That Yemen is in the grip of poverty, drought, political mismanagement and corruption is not in doubt. Nor is there any doubt that Yemen is steeped in tribal and regional tension and, at times, confrontation that might again split the country into South Yemen (a former British colony) and North Yemen.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in office for 28 years, is mainly responsible for the persistence of these problems. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) evenblames his regime (in a report issued on October 13) for exacerbating the drought by its failure to finance anti-drought projects. That Saleh has now been re-elected for another seven-year term can only bode ill for a country with such serious problems. But opposition parties and politicians must share some of the responsibility, not only because of their failure to stage an effective challenge to Saleh but also for their cooperation with the corrupt system, mostly behind the scenes but sometimes publicly. Their ready acceptance of his re-election – to the extent that some of those in exile returned almost immediately – is only one result of their capitulation to him.
One of the opposition leaders returning him after a bitter 12-year opposition to Saleh in exile is Abdulrahman al-Jaffari and his party colleagues. He returned to Sana, the capital, in mid-September after a telephone conversation with the president, who sent them his presidential aeroplane to return home in. In an interview with al-Sharq al-Awsat on October 10, he said that what persuaded him to return to Yemen after a 12-year absence “is the president’s determination to carry out extensive reforms in all areas of political, economic and social life, given the fact that he is the most capable person to carry them out and lead Yemen.”
Jaffari and his colleagues must have guessed that Saleh would win; they returned home a few days before the presidential election, which was held on September 20. They must also have agreed to vote for him, as their return was brought forward by the despatch of the presidential aircraft. Moreover, Saleh was expected to win, although his opponent, Faisal bin Shamlan of the Islah party (seen generally as Islamic in Yemen), was expected to do well and lose only by a small margin. But the final results, published on September 23, claimed that Saleh won 77.2 percent and Shalman 21.8 percent of the votes cast by six million people. At first the opposition parties protested loudly, accusing Saleh of rigging the poll and therefore rejecting the results altogether. They also promised their supporters that they would organise the expression of popular opposition by means of nationwide marches. But on September 26 they announced their acceptance of the election’s official results and their recognition of Saleh as the country’s president. In fact, Shamlan told journalists that the “announced results are accurate and that the opposition alliance will abide by them”. The reason for this change of heart was explained in a statement published by the alliance, which argued that there was “a strong need to avoid any confrontation or clashes with the authorities.”
But this did not diminish the discussion of public affairs and criticism of the president or the regime – partly because of the presence of a large number of foreign journalists in the country to cover the election. In particular, the discussion centred on Saleh’s plan to pass power to his son when he leaves in seven years, as the constitution requires. His son, 35-year-old Ahmed, already holds the post of commander of the Republican Guard and of the special forces, and plays a prominent role in Yemen’s political life. Saleh has also appointed several other members of his own family to senior public posts, thereby giving the impression that his rule is somewhat hereditary.
For instance, Saleh appointed his brother, Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, as military commander of two provinces, while appointing another brother, Muhammad Saleh al-Ahmar, as commander of the air force, and his nephew Yahya Muhammad Abdullahi as commander of the security forces. Saleh, himself a lieutenant-general who seized power in 1978, must know the high value of military and security commanders to the ruler of a country that is not prone to military coups. He must also know the protection that succession by a relative can offer to a corrupt ruler who has been in office for a long time. The son or other close relative of an outgoing despot will be unlikely to order an investigation into his kinsman’s rule, let alone put him on trial, after succeeding him. Saleh is also aware that many Yemenis consider the appointment of a son as successor normal practice in Arab countries. After all, Hafez al-Asad of Syria not long ago arranged to be succeeded by his son Bashshar, and Egypt’s president, Husni Mubarak, is openly setting the stage for his son Gamal to succeed him.
Most Yemenis are certainly aware of Saleh’s resort to corrupt economic and political practices to stay in power, but many of them also know that it is difficult to govern a country that is divided into tribal and political groups that are hostile to each other. As a Yemeni proverb famously says, ruling Yemen is like trying to dance on the head of a snake. He is given credit by many for holding together North Yemen and Southern Yemen, a former British colony, which united in 1990. Since then, the south has not only tried to secede but frequent clashes between the tribal groups of both regions have taken place. Moreover, the fact that the potential for violence is never far from the surface is underlined by the prevalence of firearms in the country, whose 20 million citizens are estimated to own some 60 million firearms between them.
In fact, last year the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace placed Yemen eighth in its index of countries most likely to disintegrate, following such countries as Somalia andAfghanistan. The fear of violence breaking out may explain the sudden decision of the five-party opposition alliance, led by the leader of Islah, Faisal bin Shalman, who is from South Yemen, to accept the election results and recognise Saleh, who is from the north, as president. Earlier, the alliance had promised to stage a strong campaign against the re-election of the president and to expose the methods he had used to rig the poll.
The ruling General People’s Congress (GPC), which had collected huge sums of money from businessmen and companies to finance its campaign, put up millions of posters across the country that praised the president and maligned his opponents. The GPC also unleashed a “whispering campaign”, as media reports described it, which hinted that Shalman was “a Trojan horse for an Islamist coup, or southern secession”. But even more outrageously “a conservative Sheikh” appeared on state television, saying that “to vote against the president was forbidden in Islam”. Clearly Saleh also uses corrupt “Islamic leaders”, although he is widely known to be completely secular and very hostile to Islamic movements.
The president’s hostility towards Islam and Islamic movements obviously disqualifies him to rule a Muslim country. But his transparent failure to solve Yemen’s economic problems and reduce the widespread poverty that is blighting the lives of many Yemenis is another good reason why he should quit now. The World Bank estimates that 42 percent of Yemenis live below the poverty line, while economic growth in recent years has not matched population growth. Moreover oil-exports, which at present supply 70 percent of state revenues, are set to decline as reserves dwindle, and may in fact run out altogether by 2012.
But as state revenues continue to dwindle, Saleh will be forced to apply public funds to protect his family, friends and principal supporters against the escalating poverty, leaving most Yemenis to face it unaided. This may lead in the end to overwhelming public resentment and anger that might rid Yemen of a corrupt and anti-Islamic despot who should not have been able to seize power in the first place.