by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 17 September, 1999
AMID extraordinarily tight
security measures, the streets of the Yemeni capital, Sana'a, have been described as
unusually quiet of late. Officially, the clampdown is part of a government campaign to
disarm the country's 16 million inhabitants who collectively possess around 50 million
weapons. But probably it is also intended to forestall trouble during the final run-up to
the presidential election on September 23.
only a few thousand guns have so far been confiscated and previous bans have proved
ineffective, the authorities' approach has been much tougher this time. On September 3,
the son of Yemen's military police chief died in a shoot-out after refusing to hand over
his weapon at a checkpoint. Two police officers also died.
A few hours earlier, a guest at a wedding party in Sana'a
fired into the air, in accordance with Yemeni tradition. Police returned his fire and
surrounded the area. Troops then arrived with two tanks, one of which burst into the party
by driving straight through a garden wall.
All this contrasts sharply with the festive atmosphere of
President Salih's campaign rallies. At one such gathering - in Hoeidah - the president was
greeted by tens of thousands of people, many of whom had been provided with free transport
(some of it laid on by the main parliamentary opposition party, Islah).
Salih urged the crowd to exercise their constitutional
right and vote for "whoever they want to give their confidence and trust to".
The choice, however, is not difficult to make because the only other candidate, Najib
Qahtan al-Sha'bi, is also a member of the president's party.
Nominally, al-Sha'bi is standing as an independent and -
though he is relatively obscure and lacks Salih's campaign resources - has tried to
differentiate his policies from those of the president, presenting himself as a
moderniser. At a rally last week, he highlighted Yemen's economic problems and called for
"serious measures" to tackle them.
The question, though, is not whether Salih will win, but
by what margin. Given the weakness of his opponent, the president ought to secure well
over 80% of the vote. Anything less than that could suggest that his popularity is fading.
With the Socialists and other opposition groups boycotting
the election, turnout will be another indicator. In the 1997 parliamentary election, which
was also boycotted by the Socialists, 2,827,261 people voted (representing 41% of those
eligible to vote and 61% of those registered). A lower turnout this time could reflect a
lack of enthusiasm for the president or the way the election has been conducted.
Meanwhile, official sources say that the blast and fire
which totally destroyed Yemen's largest supermarket, damaged property over a quarter-mile
radius and woke up most of Sana'a in the early hours of August 28 was caused by the
store's owner, who had hoped to claim $2.5 million in insurance after his business ran
The Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan had earlier claimed
responsibility for the incident, but a report by forensic experts says that no trace of
explosives was found at the scene. According to the alleged confessions of seven
accomplices, the owner (who died in the blast) used 15 cylinders of gas and 29 cans of
petrol to set the building alight.