Clear-out at the top

Clear-out at the top

by Brian Whitaker

Originally published in Middle East International,20 April, 2001

IN YEMEN'S biggest government clear-out for years, President Ali Abdullah Salih has replaced his prime prime minister and more than half the cabinet.

The new prime minister, 55-year-old Abd al-Qader Bagammal, previously served as foreign minister and, after several years’ grooming, was the obvious choice to succeed Dr Abd al-Karim al-Iryani, who has been suffering from ill health.

Bagammal, a southerner from Hadhramaut, began his political career in the marxist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, where he was planning and oil minister during the 1980s. Following the 1986 coup he was imprisoned for "working against the principles of socialism".

When north and south Yemen were unified in 1990, he joined Salih’s party, the General People’s Congress, and began a steady rise to the top.

In the reshuffle that followed Bagammal’s appointment, 17 ministers lost their jobs - to be replaced by 22 newcomers in an expanded government of 35 members. The unusual speed of this announcement, coming only five days after the change of prime minister, indicated that the changes had been planned for some time.

The moves were hailed in the official media as signs of "change and modernisation", to be brought about by "capable and qualified young men".

At the swearing-in ceremony President Salih impressed upon the new ministers the need to curb corruption and fulfil the people’s aspirations in education, development and industry. The finance ministry, he said, would have a special responsibility to identify efficient people through continuous evaluation of their work.

Salih’s hope is to present a more credible government in time for the next parliamentary elections which were due this month but, because of constitutional amendments (dutifully approved by the voters), will not now take place until 2003.

The outgoing government headed by Dr Iryani, took over in 1998 in the midst of a crisis when the previous prime minister, Dr Faraj bin Ghanim, flew to Geneva for a medical check-up after a row with the president and failed to return.

While Yemen reeled from the effects of low oil prices, the Iryani government introduced a tough package of economic reforms (at the behest of the World Bank and IMF), and later settled the long-running border dispute with Saudi Arabia. But it also became unpopular with many Yemenis who interpreted what, perhaps, was intended to be a period of stability as a period of lethargy.

While some Yemenis urge that the new government should be given a chance to prove itself, others are already sceptical. Some say they are too inexperienced; others that they are merely younger versions of their predecessors. One Yemeni described the reshuffle as putting "new wine in old bottles".

The big question is whether the new ministers will be able - even with the best intentions - to make government more accountable and transparent or to root out entrenched corruption.

Although the new cabinet is said to have been appointed on merit, there are signs that the that it conforms to the old balancing act in which regional and tribal interests are guaranteed representation.

The appointment of Yemen’s first woman minister - Professor Waheeba Fare’e, Rector of Queen Arwa University - is one progressive sign.

But her post as minister for human rights, plus other newly created portfolios for the enviroment and population, was dismissed by one writer in the Yemen Times as a marketing ploy, intended to present a "modern and civilised" image of Yemen to the outside world.

One of the oddest appointments is the promotion of Alawi al-Attas to minister of state of parliamentary affairs. As chairman of the Supreme Elections Committee (SEC), he oversaw the disastrous local government elections in February.

Dozens of people died in the elections and many of the results are still disputed. Partisan management of the polls by the SEC has been widely blamed.

Last month, about 10,000 demonstrators - mainly supporters of the Islah party - besieged the SEC’s offices in Sana'a. Islah claimed it had won seats in Arhab, Khawlan, Al-Jubahin, and Al-Salafiyya which had been fraudulently awarded to the ruling GPC.

In Aden, meanwhile, three more people have been arrested in connection with the suicide attack on USS Cole last October, bringing the total of suspects in detention to 15.

Five people have also gone on trial for the New Year bombings in Aden which targeted a church, a hotel and the government news agency, Saba. All are said to belong to the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan. One of the accused, Ali Saeed Gayoul, who is being tried in his absence, is said to have been also involved in the Cole bombing.