by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 9 September 1994
TWO months after the end of Yemen's unity war, President Ali
Abdullah Salih is consolidating his position with a series of political and constitutional
changes aimed at ensuring the recent conflict will not be repeated.
At a televised ceremony last month army officers handed
their party membership cards to the president, who declared that the armed forces must
"be apolitical as of now". While that is the norm in many western countries, the
issue has long been controversial in Yemen. It was a tussle for political control of the
military that prevented a merger of northern and southern armies after unification of the
two states in 1990 - and it was the continuing existence of two separate armies that made
the recent war possible.
South Yemen's army had always been ideologically based (a
consequence of the Socialist party's Marxist past) while President Salih ensured the
loyalty of his northern army not through his party, the General People's Congress, but
through placing members of his tribe and family in key positions.
A law banning party membership in the military (as well as
the judiciary, police and diplomatic service) was passed in 1991 but its implementation
was blocked by the Socialist party, who saw the measure as consolidating the president's
influence at their own expense.
With the Socialists routed by the war, the main effect of
implementing the measure now will be to prevent Islah, the conservative-Islamic party,
from infiltrating the army. Islah increased its political influence enormously by
supporting the president loyally - perhaps too loyally - during the war, so much so that
it is now perceived as a possible threat to the president's power.
A series of constitutional changes are also afoot. The
most important of these would abolish the five-man presidential council whose composition
caused so much friction before the war, and replace it with an upper house of parliament
composed largely of sheikhs and other dignitaries. The president will in future be elected
by parliament and will appoint his own deputy.
To become law, these amendments will need the support of
226 MPs. The president's party and Islah (the conservative-Islamic party) together command
185 votes, so they will have to win over a further 41 votes from the Socialists,
independents and the smaller parties.
After that, the question is who the president will choose
to be his deputy. Ali Nasser Mohammed, the former president of South Yemen ousted in the
1986 coup, has been mooted - though it is thought he might present too much of a challenge
to Salih. Latest betting favours a southerner (for the sake of national unity), preferably
with strong Hadrami connections (since some in the oil-rich province still hanker after
separatism) and who would contribute as much intelligence and gravitas as Dan Quayle
brought to the Bush administration.
Meanwhile the Interior Minister, Yahya Mutawakkel, has
announced plans to restrict the carrying of weapons by civilians. There are thought to be
more than 50 million guns in private hands - among a total population of only 14 million.
If the plan succeeds it will be a major contribution to Yemen's stability, but it will be
far from easy to implement. In a country where family blood feuds last for generations and
where there is only one police station for every 100,000 people, many citizens regard guns
as essential for their personal protection.
Inevitably, perhaps, the war has had some impact on the
uninhibited free speech that Yemen had enjoyed in the four years before the war. The
English-language Yemen Times has suffered harassment and many of the smaller papers have
vanished from the streets. It seems that the publishers have decided to keep their heads
(and headlines) below the parapet for a while.