Political engineering

FORMING a coalition government in Yemen often requires feats of political engineering, but never more so than the cabinet announced on October 6. With the emphasis on national unity in the wake of civil war, it was essential to produce a coalition that could claim to represent the whole country. The problem was how to achieve this without the socialists who, before their military defeat last July, had dominated the south.

The solution - an ingenious one - was to replace southern socialists with southern ex-socialists. In 1986, when Yemen was still two separate states, the Marxist president of South Yemen, Ali Nasser Mohammed, was ousted by an internal party coup. Many of his supporters fled north, and four have now re-appeared as ministers in the new government, representing President Salih's party, the General People's Congress (GPC). A fifth, Abd-Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, has been appointed vice-president, while a sixth becomes the army's chief of staff.

Since the victors in the 1986 coup were also the faction defeated by Salih's forces this year, one effect of these appointments will be to rub salt in old socialist wounds. But it means also that Prime Minister Abd al-Aziz Abd al-Ghani, an American-educated economist, heads a cabinet which can boast of family connections with all Yemen's 18 provinces.

The other notable feature of the new government is the growing strength of the conservative-Islamist party, Islah, which has increased from six posts to nine (against 16 for the GPC and two independents). Its gains include education, the portfolio it eagerly sought, but failed to get, after the elections last year.

Even so, this scarcely bears out claims by exiled southerners that the war has left President Salih at the mercy of fundamentalists in Islah. Considering Islah's invaluable support for the president during the conflict, three extra cabinet places are a very modest reward.

In any case, Islah is not an extremist party in the Egyptian or Algerian sense. It is a fragile alliance of conservative business and tribal interests, plus some radical zealots. It also has fairly limited objectives in the religious sphere, because Yemen already has Islamic law. Its influence will be felt mainly in Aden, which had become relatively secularised under the socialists.

Islah's attitude towards democracy is still slightly ambiguous. At the party conference in September its leader, Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar (who is also the parliamentary Speaker), insisted that it would respect the multi-party system established in 1990. But he also said the party was committed to "the path of democracy, based on the shura" [Islamic consultation] - which might mean something entirely different.

One argument for involving Islah in government is that the responsibilities of office may help to moderate its policies, whereas exclusion might push it towards extremism. There is also a lot of common ground between the GPC and the more moderate elements of Islah - though not, perhaps, enough to ensure a trouble-free co-existence.