The Birth of Modern Yemen - Chapter 10

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

10. Coalition and opposition

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THE “TRANSITIONAL PERIOD” between unification and the elections had been characterised less by transition than by inaction. After the first few months the process of consolidating unity had come to a halt and virtually all decisions of a difficult or controversial nature were put into abeyance, awaiting what one GPC leader privately described as “the end of this dreadful coalition”. The extension of the transitional period for five months beyond its intended finishing date had only prolonged the inactivity as the business of government became subsumed in electoral manoeuvring. The prospect of elections had created a further justification for failing to develop mechanisms that could resolve disputes democratically and in turn raised expectations that once the elections were out of the way a reinvigorated government would embark on the reforms that would finally weld the country together. There was also – as often happens in a new democracy, but rarely in an old one – a popular notion that elections would necessarily bring change and that the change would necessarily be for the better. What few believed or even imagined was that relations between the GPC and YSP would be worse after the elections than before, and that they would deteriorate so rapidly that within a year both parties would be at war.

The warning signs were there, however. While the elections did provide the sought-after legitimacy for Yemen’s new political system, they also provided legitimacy of a different kind for the three main parties, allowing each to claim a mandate from its own supporters if not from the country as a whole. The YSP, despite efforts to spread its support in the north, had made little headway there, and with no overwhelming issues of policy or ideology separating the main parties, the effect of the poll (with a few exceptions) was to formalise the political divide in terms of geography rather than ideology. The division, as far as the YSP was concerned, broadly followed the old demarcation line between northern and southern states: 41 of the 56 seats the YSP won were in the south, and seven of the others were in Ta’izz and Ibb – northern areas which have a traditional affinity with the south. The GPC, meanwhile, won only three seats in the south, and Islah none (see table). It was a similar picture with the distribution of votes: the YSP was dominant in the south with 44% of the poll but weak in the north with 11%. The GPC and Islah, on the other hand, proved strong in the north but weak in the south (see table). The dangers this division posed for national unity were all too obvious. 

Equally seriously, the YSP’s failure to achieve a breakthrough in the north, together with the demographic situation, had resulted in its parliamentary representation being halved. Because of this, the party began looking for adjustments to the political system which would ensure that the YSP (or at least its leaders) continued to have an influential role in the future. The geographical concentration of the YSP’s support gave it leverage to demand more favourable treatment than its numerical strength warranted, using the threat of non-co-operation or even secession as a bargaining ploy. Potentially, however, this was highly divisive; the more the YSP persisted, the further it moved beyond simply attempting to safeguard its own position. Within a year, the YSP found itself in a confrontation which would either result in the removal of President Salih or lead to secession from the union.

Shortly before and shortly after the election, the GPC and YSP had resumed discussions about merging their parties. For the GPC, the merger option had attractions which far outweighed any foreseeable difficulties in the absorption of the YSP into its structure. It would, for instance, create a strong government bloc in parliament with an overwhelming majority of seats; it promised, at a stroke, to overcome the problems of political control that had bedevilled the entire government apparatus since unification and – most importantly – it offered a means for integrating the two armies. In a sense, then, merging the parties could be regarded as a short cut which would resolve at a stroke several of the most difficult political and constitutional issues that Yemen was facing. For the YSP, a merger would guarantee the party (or rather, some of its components) a long-term share in power, and every prospect of a comfortable future for those of its leaders who were prepared to compromise and play by the northern rules. It would, however, be an irrevocable step: once incorporated into the new party, the YSP’s identity would be lost and it would have relinquished for ever its control of the “southern” civil service and military, severely restricting its future options and placing it at the mercy of the GPC. A further objection, that the creation of such a near-monopoly in parliament would have had damaging consequences for the new multi-party system, appears not to have exercised the either the GPC or the YSP unduly, though it horrified some of the smaller parties.

Press reports shortly before the elections had suggested that terms for the merger were all but settled, with only a few details – such as the new party’s name – still to be resolved [1]. After the elections, talks resumed and on May 10, 1993, Salih and al-Baid signed what was hailed as a “merger agreement”. However, the text eventually published revealed precisely the opposite: the two parties had failed to agree on an immediate merger. Instead, they merely promised “to initiate deep and extensive co-ordination leading to a unified political organ”. In a further dilution of the original purpose of the two-party talks, they agreed to “the formation of a unified parliamentary bloc immediately, while leaving the door open for any others to join this bloc”. Innocent though it sounded, the latter phrase amounted to notice that the exclusive “special relationship” which had existed between the GPC and YSP since unification was at an end.

The document went on to set out a series of constitutional reforms which, it said, were needed to correct any ambiguities and contradictions in the existing constitution. In contrast to these detailed proposals, there was only passing reference to what the document called urgent tasks: “improvement of the citizens’ standard of living, ensuring security and stability, combating corruption and exploitation, improving water and sewage services, developing better educational programs, pursuing investment in the field of natural resource management and development in all regions of the country, bringing an end to partitioning of administrative posts and preparing for the local elections”. On the vital question of unifying the armed forces, there was only an affirmation of “the neutrality of the military security apparatus in all political activities.” Thus what had set out to be a document of political union emerged as a non-exclusive agreement on parliamentary co-operation accompanied by a programme of constitutional changes and very little else. Given Yemen’s multiplicity of economic and social problems, it showed an unfortunate sense of priorities. And given that no single party had an overall majority, re-opening the constitutional debate after only three years was a recipe for endless argument, or worse. There was no doubt that once the process started, Islah would introduce amendments of its own, especially on the question of Islamic law.

The failure of the two parties to agree on political union was attributable to several factors. Although the GPC had more to gain from a merger than the YSP, the initial impetus came from al-Baid. According to YSP leaders, the talks failed because the president, while ostensibly negotiating an exclusive electoral pact with them, also made a secret deal with Islah (the precise terms are unknown, though there is no doubt that some understanding between the GPC and Islah was reached). Probably a more important factor, however, was disagreement within the YSP which meant that al-Baid was unable to deliver a merger and/or never had any serious intention of doing so. There were sections of the YSP (especially in the north) who totally rejected the idea of merging with the GPC, and if the plan had ever reached the point of implementation the party might easily have been torn apart. This adds weight to the argument that before the elections al-Baid continued negotiating in order to obtain the best possible deal for his party in terms of electoral co-operation with the GPC. Once the elections were over and the party had secured its power base in the southern constituencies, the merger proposal served no further purpose as far as the YSP was concerned – and the agreement signed on May 10, far from bringing a merger closer, signalled the GPC’s acceptance of measures which would help to consolidate the YSP as a separate party.

Although the constitutional changes agreed in the May 10 document were not implemented, it is worth discussing them here because some of the issues they raised were central to the evolving political crisis. The main proposals were:

1. Elections for local government, including the posts of provincial governors and municipal officials.

2. Creation of an upper house of parliament, the Shura Council. Two-thirds of its members would be elected, with an equal number representing each province. The remainder would be appointed by the presidency (i.e. both president and vice-president).

3. On great issues of state (e.g. treaties, constitutional amendments and approval of presidential candidates) both houses would meet together, as the National Assembly. This would be chaired by the vice-president.

4. The state presidency would consist of president and vice-president, elected directly by the people; they would be limited to two five-year terms.

Superficially, these plans were an attempt to broaden the scope of Yemeni democracy and remedy some of the operational defects that had been found in the 1990 constitution. But they would also have allowed the YSP to regain much of the political representation it had lost in the elections and consolidated the position of the vice-president. Taken as a whole, the package would almost certainly have impeded further north-south integration and led to a looser, more federalist, structure.

In the case of local government, for example, there was no doubt that the existing system – under which provincial governors were appointed by the president – was undemocratic and in need of reform. It could also be argued that local rather than central decision-making was in principle a better way of catering for local needs (though in Yemen at the time difficulties tended to be caused by a lack of central control, not an excess of it). However, the GPC’s main objection to democratising local government lay in the way this might be exploited by the YSP, taking advantage of the geographical concentration of its support. Whereas at national level it appeared that some form of power-sharing government was inevitable for the foreseeable future (with all the compromises that entailed), in any local elections the YSP would gain outright control in most of the south. Depending on the allocation of powers between central and local government, it was therefore not difficult to envisage a situation in which democratic local government opened a back-door route to federalism, the south re-asserted itself and the unification of Yemen began to unwind.

Similarly, the plan for an upper house of parliament was ingeniously constructed to ensure substantial (and perhaps permanently substantial) representation for the YSP. It will be recalled that in the existing House of Representatives boundaries had been drawn to create constituencies with an equal number of electors (plus or minus 5%), and that because of the smaller population in the south this placed the YSP at a disadvantage. In the proposed new upper house, two-thirds of the members would be elected by the provinces equally, regardless of population. As six of the 18 Yemeni provinces lay in the south and tended to be more sparsely populated, this meant that the YSP would gain seats by virtue of its localised support rather than its overall popularity. On the basis of the 1993 voting patterns, the YSP could be expected to win all six southern provinces without difficulty, and so was unlikely to be the smallest party elected to the upper house. If, in addition, the YSP won one, two or three of the 12 northern provinces it could become the largest elected party (depending on how well Islah performed against the GPC); if it won four or more it would have an absolute majority of the elected membership [2]. It is not entirely clear what was intended in the case of the non-elected members of the upper house, but since they were to be appointed jointly by the president and vice-president, it is perhaps reasonable to suppose that they would be divided equally between GPC and YSP supporters. Assuming a 50-50 split among the appointed members and electoral victories in seven provinces, the YSP could expect to hold 43% of the upper house – or more if it fared better than in the 1993 elections. Although that might or might not make the YSP the largest party in the upper house, it was certainly far better than the YSP’s 19% share of seats in the House of Representatives.

The role of the proposed upper house, according to the May 10 agreement, was “to broaden public participation in making strategic and high-level decisions”, though its precise functions and powers were to be decided later by the president and vice-president and incorporated into law. It was envisaged that on great issues of state both houses of parliament would meet jointly, as the National Assembly. It is interesting to note in passing that the plan required such meetings to be chaired by the vice-president, since this was the first mention of assigning any specific functions to his post. Al-Baid’s later demands included specifying the “powers and functions” of the vice-president – to which Salih replied that the vice-president had no powers and that his function was to deputise for the president when necessary. Together, the proposals for local government and the upper house of parliament promised significant benefits to the YSP. They threatened to erode the power of the House of Representatives where, since the elections, the YSP was particularly weak (and likely to remain so), by adding two new tiers of government – one above it and one below – where the YSP could be expected to perform much more strongly. 

The third element in the YSP’s ambition to secure a major role after the end of the transitional period concerned the presidential council, and the vice-presidency in particular. Although vice-presidency up to this point had been mainly symbolic, it did confer on the YSP a special status in relation to the other minority parties. Yemen, it will be recalled, had what was technically a collective presidency in the form of the presidential council and Ali Abdullah Salih was president by virtue of his position as the council’s chairman [see Chapter 4]. Since the English words “chairman” and “president” are identical in Arabic it was, however, perfectly correct to describe Salih as “president” (and indeed this reflected his real power more accurately than “chairman”). Vice-President al-Baid similarly derived his title from his position as deputy chairman of the Presidential Council, but in his case this was purely by consent: there was no consitutional requirement for the chairman of the council to have a deputy. A continuing YSP vice-presidency, however, was essential to the party’s hopes for the proposed upper house of parliament. 

The outcome of the 1993 parliamentary elections made the YSP’s position in the presidential council highly insecure. The constitution obliged the new parliament to elect a new presidential council and, with only 56 YSP members out of 301 in the new house, the party’s hopes of retaining its current strength in the presidential council looked bleak. Furthermore, it was not at all certain that al-Baid would remain vice-president (or even if the post would continue to exist, since it had no legal status under the constitution). The May 10 agreement attempted to address this problem by proposing to abolish the five-man Presidential Council and replace it with a president and vice-president, elected directly by the people. In that respect, the agreement signalled a concession by Salih who, though willing to accept direct elections for the presidency, argued that a president should have the right to appoint his own deputy. The proposal for a directly elected presidency suited the YSP partly because it formalised the post of vice-president and partly because direct elections side-stepped the problem of the YSP’s small representation in parliament. In practice, abolition of the presidential council was likely also to exclude Islah from the highest echelons of power since, in the interests of national unity, a way would have to be found for ensuring – whatever the actual mechanism for presidential elections – that a northern president had a southern (i.e. YSP) deputy.

In the event, however, none of these changes took place. No mechanism for presidential and vice-presidential elections was agreed, though three options were discussed:

1. The “joint ticket” system used in the United States where presidential and vice-presidential candidates stand (or fall) in pairs, and where the presidential candidate chooses his prospective deputy. Although there was no certainty under this system that Salih would choose al-Baid as his running-mate, considerations of national unity would probably have obliged him to do so.

2. A single election for president in which the runner-up becomes vice-president. Both parties rejected this, probably because the outcome was too unpredictable: for example, it might have led to an Islah candidate becoming vice-president.

3. President and vice-president elected separately, each in his own right. This was the system favoured by al-Baid. In practice it was likely to force the GPC to support a YSP vice-presidential candidate in return for YSP support for a GPC presidential candidate. It would also make al-Baid less visibly dependent on Salih’s patronage than under the joint ticket system.

Although direct elections for both posts were likely to encourage inter-party co-operation before the vote, there was no guarantee that this would continue afterwards. If president and vice-president belonged to different parties the risk of political turmoil would increase because the vice-president would have his own electoral mandate, amounting to a licence to snipe publicly at the president. 

By signing the May 10 agreement and promising to form a single parliamentary bloc with the GPC and others, the YSP in effect committed itself to joining another coalition government. That was perhaps the most obvious and attractive course for the party to take – and yet, in the light of the tensions suffered by the previous coalition, some YSP members suggested that a period in opposition would be a more astute choice. Prominent among those who favoured opposition was Jarallah Umar al-Kuhali, one of the party’s more imaginative thinkers, who urged the YSP to take a long-term view and “reclaim its political virginity” [3]. In the short term, though, there were certainly powerful arguments for staying in the coalition. One was the loss of face opposition would entail for a party which, in various forms, had been in government continuously for a quarter-century. Apart from the attraction of power for its own sake, there was also the question of how a voluntary withdrawal from government would be perceived among the party’s supporters. But perhaps the most decisive factor concerned the southern army: if the YSP went into opposition it would no longer have any legitimate claim to control its own forces. 

The decision to join the coalition appears more questionable in the light of subsequent events, however. If the party leadership had been less interested in power for themselves and more interested in establishing a real democracy they might have made a different choice. It is tempting to suggest that this was one of the few moments in Yemen’s post-unification development when, if the YSP had made a different choice, it could have changed the outcome for the better. Opposition would have given the party freedom to criticise without the responsibilities of government and, if the YSP had rallied support from smaller parties and independent MPs, it could have created a strong parliamentary grouping and benefited democracy by formally establishing a system of “government” and “opposition” [4]. The creation of a large, organised opposition would also have broken the tradition of co-optive, consensus-based politics favoured by the president, since it implied the existence of an alternative government-in-waiting and the possibility at some point in the future of a peaceful transfer of power from one side to the other. 
 

IN THE AFTERMATH of the election, bickering over the composition of the new government raged for more than a month until President Salih cut it short by issuing a decree listing the new ministers. At least two of those named were taken by surprise. Jarallah Umar of the YSP, who had gone on holiday to the United States, was astonished to find he had been appointed minister of culture in his absence [5]. Muhammad Ali Haytham, who was in Cairo at the time of his appointment as social security minister, also claimed he had not been consulted [6].

Representation of parties in government 

  % of vote  % of seats in parl't  % of seats in govt
General People’s Congress  45 51 50
Islah 27 26 20
Yemeni Socialist Party 29 29 30

The Socialist Haidar abu-Bakr al-Attas returned as prime minister in a cabinet reduced, initially, from 34 ministers to 29 (see government list). The GPC, as the largest partner in the coalition, took 15 posts (giving it an absolute majority of one), while the Socialists were assigned nine and Islah four. In addition to these, a leader of the pro-Iraqi Ba’ath party, Mujahid Abu Shawarib, was named as a deputy prime minister [7]. The YSP, which had held 17 posts in the previous government, was aggrieved to find its numbers almost halved. After three years as an almost-equal partner in a two-party alliance, it was now merely the second of three parties. Meanwhile Islah complained – justifiably – that the four posts it had been given did not fairly reflect its electoral performance. The party was particularly disappointed at not being offered the justice and education portfolios where it would have had the opportunity to introduce more strictly Islamic policies.

The strength of Islah’s argument can be seen in the table above which compares the allocation of the 30 government posts shared by the three main parties with their representation in parliament and their share of the vote at the general election (after excluding other parties and independents). This suggests that in the new cabinet the GPC was over-represented in terms of its votes but only marginally over-represented in terms of its parliamentary seats. The YSP was marginally over-represented in terms of votes and considerably over-represented in terms of seats, while Islah was considerably under-represented on both counts. Several of the new Islah ministers drew attention to their party’s under-representation by failing to take the oath of office. In response to this, on June 10, two more cabinet posts were created – a third deputy prime minister and a minister for judicial affairs – both of which went to Islah [8].

These early recriminations highlighted the dangers inherent in such a broad coalition, embracing as it did almost the entire spectrum of Yemeni politics: left and right, religious and secular, modernist and traditionalist, pro-Saudi and pro-Iraqi. In an effort to anticipate the difficulties ahead, on the day the new government was announced all three party leaders signed a 900-word agreement on coalition and parliamentary co-operation which set out the principle of collective responsibility and attempted to restrain ministers from public dissent. The agreement emphasised that every minister must act in the “supreme national interest” and should not “impose upon the administrative body under his control any of his party or political views”. Disagreements would be allowed in private, though in public everyone must maintain a show of unity: coalition parties must not adopt positions that were contrary to agreed policies, and while dissenting ministers had a right to record their objections they must nevertheless abide by the approved information policy. The agreement also provided a conciliation process for any party thinking of leaving the coalition. Besides that, no party would be allowed to leave the coalition during the first 12 months of the new government or during the six months before a general election.

Nevertheless, the introduction of a third party into the coalition greatly increased the potential for friction and political paralysis of the kind that had dogged the previous administration. This raises the question why President Salih considered a three-party alliance necessary, since the GPC was only 28 seats short of an absolute majority in parliament and a pact with either Islah or the YSP would have sufficed. There are several possible explanations. The first is the Yemeni tradition of co-optive politics, where all elements tend to be represented unless there is some specific reason to exclude them. There was thus no experience of governing in the face of a legitimate, formally recognised opposition. Secondly, to exclude the YSP would be divisive in terms of national unity because of the party’s continuing identification with the south. Thirdly, in the context of Yemeni traditions, it would be unfair to exclude Islah which, because of its comparative success in the elections, was now the second most important party in parliament. Finally, both Islah and the YSP were regarded as potential threats to the president and he may have hoped that by playing one off against the other he could control them both.

A further consideration, perhaps, was that amending the constitution as envisaged by the May 10 agreement required a 75% majority in parliament. The GPC and YSP combined held 175 seats – well short of the 226 needed – but including Islah brought the total to 241. Bringing Islah into the coalition did not guarantee its support for changing the constitution, however, and in any case the question proved academic since the issue never came to a vote.

The deepening crisis

ALTHOUGH GPC-YSP relations had been strained for much of the transitional period, in the run-up to the election the political temperature had been kept as low as possible because both main parties needed co-operation from the other. Once the election was over and the new coalition in place, that need was removed; the YSP and despite being a party of government began to function as a party of opposition.

The crisis that led to war began in August 1993 when Vice-President al-Baid  travelled to the United States, ostensibly on a private visit for medical treatment. During the trip he met his American counterpart, Vice-President Al Gore, without the approval of President Salih. The underhand way in which the meeting was arranged – not through the Yemeni ambassador in Washington (who would certainly have checked with Salih in advance) but through the Yemeni ambassador in Cairo who was a fellow Socialist – gave rise to suspicions that al-Baid was there on party business, seeking American support for the YSP’s goals. Al-Baid’s refusal to have Yemen's Washington ambassador present at his talks with Gore only fuelled the suspicions. Salih complained that the vice-president had exceeded his powers and when al-Baid returned to Yemen on August 19 he flew directly to Aden, refusing to resume his duties in the capital.

Since this was not the first time al-Baid had employed his “withdrawal” tactic to make a point, the initial reaction in Sana’a was annoyance rather than alarm. It was widely expected that he would return eventually, as he had in 1992. At that stage, his latest withdrawal was attributed to continuing difficulties in his relationship with the president and, more specifically, concern about his prospects for re-election to the Presidential Council and, in turn, to the vice-presidency.

Under the constitution, a general election was automatically followed by the election of a new Presidential Council: the council must be chosen by parliament within 60 days of the new parliament’s first meeting [9]. Parliament could, however, extend the term of the old Presidential Council by a further 90 days if elections for a new council could not take place “for any reason” [10]. Beyond that, the life of the old council could not be prolonged except “in the event of war or a natural disaster, or any other situation under which holding the elections becomes impossible” [11].

The new parliament met for the first time on May 16 and just four days later the new speaker, Shaykh Abdullah al-Ahmar (leader of the Islah party), informed the president by letter that parliament had extended the term of the Presidential Council in view of the proposed constitutional amendments. The Yemen Times, which reproduced a leaked copy of the letter on its front page, denounced the move as “a flagrant violation of the constitution”, but without explaining why it considered this a violation [12]. Although the letter specified no time limit (which may have been the cause of the paper’s objection), it did refer directly to Article 89 of the constitution which set out the time limits. Thus it appears that the extension of the council’s term could be considered legitimate provided that elections took place no later than 150 days (60 plus 90) after the first meeting of parliament. This meant that the latest possible date for electing a new Presidential Council constitutionally was October 13. 

Steps to initiate the election were taken on July 21 with a decree which set August 20 as the closing date for nominations but set no date for the election itself. This curious omission of the crucial date may have been intended to avoid drawing attention to the fact that – under Article 89 of the constitution – the decree should have been issued a week earlier if the intended date for the election was October 13. This was not untypical of Yemeni constitutional practice: details often tended to be overlooked for the sake of convenience, so long as nobody objected very strongly.

The October deadline, however, was no mere detail. The difficulty in meeting it was that none of the three parties in the coalition government could muster enough parliamentary votes to get its nominees for the council elected without support from another party. In its simplest and most absurd form, the question was a mathematical one: how to divide five seats among three parties in a way that fairly represented their relative strengths. The task was impossible unless one party or more made concessions, and October arrived with no sign of agreement on how to divide the five seats. Under the old two-party coalition, the GPC had held three seats and the Socialists two. The question now was how to accommodate the third partner, Islah. The GPC, as the senior partner, was reluctant to cede overall control, while the YSP wanted to retain its two existing seats. By sheer chance, however, Islah held a uniquely strong card. Under the constitution, if the Presidential Council were allowed to lapse (as would happen with the passing of the deadline), its duties would be taken over by the Chairmanship Board of parliament [13]. In those circumstances, al-Ahmar, the Islah leader, would have become acting president by virtue of his position as parliamentary speaker.

The gravity of the situation created by that is difficult to underestimate. In the first place, it is unlikely that President Salih would have been willing to relinquish power, even temporarily, on such a technicality. He would have been severely tempted (and probably pressurised by his supporters too) to suspend the constitution, despite his own need for legitimacy and the damage that suspension would have caused for the future of democracy. While the GPC did not declare its intentions, the YSP made no secret of its own preparations for widespread disruption and strikes should al-Ahmar come to power. The crisis also, briefly, acquired an international dimension, since Islah was widely perceived as a vehicle for Saudi mischief-making in Yemen. Rumours spread that one of al-Ahmar’s first actions on assuming the presidency would be to sign a treaty ending the 60-year-old border dispute between the two countries. There is no evidence that this was the shaykh’s intention, and it seems likely that the story was circulated in order to discredit him. Nevertheless, both Jordan and Oman signalled to the Saudis their displeasure at the turn of events: Sultan Qabus boldly broke ranks with the GCC’s policy of cold-shouldering Yemen to pay President Salih a personal visit.

Brinkmanship continued until, at a dawn meeting just hours before the election, the GPC agreed to give up one of its three seats on the council to Islah, allowing the YSP to retain two. The subsequent vote in parliament was as follows: [14]

Ali Abdullah Salih (GPC): 263 
Abd al-Aziz Abd al-Ghani (GPC): 244 
Ali Salim al-Baid (YSP): 207
Shaykh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani (Islah): 201
Salim Salih Muhammad (YSP): 172

The outcome was hailed by one western diplomat as “a model of democracy at work”, but the country had had a narrow escape from turmoil and – on paper at least – President Salih had paid a price for it by relinquishing overall control of the Presidential Council. In practice, that was not a great cause for concern because the president knew that the chances of Islah and the YSP voting together against the GPC were virtually nil. Islah, meanwhile, had been forced to moderate its demands, but the victor was the YSP which, despite being the weakest party of the three main parties in parliament, had conceded nothing. Next morning, however, a headline in the Saudi-owned newspaper, al-Hayat, proclaimed: “Election of Presidential Council has not yet closed the crisis file” – and it was proved right almost immediately.

On October 13, MPs and diplomats gathered in Sana’a for the ceremony of swearing-in the new Presidential Council, and the council’s expected re-election of Salih as president. After a two-hour wait for Ali Salim al-Baid and Salim Salih Muhammad, the ceremony was called off: both the YSP leaders were still in Aden.15 Next day, in an interview with the trade union newspaper, Sawt al-’Ummal, al-Baid was quoted as saying: “It is difficult for me personally to go to attend either a meeting by the Presidential Council or to swear the oath before parliament … It is difficult for me to take this oath because we failed to fulfil the previous oath. I cannot lie to the people and take the oath.” [16]

The second attempt to swear-in the council, on October 16, was partly successful. Four members of the council were sworn in, including Salim Salih Muhammad, the deputy leader of the YSP. The council then re-elected Salih as president and al-Baid as vice-president (nominated by Salih). Once again, al-Baid failed to attend but sent a letter which was read to the House:

Brother House of Representatives Speaker, brother members of the House of Representatives speakership office, brother House of Representatives members: After I was informed of the request to report to your esteemed House to take the oath, I must first thank you for your confidence at a time when I feel I am holding a heavy trust and hope the House of Representatives will lessen this heavy burden. Since I will not be able to attend today’s session for reasons which you know about, I hope you will excuse me. I will work with you with all perseverance and seriousness to provide such a chance soon, God willing. From God we ask success [17].

The fact that the YSP's deputy leader had agreed to take the oath suggested that al-Baid's objections were his own rather than those of his party. But hopes that he would soon resume his duties were quickly dispelled. On the day that his apologetic letter was read to parliament, the Saudi paper, al-Sharq al-Awsat, published an interview with him which had a very different tone:

We had hoped that with achieving unity we would close the pages of the past and open new pages. But when I see attempts by some to go back to old ways, I fear for unity … Nobody is willing to build a country. We found ourselves in the grip of the previous [government of North Yemen] and this was not the agreement of unity. It should be a new country with a new understanding and a democratic system …

I cannot go to a capital that is not the capital of the united country. Sana’a has insisted on maintaining the mentality and conditions of the Yemen Arab Republic [the former North Yemen]. We have agreements that say something else, but the other side is refusing … For more than three years we have been sweet talking each other while the situation in many sectors is deteriorating … We could have done something, but did not use all our potential. The aim and the will, in which we achieved unity, have weakened … We feel frightened; that is why we warn of the dangers of these illnesses and that illnesses spread quickly and we have to be careful. Going back to the mistakes endangers unity. [18] 

The last sentence was especially significant, implying both a warning and a threat; continued unity would depend on Salih correcting the “mistakes”, and if separation occurred, the YSP would blame the north.

To some extent al-Baid’s behaviour at this point was typical of the conflicting signals he had been sending to Sana’a since beginning his “withdrawal” two months earlier. While it appeared that his difficulties with the constitutional oath were not necessarily those of his party, the strident tone of his remarks from Aden meant that he could not return to Sana’a immediately without serious loss of face. At the same time, though, there was an ambivalence about the YSP’s intentions, and particularly its attitude towards unity, which characterised its conduct throughout the crisis. The subsequent exodus of other YSP ministers, members of parliament and civil servants from Sana’a to Aden could be seen either as means to increase the pressure for reform or as a prelude to separation. Optimists in Sana’a hoped it was the former and, to avoid forcing the issue, continued paying the absent civil servants rather than dismissing them. But with the cabinet unable to meet, with large numbers of empty seats in parliament and with government departments in north and south refusing to communicate, it was clear that for most practical purposes, Yemen had once again become two separate states.

There was a similar ambivalence about the terms the YSP proposed as the basis for a return to Sana’a, since it was not immediately clear whether the party hoped its terms would be accepted (presumably ending the crisis) or rejected (thus providing grounds for formal separation). Most of the YSP’s proposals, set out in a document which became known as The Eighteen Points, were so obviously sensible or couched in such broad terms that it would be difficult for anyone to disagree with them as general objectives – it is, after all, the task of any government to attempt to balance budgets and apprehend criminals – and they won popular support in both south and north, far beyond the confines of the YSP. Some of the measures proposed [19] were relatively straightforward and uncontentious, such as the long-promised issuing of a single currency [20], but others were more troubling for the president and the GPC – particularly the emphasis on devolving power to the provinces which could easily have led to renewed separation by stealth.

Even if accepted, most of the 18 points would have taken time to implement (Point 18, for example, talked of a five-year “reconciliation period”); they set out a series of goals but without a step-by-step plan for getting there. Unable to reject the proposals for fear of seeming intransigent, but unable to accept them either because of the possible consequences, the GPC decided to go one better by issuing its own alternative list of 19 points. This idea caught the imagination of other political groups too, and in the following weeks various lists, with varying numbers of points, were circulated. Many of the ideas they contained were later incorporated in the discussions of the Political Forces Dialogue Committee [see next chapter].
 

INCREASING assertiveness by the YSP as it attempted to recoup the political influence it had lost in the parliamentary elections was the hallmark of this period. In the process, differences with the GPC which had hitherto been referred to only obliquely emerged into the open. Having emerged, they remained unresolved, multiplied and became inter-linked, so that none could be settled individually. It was not simply a matter of stumbling heedlessly into a muddle; there were vital issues concerning unity which had been left on the table in 1990 and the passage of time, far from making them easier to resolve, had allowed them to become festering sores whose treatment lacked any great sense of urgency. 

New issues had arisen, too. There were those in the south who argued that union with the north had given them nothing and cost them dear. Because the south had formally abandoned Marxism around the time of unification it had faced other changes not experienced by the north. In nature, these were similar to the changes experienced by east European countries during the transition to a free market: before, as Adenis sometimes complained, there was nothing in the shops; afterwards there were plenty of goods in the shops but people could not afford them. To some extent, however, the south was shielded from the most extreme effects of privatisation: because of government ineffectiveness the changes were slow to take effect and mass unemployment was avoided by protecting (at considerable expense) many unnecessary jobs in the public sector, especially the civil service. 

A more serious grievance was the indiscriminate way in which the better aspects of Marxist rule had been thrown out along with the bad: the once-free health service was ruined and long-term social planning – notably in education, where there had been creditable achievements in combating illiteracy – went by the board. None of these concerns were at the root of the GPC-YSP dispute, however. They were a product of the free market rather than unification and would have occurred anyway with the collapse of socialism, even if the south had remained as a separate state. Nor was it strictly accurate to say that the south had received nothing from the north since unification. The salaries of southern government employees had been paid (if erratically) from central funds. Also, the south made no real contribution to Yemen’s oil revenues until July 1993 but had, at least in theory, been sharing the benefits of the northern oil from Ma’rib ever since unification [21].

Another complaint was “northernisation” of the south. This took various forms and ranged from the spread of institutionalised corruption (from which the PDRY government had been remarkably free) to the spread of the qat-chewing habit (which had been restricted in the south by the lack of supplies). In fact the increased use of qat was mainly due to privatisation: cultivation of the plant had previously been forbidden on state-owned land. Another form of northernisation occurred when control of specifically southern projects was transferred to Sana’a, often with disappointing results. This happened with Aden’s free port scheme, for example, and gave rise to suspicions that the northern port of Hodeida, though less well placed geographically, was receiving more favourable treatment.

Such problems were not so insoluble or so obviously the fault of Sana’a as to justify the undoing of unification – and indeed the Socialist party made little political capital out of them. Evidence is necessarily impressionistic, but it seemed that at street level unity remained generally popular, particularly those aspects that affected ordinary people, such as freedom of movement. However, memories of the PDRY’s near-bankruptcy in 1989 were fading and confidence in the south’s own resources was growing. One much-quoted (but uncheckable) claim was that southern Yemeni exiles driven out by the Marxists held $25 billion in Saudi banks which they would re-invest at the appropriate time. Others calculated that since the south had one-third of united Yemen’s oil but only one-fifth of the population it would be better off without the north [22]. Misplaced or not, it was this gradual return of confidence, together with increasingly supportive contacts with Yemen’s neighbours after the Kuwait war that encouraged the YSP to reflect on the value of unity.

Three years of power sharing with the north had also brought to light an intractable problem. It was not one of issues or policies, but a difference of outlook encapsulated – as far as the YSP was concerned – by the concept of nidham (order or discipline) and its opposite, fawda (chaos or anarchy). Nidham was political shorthand for southern values, and naturally it was good. Fawda, on the other hand, encompassed all that the YSP found wrong with the north: lawlessness, tribalism, favouritism, corruption, ineffective government. That was, of course, a simplistic picture which turned at times to caricature; both sides, in their different ways, had elements of nidham and fawda [see Chapter 6]. What nidham really meant in this context was doing things the YSP’s way – and the president would have none of it.

With hindsight, it is clear that the YSP leaders had concluded (perhaps even before the 1993 elections) that while Salih remained in control, union would ultimately mean absorption. Thus there developed two parallel strategies: one aimed at weakening the president with a view to his departure from office, and the other, which was possibly a strategy of last resort, aimed at justifying a re-division of the country. Within the YSP, though, there were varying degrees of emphasis. There were those who had never truly favoured unity, preferring instead a gradualist approach through confederation. There were others who saw the effort to restrict presidential power as a genuine process of democratisation, while for some, more cynically, the conflict was nothing more or less than a struggle for power.

© Copyright Brian Whitaker 2009