated by an example from the south in July 1993 when, at the instigation of the socialist prime minister, the police attempted to clamp down on car smuggling in al-Ghaydah, a one-street town near the border with Oman. Since smuggling was the mainstay of the local economy, the outcome – predictably – was a riot which left one person dead and scores injured [18]. In another incident, in February 1993, a member of parliament, Sultan al-Sami’, was stopped at a checkpoint outside Ta’izz. When asked to produce a permit for his 18-man armed escort, he replied that he had left it at home. Two military policemen joined the convoy to fetch the permit from his house, but when they arrived there, the MP’s bodyguards shot them dead. By the time reinforcements were called, the MP and his guards had disappeared [19]. In the north, before and after unification, cases against men of substance were rarely, if ever, brought to trial: a “traditional” solution would be found, with compensation paid to the victims.

Hostage-taking had long been feature of tribal relations with the government in northern Yemen, usually in connection with specific demands or grievances. Foreigners were considered a particularly valuable target because their capture invariably subjected the government to diplomatic pressures from abroad, as well as discouraging foreign investment. The growing community of expatriate workers in Yemen – especially as a result of oil discoveries – meant that potential victims were increasingly available. In 1993 and 1994 an unusually large number of foreigners were taken hsotage, though all were released unharmed, usually after protracted negotiations.

Inter-tribal conflicts and blood feuds were other long-standing aspects of Yemeni life. While usually of little political consequence they created a demand for weapons which in turn made other forms of violence more likely.

At the time of unification, however, both parts of Yemen were relatively free from the types of crime familiar in the west but it is widely accepted that crime began to increase after 1990 as a result of social and economic upheavals [20]. One factor was the introduction of the free market in the south which brought high inflation and many of the other problems familiar in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Another was the forced repatriation of hundreds of thousands of guest workers from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states as a reprisal for Yemen’s stance on the war with Iraq. This had obvious consequences for unemployment levels but also, because the Saudis used the opportunity to rid themselves of their own social problems, the people sent over the border included some criminal elements, drug-takers, etc, who did not necessarily have Yemeni connections. The difficulties this caused were compounded shortly afterwards by a huge influx of refugees from the civil war across the straits in Somalia. Although these issues had little direct bearing on relations between the YSP and GPC, they did help to fuel YSP arguments about lawless ways of the north, the “backwardness” of the tribes, and the government’s inability to control them.

WITH THAT background in mind, the political aspects of Yemen’s security problems between 1990 and 1994 can be considered in two broad categories: attacks on people and property, and the “export” of terrorism.

(i) Political attacks on people and property:
The YSP suspected that many of the attacks on its members were instigated by people close to the president or at least carried out with their connivance. The suggested motive was either to frighten the party into compliance with the GPC’s wishes or to debilitate it by eliminating party figures who were popular or influential at a local level. The case most frequently cited is the killing of Col Majid Murshid Said, a member of the YSP central committee and adviser to the minister of defence, who was shot dead in Sana’a in June 1992. Witnesses described it as a deliberate assassination by “men in uniform”. In another incident towards the end of 1993, three northern members of the military police were arrested by the YSP-controlled Aden police, accused of firing at the home of the vice-president’s son, which was opposite their barracks.

Apart from these two instances, there was generally little firm evidence of a connection with the president’s men, and in some cases the evidence pointed in a different direction. Between August 1992 and March 1993 a series of bombings targeted the homes of leading politicians and other buildings. These included two separate attacks on the home of the parliamentary speaker (a socialist), but also on the homes of three GPC politicians and one of the president’s brothers who was head of Central Security (the organisation most frequently blamed by the YSP for attacks on its members). There were also explosions at two hotels in Aden, near the GPC headquarters in Sana’a, and outside the American and British embassies.

President Salih usually attributed the attacks to “enemies of unity” – a phrase which covered a multitude of possibilities but probably included Islamic radicals who opposed the relatively secular influence that the YSP had brought to the north or who sought to stamp out “un-Islamic” practices in the south. “Enemies of unity” could also be read as a veiled reference to Saudi Arabia: in one case where suspects were arrested, it was claimed that a large amount of “non-Yemeni riyals” had been found in their possession (implying that they were funded by the Saudis).

Another theory related some of the killings of YSP members to internal party quarrels. The suggestion stems mainly from the way the party had conducted its affairs in the past. During the 1986 conflict in the south, an estimated 30,000 supporters of Ali Nasser Muhammad had taken refuge in the north; unification brought many of them came into contact with their erstwhile enemies in the YSP. Although there is scant evidence either way, attempts to settle old scores might help to explain the relatively large number of low-ranking party workers who were assassinated. During the period of Marxist rule in the south the YSP had also made numerous enemies outside the party; some had lost land or businesses through nationalisation while others had gone abroad for political reasons. Again, those who had gone into exile abroad or who had moved to the north came into contact with the YSP for the first time in many years.

The climate of suspicion engendered by these attaks was heightened by their diffuse nature: nobody claimed responsibility and it was often unclear why certain victims had been singled out. In some cases it was not even clear whether the attack was politically motivated or the result of some private quarrel. A number of the attacks bore a resemblance to each other, which suggested they were the work of the same hands, though it was also doubtful that any single group or organisation was responsible for them all.

Increasingly, though, fingers pointed towards the shadowy Jihad organisation which included both Islamist elements and southern Yemenis who harboured grievances against the YSP. The Jihad organisation also had international connections through the “Arab Afghans” – Muslims of various nationalities who had fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The Soviet withdrawal (completed in 1989) left many of these volunteer fighters at a loose end but still filled with a spirit of jihad which often made them unwelcome when they tried to return to their home countries. An unknown number of them had ended up in Yemen. In some ways they were like the American veterans after Vietnam – deprived of adrenaline and unable to adjust to a quiet life. But unlike the Vietnam veterans, their efforts had not been futile. They had defeated a superpower and were flushed with success. Many told of narrow escapes from death which led them to believe that God had preserved them for a purpose [21]. Little was known about Jihad at the time, and initially it was thought to have been responsible for no more than a handful of attacks, most notable among them the Aden hotel bombings of 1992. Since the 1994 war, however, some government sources have gone so far as to blame Jihad for most attacks during the transitional period. It is still unclear whether the jihadists were acting independently or, as is often alleged, with some measure of connivance from the northern security apparatus.

Two key figures have been named in connection with jihadist activity in Yemen during this period. The first is ’Usama bin Laden who – in the years before al-Qa’ida achieved international notoriety – allegedly provided funds and whose extradition from Sudan was unsuccessfully sought by Yemen in 1993. Southern Yemen was the ancestral home of the bin Laden family; a few of them had emigrated in the early years of the twentieth century to Saudi Arabia, where they prospered and were joined by the rest of the family following the British withdrawal from Aden in 1967 and the Marxist take-over.

During the Afghan war of the late 1980s, ’Usama bin Laden – in common with many other Saudi businessmen – saw a religious duty to support the Islamic rebels financially against Moscow’s puppet regime. He could afford to be more generous than most, and he also became more deeply involved than most. Not only did he pay for weapons and what, by his own account, were thousands of Muslim volunteers from the Middle East and North Africa to join the mujahideen, he went there himself and took part in the fighting. Using the resources of his construction business, he blasted new guerrilla trails across the mountains and tunnelled into the rock to create underground hospitals and arms dumps. Meanwhile bin Laden’s relations with the Saudi authorities had become strained and in 1989 they confiscated his passport. When it was returned two years later he moved to Sudan where he founded the Bin Laden Company of Khartoum, specialising in construction and the export of sesame seeds. He was also joined by many veterans of the Afghan war.

In addition to his alleged funding of jihadists in Yemen, there is also some evidence that bin Laden sought to establish influence in the wake of unification, through his own system of patronage. One (southern) Yemeni described how a relative living in Saudi Arabia had been approached by bin Laden and offered a substantial sum of money, together with a car, if he would return to Yemen and live there “as a good Muslim”.

The second important figure – though a very different character – was Tariq Bin Nasir Bin Abdullah al-Fadli, a shaykh from a prominent southern Yemeni family. Before the Marxist take-over they controlled one of the big cotton plantations outside Aden, and a huge share of all southern exports passed through the family’s businesses. Perhaps more importantly still, they also controlled the water supply. Very soon after the establishment of Marxist rule the Fadlis had moved to Saudi Arabia [22]. Following unification, however, Tariq al-Fadli (an heir of the sultan who had been deposed from Abyan a quarter of a century earlier) returned to Yemen to claim his inheritance.

Shaykh Tariq gathered around himself a number of Afghan war veterans, together with members of his own tribe and religious opponents of the YSP. He was said, at one point, to be seeking 12,000 “heroes” to help him “save Muslims in Bosnia, wage war on the authorities and bring down the regime which he considered outside Islam, intimate with unbelievers.” [23] Whatever the motives of his helpers and backers, the religious aspects of Fadli’s campaign were probably less important than his desire to take revenge on those who had dispossessed his family and obtain restitution of their property [24].

In the aftermath of the Aden hotel bombings at the end of 1992, hundreds of people were arrested and several caches of weapons discovered. (The southern authorities, who were still controlled by the YSP, were generally more vigorous in their response to terrorism than their northern counterparts – though often no more successful in catching the culprits.) [25] The trail pointed to a group of “Afghans” led by Shaykh Tariq, who were eventually besieged at his home in the Maraqasha mountains, 20 km from the coast of Abyan. Despite sending their Third Armoured Brigade to arrest the shaykh, southern authorities found themselves powerless to act. A military spokesman explained: “The forces could not reach the shaykh’s stronghold which is protected by a large guard in a village in a chain of rugged mountains. We don’t want to use warplanes because that could injure the citizens in villages which are geographically integral with the shaykh’s stronghold.” [26] The authorities then had to content themselves with sealing off all possible escape routes and urging the Maraqasha tribe to withdraw its confidence from the shaykh.

By this stage Fadli was presenting himself as a supporter of the Islah party and a victim of southern intrigue. He appealed directly to Shaykh Abdullah al-Ahmar for a guarantee of safe conduct to Sana’a. The Islah leader responded initially with a sharp rebuff, saying in a letter to Fadli: “We do not protect criminals,” [27] though in fact the appeal placed him in a dilemma. The affairs of Abyan were outside Shaykh Abdullah’s tribal purview and the Fadli affair was not strictly a tribal matter. On the other hand, it might be politically unwise for Islah to refuse to deal with an important local opponent of the YSP. By one means or another, however, Fadli did escape the siege and arrived at Shaykh Abdullah’s house in Sana’a, accompanied by a delegation of tribal leaders from Abyan and guarded by a northern army unit, with an appointment to meet the president next day [28]. The official account told a different story: that Fadli had peacefully surrendered to the authorities and had been reported to the public prosecutor for questioning in connection with the attempted assassination of Ali Salih Abbad Muqbil (a member of the YSP and secretary of the party’s organisation in Abyan), plus various bombings in Aden [29]. In fact, Fadli was never imprisoned, though he spent some time at Shaykh Abdullah’s house. During the war of 1994 he fought on the president’s side and later emerged as the leading shaykh of the south. He appeared by then to have severed all links with Jihad and urged his erstwhile followers to get regular jobs and work within the system. A post-war interview about his political allegiance went as follows:

Q. Are you thinking of joining one of the parties?

A. I feel close to the two biggest parties in the country, the GPC and Islah, and I think they’re both good.

Q. But which one will you join?

A. (smiling) There’s no difference. Either of them. Both of them are fine, God willing. [30]

The Fadli affair is interesting because it brings into focus the differing approaches of the YSP and the northern parties. It can easily be interpreted (as indeed it was by the YSP) as evidence of northern collusion with terrorists, of aiding and abetting criminals to escape, but in post-unification Yemen it was not entirely realistic to imagine that a prominent local figure could be arrested without the risk of bloodshed or put on trial without serious consequences for public order. In the circumstances, removing Fadli to Sana’a was a traditional remedy which treated him not as a terrorist or criminal but as a tribal leader in dispute with another “tribe” (in this case, the YSP). It eliminated him as a cause of trouble in the south, drove a wedge between his tribe and the religious extremists, and ultimately turned him into an ally of the president.

Despite the religious connotations of the name “Jihad”, it is still unclear what the organisation’s primary was aim or, indeed, whether it had one. At one level Jihad could be regarded as part of a world-wide Islamist struggle with a marked anti-Soviet emphasis which found its Yemeni parallel in waging war on the YSP. But, as far as some of its supporters were concerned, that merely provided a cloak for what were essentially parochial interests and personal grievances. Any or all of its diverse elements may well have considered themselves the “real” Jihad, each trying to make use of the others through a tactical alliance. The confusion of purposes is nowhere more striking than in the case of the Aden hotel bombings, which were assumed to be connected with use of the hotels by the American military during operations in Somalia. That would seem to imply an attack on the spread of western culture and values in Yemen. Some of those involved have been linked to al-Qa’ida but also to a much earlier terrorist campaign in south Yemen which was organised and funded by the CIA with assistance from Britain and Saudi Arabia. That plot, which began in 1979 with the intention of weakening the PDRY government, involved recruiting Yemeni saboteurs. About a dozen of them were captured trying to blow up a bridge, tortured, and later executed [31]. There have been suggestions that the hotel bombings were not so much directed against the United States as against the YSP, partly as a reprisal by relatives of those executed.

(ii) “Export” of terrorism:
The easy availability of weapons and the remoteness of much of the terrain, coupled with the government’s general lack of internal control beyond the cities, made Yemen attractive to terrorist organisations, either as a safe haven or a training ground. The similarities between Yemen and Afghanistan did not escape Abu Hamza al-Masri, a London-based cleric linked to al-Qa’ida, who a few years later allegedly told a young British jihadist: “After Afghanistan, Yemen is the [most] suitable country for training mujahideen.” [32] The use of Yemen as a training ground gave rise to accusations from the YSP that the country was “exporting terrorism”, usually of the militant Islamist variety. However, “exporting” implies a one-way traffic and those in Sana’a who complained that others were importing terrorism into Yemen also had a point. The ideology of the Islamist militants, for instance, had recently been brought to Yemen from Sudan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Aside from Islamist groups, the PLO was formally allowed to train in Yemen and operate with some autonomy, though this was no different from the situation in several other Arab states.

In accusing the Sana’a leadership of conniving with terrorism the YSP probably hoped to win international support for its struggle against the GPC, but in this area the YSP’s own hands were far from clean. Between 1977 and 1979, for example, members of the Red Army Fraction had taken refuge in south Yemen to escape the German authorities and had undergone weapons training there at a Palestinian camp [33]. In addition, Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (“Carlos the Jackal”) travelled frequently between 1978 and 1986 using a South Yemen diplomatic passport [34]. Those examples pre-dated the YSP’s current leadership but in 1993, when the Egyptian authorities complained about seven guerrilla training camps in Yemen, it emerged that five of them were in southern provinces and only two in the north [35].

The military impasse

THE QUESTION of what to do about the armed forces of the former states and their accompanying security apparatus was in theory extremely simple but in practice proved totally intractable. Before unification, the northern and southern leaders had agreed to reorganise their forces into a single army which would protect national sovereignty and constitutional legitimacy, but remain neutral in political disputes. Despite numerous plans for achieving this, each side accused the other of blocking the process. Each was determined to ensure that any reorganisation worked to its own advantage, or at least to the disadvantage of the other. The unwillingness to compromise on this was scarcely surprising, since control of the military was central to supremacy in the new state and nobody was willing to place trust in a remodelled army’s neutrality.

The first step to de-politicising the armed forces, agreed at the time of unification, was to move them away from centres of population, on the grounds that this would help to re-focus them on the task of defending the country and make intervention in civilian affairs more difficult. Some units did leave the cities, especially Aden and Sana’a during preparations for unification, but they returned afterwards during the various crises of the transitional period, thus giving the YSP grounds for claiming that the GPC had reneged on its agreement. Even with the best intentions, it is unlikely that such an agreement could have held for long: the ineffectiveness of the police (discussed above) meant that the military’s role in helping to maintain internal order could not be discarded without putting something in its place. Nevertheless, the withdrawal of troops from the cities remained one of the YSP’s principal demands from the earliest days of unification up to the outbreak of war, and the more the YSP protested about it the more the GPC came to suspect that the YSP wanted to demilitarise the cities so that it could more easily foment trouble there.

The other major quarrel was about how to separate the military from politics. Essentially, that dispute centred on one word: hizbiyya, or partisanship – a point on which the 1991 political parties law (though not enforced) was extremely clear: “Any member of a party or political organisation must ... not belong to the judiciary, police or military forces, or be assigned to the diplomatic corps outside Yemen.” [36] The GPC’s interpretation of the law was that soldiers who belonged to political parties should resign their party membership – which, for all practical purposes meant those in the YSP, because the southern army was far more party-based than that of the north. The YSP, in turn, sought to extend the concept of hizbiyya to cover the president’s means of control over the northern forces, which was based on tribal and kinship affinities rather than party loyalties. Thus while the GPC sought to eliminate party influences from the southern forces, the YSP called for the removal of the president’s relatives and fellow-tribesmen from key military positions in the north.

Even in the unlikely event of an agreement to proceed on that basis, it is difficult to see how de-politicisation and de-tribalisation of the armed forces could have been achieved in the short term. YSP members might give up their party cards but not necessarily their party loyalty, and northern generals could not be expected to resign their membership of the president’s family. An alternative proposal, which the president seemed to favour, was to sidestep the issue entirely by merging the two government parties – thereby bringing the two armies under unified political control.

These, then, were the main factors preventing a merger of the armed forces. In addition there were several lesser disputes. One concerned the question of which army provided the better model for the unified state: the southern army maintained that it had superior organisation and discipline (a claim not borne out by the war in 1994). Inter-party rivalry also led to a race for promotions which resulted, in some cases, in northern tribal men with almost no military knowledge being posted to senior positions [37].

Similar problems arose with attempts to integrate the secret service, or state security apparatus. The two parties agreed a plan in May 1992 and assigned the Interior Minister (GPC) and Defence Minister (YSP) to jointly supervise its implementation. The Interior Minister expressed doubts as to the plan’s practicality and before long it was abandoned, with the YSP again accusing the GPC of breaking agreements. The new organisation had not changed its name as agreed, the YSP said: it was still basically the old northern National Security service and the southerners who joined it had been marginalised. This gave the YSP grounds (or a pretext) to declare that it “had no option” but to revive the secret service of the former PDRY [38].

The vice-president’s withdrawal

AMID THESE growing tensions, vice-president Ali Salim al-Baid absented himself from government business in Sana’a for almost three months. He returned to the south in August 1992 and remained in Mukalla on the coast of Hadramawt, apart from occasional visits to Aden, until early November. At first his absence attracted little attention: sources in the GPC suggested merely that he had gone away to sulk and that to ignore him was the best way to hasten his return. There seems to have been no specific incident that prompted his departure, beyond a general feeling of discontent. Several weeks elapsed before al-Baid made any public attempt to justify his action [39], which suggests he may have left Sana’a without a pre-conceived plan and only later turned his absence into a deliberate tactic. Whatever the original motive, al-Baid’s withdrawal was not sufficient in itself to trigger a response from the GPC; it was only when YSP ministers boycotted a routine cabinet meeting on September 16 that the president’s party began to take the issue seriously [40]. About the same time, the socialist prime minister, Haidar abu-Bakr al-Attas, sent a letter to the presidential council calling for changes in the leadership of the security apparatus and the immediate arrest of “perpetrators of terrorism” (whom he named). The letter warned that unless the arrests were made within 10 days the government would resign [41].

Up to that point virtually all the political attacks in Yemen had been directed against the YSP; however, on September 18 and 20, a series of six explosions targeted the GPC. Al-Baid then changed tactics and issued a new set of demands, this time as a condition for his return to Sana’a:

1. To remove the military camps from the cities in order “to build a state with institutions and provide civilised life for all”.

2. To speed up the merger of the armed forces “at any price”.

3. “To consolidate security and stability, benefiting from the experience of the two previous regimes in this, and form a broad national front and invite the citizens to participate in strengthening security following the government’s failure to do so”.

4. To hold a national conference of all parties and [political] organisations. [42]

President Salih responded next day in a conciliatory tone. Speaking at a meeting of party leaders which included al-Baid’s deputy, Salim Salih Muhammad, he called for the country to be built “in the spirit of a single team”. He said: “The issues will not be confronted and remedied by shirking responsibility and accusing others, but by everyone resisting them and by the constitutional bodies bearing responsibility for them … Perhaps some mistakes occurred during the restructuring of the single Yemeni house but it was an exceptional situation and the price was that we had to push it through to achieve unity.” [43] By that stage the GPC was under considerable pressure because of the approaching 30th anniversary of the (northern) Yemeni revolution on September 26 – a public holiday traditionally marked in Sana’a by a military parade attended by the president and foreign dignitaries [44]. Negotiations for al-Baid’s return gathered pace, with two YSP leaders, prime minister al-Attas and Dr Yasin Said Nu’man, the parliamentary Speaker, apparently acting as mediators. Despite confident predictions of his return by September 26 in the Arab press, al-Baid remained in Aden, where he celebrated the occasion in his own way with a presidential-style speech on world affairs. In Sana’a, the embarrassment of his absence from the parade was highlighted by the presence of posters bearing his photograph [45].

Throughout all this, there were conflicting views as to what al-Baid really hoped to achieve by his absence. One source quoted by the Arab newspaper, al-Hayat, said: “What concerns him first and last is security in Sana’a,” while another in the same article said his absence was “not just tactical and related to his demands, but basically concerned his role in the Presidential Council” [46]. Both explanations were consistent with the idea that al-Baid had absented himself for personal-political rather than party-political reasons – an impression that was reinforced by the way other YSP leaders acted as if mediating between him and the president. All this was probably true up to a point. He was an obvious target for assassination attempts and could conceivably have received death threats (though none were mentioned at this stage), while his position as vice-chairman of the presidential council gave him no real function in the affairs of state.

Questions about security and the presidential council were raised many more times during subsequent months but another issue also loomed: the “transitional period” was due to end in November 1992 with nationwide elections for a new parliament. Preparations for the elections had become stalled in a welter of technicalities and inter-party arguments about constituency boundaries, and it became clear that they would have to be postponed. In the pre-election haggling, the YSP needed to strengthen its hand by taking dramatic action. It also needed to regain the political initiative which had slipped towards Islah, and to maximise its own importance in the eyes of the GPC. Possibly that is what al-Baid’s withdrawal was mainly about. With his demands still unmet, he finally returned to Sana’a in November and the process of organising elections resumed in earnest.