Crisis could open door for Yemen's Islamists

Crisis could open door for Yemen's Islamists

by Brian Whitaker

Originally published in The Guardian, 11 October 1993

BARELY six months after Yemen's first multi-party elections, the country is in the throes of political crisis. The vice-president is on strike and, if a constitutional tangle cannot be resolved this week, Yemen could find itself without a president. That would leave the leader of the minority Islamist party as acting head of state.

The term of office of Yemen's five-member presidential council expires on Thursday. Under the constitution, parliament should elect a new council, which in turn should choose a new president. Parliament is due to begin this process today, but electing a new council may prove impossible.

Since the general election last April, Yemen has had a hung parliament and a three-party coalition government. The largest party is the General People's Congress (GPC) - headed by President Ali Abdullah Salih - which formerly ruled North Yemen. It is followed some way behind by the Islah (Reform) party which seeks stricter implementation of Islamic law, and the Yemen Socialist Party which ruled South Yemen before unification.

The GPC is the only party that can be sure of the 25 per cent of votes needed to nominate candidates for the presidential council. But it cannot be sure of enough votes to get its nominees elected.

This means that Yemen could find itself without a presidential council or a president. According to the constitution, power would fall to the speaker, Sheikh Hussein Abdullah al-Ahmar, paramount chief of the Hashid tribal confederacy and leader of Islah.

A takeover by Islah would be anathema to the Socialist Party, which includes strong secular and modernising elements: it might even provoke calls for southern Yemen to secede.

Meanwhile Ali Salim al-Baid, leader of the Socialist Party's and Yemen's vice-president, who has been quarreling on-and-off with President Salih for years, stormed out of the capital on August 19, issuing an 18-point list of demands from his southern stronghold of Aden.

The crisis has aroused anxiety in other Arab states: King Hussein of Jordan and Sultan Qabus of Oman are involved in reconciliation efforts. The Saudis, on the other hand, have made no secret of their hopes that Yemen's experiment in democracy will fail.