Up to the brink

by Brian Whitaker

Originally published in Middle East International, 22 October 1993

THE ELECTION of Yemen's new presidential council last week [October 11] was hailed by one western diplomat as "a model of democracy at work". More accurately, and less euphemistically, the country had a narrow escape from political turmoil.

Under the constitution, parliament chooses a new presidential council, which in turn chooses a new chairman - in effect electing the country's president. But since the general election last April Yemen has had a hung parliament, which meant that none of the three parties in the coalition government could get its nominees for the council elected without support from another party.

The five-member council's term of office was due to expire on October 14 and as the deadline approached, it seemed that the General People's Congress (GPC) headed by President Ali Abdullah Salih, could not count on Socialist support. The Socialist vice-president, Ali Salim al-Baid had (not for the first time) retreated to his southern power base in Aden after a quarrel with the president. Though this latest dispute involved numerous issues, it began last August when al-Baid visited his American opposite-number, Al Gore, without consulting Salih.

That appeared to leave the future of the presidential council in the hands of Islah, the "reform" party which seeks stricter implementation of Islamic law. Islah realised that if they refused to co-operate as well, no new presidential council would be elected to replace the old one, thus creating a power vacuum.

In that event, according to the constitution, power would automatically pass to the Chairmanship Board of parliament and the Speaker, Sheikh Hussein Abdullah al-Ahmar - leader of Islah - would become Acting President. Although his party includes religious activists among its members, the sheikh is essentially a traditionalist from the northern mountains, a man with 20 children, a private militia, and - most importantly - close links with Saudi Arabia.

Islah is often perceived as a vehicle for Saudi mischief-making in Yemen and rumours spread that al-Ahmar would sign a treaty ending the two countries' border dispute during his temporary presidency. True or not, this helped to swing the Socialists back behind Salih and the GPC. The former Marxist party, which once ruled South Yemen, includes strong secular and modernising elements to whom Islah is anathema.

At the same time a mixture of internal and international pressures persuaded Islah to pull back from the brink. Both Jordan and Oman signalled to the Saudis their displeasure at the turn of events: Sultan Qabus broke ranks with the Gulf Co-operation Council's policy of cold-shouldering Yemen to pay President Salih a personal visit. Meanwhile a private meeting in Aden with al-Baid appears to have convinced Sheikh al-Ahmar that if he did block the election his temporary presidency would be marked by widespread disruption and strikes.

Thus a midnight gathering only hours before parliament's vote brought agreement of sorts: the GPC would give up one of its three seats on the council to Islah and the Socialists would retain their two. But that left the question of al-Baid still unresolved. In his absence, he was re-elected to the council and unanimously re-elected vice-president, though not sworn in. Even if he returns to the capital shortly, his increasingly strident remarks from Aden - including talk of "divorce" - suggest it may now be too late for a genuine reconciliation with President Salih.