Heading for a showdown


Still causing trouble: ex-president Saleh waving to his supporters from a balcony last week. Photo: <a href=Yemen Times" src="/sites/default/files/saleh141107.jpg" style="width: 500px; height: 371px; border-width: 1px; border-style: solid;" />

Amid objections from the Houthi movement and supporters of ex-president Saleh, 30 out of 36 members of Yemen's new government were sworn in on Sunday.

Three of the new ministers named on Friday have declined to take up their posts: Ahmed al-Kuhlani (Minister of State for Parliament), Ahmed Luqman (Civil Service and Insurance), and Qubool al-Mutawakil (Social Affairs and Labour). 

Mutawakil, one of four women nominated to ministerial posts, is the daughter of Mohammed al-Mutawakil, a liberal politician who was assassinated a week ago. In a statement reported on the Barakish website, she wished the new government well but said she preferred to "continue working for Yemen through my position in civil society".

Three other ministerial nominees – Arwa Othman (Culture), Mohammed al-Amery (Minister of State) and Abdullah al-Saydi (Foreign Affairs) – are said to be abroad and it is unclear whether they all intend to take up their posts. 

Forming a new government had become a matter of extreme urgency because the Houthis, who now hold sway in much of the country, had threatened to form an administration of their own (which one supporter described as a "salvation military council") if no government was appointed within 10 days.

Saleh's antics are a further complicating factor. On Friday, the UN security council imposed a travel ban and assets freeze on the ex-president, along with two Houthi military commanders. On Saturday, Saleh's party, the General People's Congress, retaliated by dismissing President Hadi from his position as secretary-general of the party on the grounds that he had encouraged the UN to impose sanctions.

Yemen is now legally obliged to implement the UN sanctions against Saleh but it is doubtful whether the government is capable of doing so. Prime minister Khaled Bahah has reportedly said Yemen "will respect the UN sanctions" and work with the security council to implement them.

The situation would have been a lot simpler if Saleh had been sent into exile in 2012 after stepping down from the presidency, but the flawed "transition plan" negotiated by the Gulf Cooperation Council with UN backing allowed him to remain in Yemen, with immunity from prosecution. The sanctions imposed last week are the result of his continued mischief-making.

However, in a report for the European Council on Foreign Relations, Adam Baron (a journalist who was recently expelled from Yemen) argues that the sanctions may be counter-productive:

"Considering the increasing unpopularity of the UN and of western actors’ interventions in the country, it seems very possible that the issuing of sanctions could backfire. Even many who back the punitive measures see them as too little, too late.

"Whether or not they prove effective in the short term, punitive measures by themselves will not bring Yemen closer to stability. More than anything, what Yemen needs is a government that is capable of demonstrating its legitimacy and showing that it is able to solve at least some of the many problems the impoverished country face."

Sanctions have plainly given Saleh something to complain about but even without them he would probably have found other reasons to obstruct the new government.

Baron's point about the need for "a government that is capable of demonstrating its legitimacy" is an important one but it is difficult to see how the new government can achieve this. Apart from the swearing-in of ministers, it still has to face a vote of confidence in parliament – and the Yemeni constitution is very clear about this. Article 85 says:

"Within a maximum of twenty-five days of the formation of the new government, the Chairman of the Council of Ministers shall present his governments programme to the House of Representatives in order to win a vote of confidence by the majority of the members of the House. If the House of Representatives is in recess, it is to be recalled for an extraordinary session. The members of the House and the House as a whole has the right to comment on the government's programme. The failure of the government to win the required majority is to be considered a with-holding of confidence."

The problem here is that it is almost certain to lose a vote of confidence because Saleh's party still holds an overwhelming majority of seats.

At the same time, though, the parliament itself lacks legitimacy: it was elected in 2003 for a six-year term which has now over-run by five years.

President Hadi's legitimacy is also increasingly questionable. He was elected in 2012 (in a one-candidate "contest", contrary to the constitution), as interim president for the duration of what was supposed to be a two-year transition period which, again, has now over-run. Although this might appear to have set his term of office at two years, the GCC's transition agreement also says his presidential term will end with the inauguration of a new president "elected under the new constitution" (which has yet to be written).

Despite all these complications, it is clear there is going to be little progress in Yemen while Saleh continues his meddling. Sooner or later, there will have to be a showdown.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Sunday, 9 November 2014