Magnanimous gesture

by Brian Whitaker

Originally published in Middle East International, 30 May 2003

NINE YEARS after north and south Yemen fought a civil war, President Ali Abdullah Salih and his erstwhile enemy, Ali Salim al-Baid, were finally reconciled at a meeting in Abu Dhabi last Sunday [MAY 25].

Following unification of the country in May 1990, the ruling parties from both parts - the northern General People's Congress (GPC) and the southern Socialist Party - formed a coalition government. Salih became president with al-Baid as his deputy but quarrels ensued, paralysing government.

In 1994 the Socialists - who had retained control over the southern armed forces - attempted to secede from the union but were quickly defeated.

Al-Baid, who has lived in exile in Oman ever since, was one of four Socialist leaders convicted of treason and sentenced to death in their absence when the war ended.

Last week, in a televised broadcast to mark the 13th anniversary of Yemeni unification, Salih pardoned the four and urged them "to take part in building the country which has enough room for everyone".

A few days later, during a visit to the United Arab Emirates, Salih met al-Baid for the first time since the war and reportedly promised that all exiled Socialist officials could "return to practising their political and civil rights and [leading] a safe life" in Yemen.

In another conciliatory move, the president has also appointed Salim Salih Mohammed, a prominent Socialist who was more ambivalent than al-Baid about the secession attempt, to be his special adviser.

Magnanimous gestures towards old foes are a familiar ingredient of Salih's leadership style - but only when he is sure the foes no longer pose a threat.

In this case, his generosity may have been prompted by the Socialists' poor showing in last month's [APRIL] election when they won only seven of the 301 parliamentary seats. It was the first time the party had contested parliamentary elections since the war, having boycotted the polls in 1997.

Assessments of the latest election suggest that electoral processes worked more smoothly than in the past, though the Washington-based National Democratic Institute highlighted "political intimidation, underage voting, inappropriate behaviour by security forces, vote buying and obstruction by GPC counting commissioners".

A report by Sheila Carapico, a Yemen expert who observed the election, described the GPC's campaign as "quintessential pork-barrel politics: if you want better community services, a civil service job or government contracts, only the ruling party can deliver.

"This message ... resonated in the small towns and rural areas that still lack potable water, round-the-clock electricity, paved streets and adequate educational facilities. Some citizens heard it as a threat to withhold funds from constituencies and even voting precincts that failed to support the president's party."

This is perhaps the main reason why opposition parties, of whatever complexion, have so far been unable to make serious inroads into the GPC's overwhelming majority.

"Yemen might be an emerging Arab democracy, gradually but steadily improving on the electoral process," Ms Carapico concluded. "Alternatively, it could be on the road to becoming a one-party quasi-democracy, like Egypt, wherein opposition parties are allowed to compete but not to win."

In the customary post-election cabinet reshuffle, Abdul Kader Bagammal remained as prime minister, though there are 17 newcomers to the 35-member government which promises to make fighting poverty, reforming education and combating terrorism its main priorities. As a headline in the Yemen Times put it: "New faces, same challenges".

On the security front, the United States has formally indicted two fugitive Yemenis, Jamal al-Badawi and Fahd al-Qusaa, in connection with the suicide attack on USS Cole that killed 17 sailors in Aden harbour in October 2000. Al- Badawi had previously been named by Yemen as one of the main suspects. Both men are alleged to have al-Qaeda connections.

On May 10 a Yemeni who appears to be an Islamic militant, possibly with al-Qaeda links, was sentenced to death for murdering three American missionaries at a Baptist hospital in Ibb province last December. The man, Abed Abdel Razzak Kamel, 30, reportedly said his aim was to take revenge on Christians and Americans.

Protesting in court at the sentence, he said: "The ruling is a political one and violates Islamic sharia law."

In the same courtroom four days later, a judge was injured by a man who threw a grenade.