Almost a month after being asked to form a new government, Yemen's prime minister designate, Khaled Bahah, yesterday announced his ministerial line-up. Coinciding with that, the UN security council imposed sanctions on ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh and two military commanders of the Houthi movement. Ahead of the security council's decision there were protests in Yemen by supporters of Saleh and the Houthis against "foreign interference".
Sanctions are unlikely to have much effect on the two Houthis and it remains to be seen whether they will curtail Saleh's troublemaking. Saleh stepped down from the presidency in 2012 after almost 34 years in power but, under a transition plan negotiated by the Gulf Cooperation Council with UN backing, was granted immunity from prosecution and allowed to stay in the country, where he has been causing trouble ever since.
Saleh is now subject to a worldwide travel ban and the freezing (but not seizure) of his assets. The effectiveness of this will largely depend on efforts to identify his assets and in particular how strongly the Yemeni authorities are able to pursue the matter. Yemen, along with all other countries, is now legally required to enforce the sanctions, though in the current chaos its ability to do so is questionable.
A statement from the security council's sanctions committee set out the reasons for action against Saleh:
"Ali Abdullah Saleh has engaged in acts that threaten the peace, security, or stability of Yemen, such as acts that obstruct the implementation of the agreement of 23 November 2011 between the Government of Yemen and those in opposition to it, which provides for a peaceful transition of power in Yemen, and acts that obstruct the political process in Yemen ...
"As of fall 2012, Ali Abdullah Saleh had reportedly become one of the primary supporters of violent Huthi actions in northern Yemen.
"More recently, as of September 2014, Saleh has been destabilising Yemen by using others to undermine the central government and create enough instability to threaten a coup. According to a September 2014 report by the United Nations Panel of Experts for Yemen, interlocutors alleged that Saleh supports violent actions of some Yemenis by providing them funds and political support, as well as ensuring that GPC members continue to contribute to the destabilisation of Yemen through various means."
"The September 2014 United Nations Panel of Experts report on Yemen also states that allegations have been made that Ali Abdullah Saleh has been using Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operatives to conduct assassinations and attacks against military installations in order to weaken President Hadi and create discontent within the army and broader Yemeni population. Clashes in the south of Yemen in February 2013 were a result of the combined efforts of Saleh, AQAP, and southern secessionist Ali Salim al-Bayd to cause trouble before the 18 March 2013 National Dialogue Conference in Yemen."
New ministers named
The new government list issued by Saba, the official news agency, contains 36 names including prime minister Bahah. Unusually for Yemen, most of them are new; according to AP, only seven are leftovers from the previous government. Four women were named as ministers, including Nadia al-Saqqaf, editor-in-chief of the Yemen Times, as information minister.
It is supposed to be mainly a government of technocrats – a move intended to reduce in-fighting among rival political factions – though according to al-Jazeera it includes some representatives of both the Houthis and from a wing of the southern separatist Herak movement.
Bahah himself served as oil minister under Saleh and was most recently Yemen's ambassador to the UN. He joined popular revolt in 2011 calling for Saleh to step down.
In a remarkable new departure, Bahah invited ministerial nominations from ordinary members of the public – almost certainly the first time this has happened in any Arab country. Last weekend, he asked his 34,000 followers on Facebook to "participate, as a citizen, in nominating names of a government of technocrats and be part of the event."
Among those recommended by Facebook users was Brigadier General Mahmoud al-Subaihy, the commander of Aden-based 4th Military Zone, who has now been named as defence minister. Subaihy is noted for taking a tough line against al-Qaeda and one tweet describes him as a "reputable general" with no links to Saleh or the Houthis.
Although Bahah's consultation exercise was appreciated by many, some interpreted it as a sign that he lacks ideas of his own. The BBC reported:
"One wrote: 'It seems you're already lost. As a Prime Minister you should have a vision of what you are trying to achieve… we want a government that will take responsibility.' Another said Bahah was running away from his responsibility, and wondered how representative the survey was given that there are less than 800,000 Yemenis on Facebook, from a population of 24 million."
While the nomination of a new government marks a rare positive development in Yemen, it could easily fall apart before the ministers arrive at their desks. Comments on social media have been broadly favourable but it is still unclear if the main political factions will accept the list.
This morning there are rumours that Gen Subaihy has turned down the defence appointment and according to one Twitter user, his position "is very complicated in Aden circles, especially among Herak [separatist] types". Arguments may well break out over other appointments too.
Another worrying sign this morning is that the General People's Congress – the party to which both Saleh and President Hadi belong – has dismissed Hadi from the post of secretary-general, while Saleh remains as the party's chairman.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Saturday, 8 November 2014