Uneasy calm after Yemeni riots

THREE days of rioting in Yemen which left 12 dead and about 77 injured appeared to be subsiding last night. But with no sign of government moves to resolve the underlying problems, there were fears that trouble could flare up again. Disturbances began on Wednesday when students and workers took to the streets in the city of Ta'iz to protest against soaring prices. It concided with a demonstration by striking taxi and bus drivers demanding higher fares.

Government buildings, cars, buses and shops came under attack and rioting spread to four other cities, including the capital, Sana'a. By Thursday, according to the interior ministry, 250 people had been arrested. Yesterday brought more arrests. Witnesses in Sana'a reported dozens of people being beaten and taken away in trucks. However, apart from gunfire in a commercial area during the morning, there were no further reports of trouble. The Foreign Office minister, Douglas Hogg, who had been visiting Yemen, left on Thursday as scheduled.

Even if the government succeeds in quelling the trouble, the economic problems that caused it will remain. Inflation is estimated at between 30 and 50 per cent and the value of the Yemeni riyal has collapsed in recent weeks.

The riots are the latest in a catalogue of difficulties Yemen has faced since 1990 when the socialist south and the free-market north united to form a new republic. Aside from the problems of merging two different political and economic systems, there has been a series of unforeseen misfortunes. First was the Gulf war, which disrupted oil supplies from Iraq and led to the sudden return of 700,000 Yemenis expelled from Saudi Arabia. More recently came the flood of refugees from Somalia.

Meanwhile, against heavy odds and the wishes of its autocratic neighbours, the country has been pressing ahead with its democratisation programme. The elections, if they take place as scheduled on April 17, will be a milestone: the first in the Arabian peninsula held under universal suffrage. Possibly more important, after the debacle in Algeria, where voting was called off when the 'wrong' side looked like winning, and the fig-leaf elections in Kuwait, Yemen has become something of a test case.

Perhaps the most hopeful sign for a relatively stable transfer to democracy is that virtually all political leaders reject the idea of a British-style winner-takes-all election and are talking of coalition. With 54 parties competing for 301 seats in the new parliament, a clear winner would mean many losers. Consequently there is talk of electoral pacts designed to ensure that most parties get some seats in parliament.

Problems in agreeing constituency boundaries meant that the elections, originally due in November, have been postponed for six months. The delay means that subversive elements - possibly with encouragement from outside - have time to disrupt the poll.

The prospect of a Western-style democracy in Yemen has caused alarm in many parts of the peninsula, especially Saudi Arabia, where it is seen as a threat to the traditionalist monarchy.