Guns and butter

Guns and butter

by Brian Whitaker

Originally published in Middle East International,17 September, 1999

AMID extraordinarily tight security measures, the streets of the Yemeni capital, Sana'a, have been described as unusually quiet of late. Officially, the clampdown is part of a government campaign to disarm the country's 16 million inhabitants who collectively possess around 50 million weapons. But probably it is also intended to forestall trouble during the final run-up to the presidential election on September 23.

Although only a few thousand guns have so far been confiscated and previous bans have proved ineffective, the authorities' approach has been much tougher this time. On September 3, the son of Yemen's military police chief died in a shoot-out after refusing to hand over his weapon at a checkpoint. Two police officers also died.

A few hours earlier, a guest at a wedding party in Sana'a fired into the air, in accordance with Yemeni tradition. Police returned his fire and surrounded the area. Troops then arrived with two tanks, one of which burst into the party by driving straight through a garden wall.

All this contrasts sharply with the festive atmosphere of President Salih's campaign rallies. At one such gathering - in Hoeidah - the president was greeted by tens of thousands of people, many of whom had been provided with free transport (some of it laid on by the main parliamentary opposition party, Islah).

Salih urged the crowd to exercise their constitutional right and vote for "whoever they want to give their confidence and trust to". The choice, however, is not difficult to make because the only other candidate, Najib Qahtan al-Sha'bi, is also a member of the president's party.

Nominally, al-Sha'bi is standing as an independent and - though he is relatively obscure and lacks Salih's campaign resources - has tried to differentiate his policies from those of the president, presenting himself as a moderniser. At a rally last week, he highlighted Yemen's economic problems and called for "serious measures" to tackle them.

The question, though, is not whether Salih will win, but by what margin. Given the weakness of his opponent, the president ought to secure well over 80% of the vote. Anything less than that could suggest that his popularity is fading.

With the Socialists and other opposition groups boycotting the election, turnout will be another indicator. In the 1997 parliamentary election, which was also boycotted by the Socialists, 2,827,261 people voted (representing 41% of those eligible to vote and 61% of those registered). A lower turnout this time could reflect a lack of enthusiasm for the president or the way the election has been conducted.

Meanwhile, official sources say that the blast and fire which totally destroyed Yemen's largest supermarket, damaged property over a quarter-mile radius and woke up most of Sana'a in the early hours of August 28 was caused by the store's owner, who had hoped to claim $2.5 million in insurance after his business ran into difficulties.

The Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan had earlier claimed responsibility for the incident, but a report by forensic experts says that no trace of explosives was found at the scene. According to the alleged confessions of seven accomplices, the owner (who died in the blast) used 15 cylinders of gas and 29 cans of petrol to set the building alight.