Following six months of rumor and speculation in Yemen, President Ali Abdallah Salih did the expected and announced that he would stand for reelection in the presidential contest scheduled for September 2006. Salih accepted the nomination of his ruling General People’s Congress party on December 17, 2005, during its three-day conference in the southern port city of Aden. The conference, which had been postponed twice to allow Salih to return from state visits abroad, was largely a scripted affair, with few surprises, save for when the president tried and failed to catch a pigeon that landed at his table.
If the 63-year old president wins reelection, which seems all but guaranteed, he would continue to rule Yemen until 2013, rounding out a full 35 years in power for a man few thought would last six months.
Salih took the reins of the northern Yemen Arab Republic in 1978, following the assassinations of that country’s previous two presidents within a year of each other. He quickly solidified his rule by appointing trusted members of his family to key military and security posts, and in 1982 he established the General People’s Congress (GPC). Since then, he has led the country — a task that a local saying equates to dancing on the head of a serpent — through extremely difficult times, with a surprising amount of tact and agility. Long gone is Salih the tank driver who, as Paul Dresch writes in his Modern History of Yemen, was once remembered “motoring along Abd al-Moghni Street in [the Yemeni capital of] Sanaa, during the fighting of 1968, and shelling point-blank such symbols of leftist progress as the pharmacy and the Bilqis cinema.” Salih is now a seasoned diplomat, who oversaw unification with the former Socialist south in 1990 and then weathered a brief civil war in 1994. Eventually, in 1999, he became the first popularly elected president on the Arabian Peninsula, defeating an “independent” candidate from his own party, who at one point was quoted as saying that even he would “vote for Salih.”
Given the relative weakness of the opposition in Yemen — in the 2003 parliamentary elections the GPC won 229 of 301 seats — the nomination came as no great surprise. But Salih’s acceptance of it marked a clear reversal of his earlier pledge not to stand for reelection in favor of a “peaceful transfer of power.”
On July 17, in a speech marking the anniversary of 27 years in power, Salih announced in front of nearly 1,200 local and foreign dignitaries that he would stand down when his current term of office expires. “I will not run for office in the next elections,” the official daily al-Thawra quoted him as saying, “but I will remain in office for the rest of my term and continue to uphold the perfect trust of the Yemeni people.” He went on to call on all parties, including the opposition, to nominate candidates who are “patriotic and educated so that they might handle all the responsibilities of leadership.” Throughout his speech, he stressed the need for “young blood” to rejuvenate the political system in Yemen.
Salih’s announcement, however, was only the first act in a piece of political theater, part comedy, part tragedy, that played out on a national stage. Like most scripted performances, everyone had a part to play, but control of the production remained offstage, unseen.
The news of Salih’s impending retirement from politics came as a shock to this country of 22 million, temporarily shattering years of assumptions. Conventional wisdom held that Salih would breeze to victory in the 2006 elections with the 90-plus percent of the vote Arab presidents are accustomed to, and then begin paving the way for his son, Ahmad, who heads both the Republican Guards and the Special Forces, to succeed him in 2013. The smart money said, in other words, that Salih would do what Hafiz al-Asad did in Syria and what Husni Mubarak appears to be doing in Egypt. Most Yemenis, long accustomed to presidential ploys and unfulfilled promises, initially greeted the news of Salih’s announcement with suspicion and disbelief.
One man watching the coverage on al-Jazeera joked that the president had “probably been chewing a lot of qat before his speech and didn’t know what he was saying,” referring to the daily, sex-segregated ritual for most men and women in which the leaves of the mildly stimulating qat plant are chewed and stored in one’s cheek. “He’s probably watching the news right now and saying ‘I didn’t say that; how could I say that,’” the man continued. The reaction was a common one in a region where most leaders, presidents or kings, still tread the path to retirement charted by al-Mu‘tamid, the poet-king of Seville in eleventh-century Muslim Spain: “The road of kings is from the palace to the grave.” Across the Arab world, jokes about “republican-kingdoms” (jumlukiyyas) express the widespread feeling that the difference between a republic (jumhuriyya) and a kingdom (mamlaka) is in name only.
But ever so slowly, as every newspaper in the country led with “Salih’s shocker” and with no official renunciation, the disbelief turned to cautious optimism. Rumors about the president’s ill health, general fatigue after 27 years in power and concern for his legacy fed speculation about possible candidates for 2006. Succession has always been a taboo subject in Yemen. But for two days in mid-July names were tossed about and argued over in qat chews, as the intensity of public debate and discussion rose to unprecedented levels.
Even the foreign press got caught up in the excitement about the possibility of a real election in the Arab world. The Beirut-based Daily Star wrote an editorial saying, “Salih has certainly raised the bar for Arab leaders across the region.” Ahmad al-Raba‘I, a Kuwaiti columnist for the Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily al-Sharq al-Awsat, wrote a column entitled “The ‘Former’ Yemeni President,” in which he begged Salih not to listen to those who would claim that, as per a popular saying, “without you agriculture will die and breasts will dry up.” Become the first Arab president, al-Raba‘i continued, to voluntarily give up power. “We want you to achieve our dreams and become a former Arab president, something that no one else in the Arab world can claim to be.”
But it was not to be. Late in the evening of July 19, the same day that al-Raba‘i published his column, the Yemeni government announced that as of midnight it was lifting state subsidies on diesel and gas, causing the price of the former to triple while the latter nearly doubled. The fallout from the decision was immediate. Prices of every commodity that must be transported to market by truck, or nearly everything, rose dramatically as people began hoarding gasoline and diesel. Overnight, the conclusion of the piece of political theater became obvious.
The blame for lifting the subsidies would fall on Prime Minister Abd al-Qadir Bajammal, and the stage would be set for Salih’s return, whereupon he could command the government to lower the price of gas and diesel and pose as mediator between the public and the government. The script seemed much the same as one from 1995, when the government also reduced subsidies on fuel. In that instance, the French scholar Renauld Detalle wrote, Salih positioned “himself as the compassionate ruler, above his own insensitive government.”
The 2005 drama had another, ironic prequel: Salih has argued in the past that subsidy reductions are necessary for a country that is quickly running out of both water and oil. But as he and others in the regime know, it is inevitable that public protest will meet price hikes in a country where the World Bank estimates that 42 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Parliament had delayed implementing the decision, which it first announced in January, three times for fear of sparking riots. Critics argue that the subsidies could have been kept in place had the government trimmed defense spending, which officially stands at 25 percent of the budget, but is unofficially estimated to be as high as 40 percent. One recent study carried out by Nasir al-Awlaqi of Sanaa University, and published in al-Thawabit, claimed that Yemen is third in the Arab world in defense spending.
The riots began July 20, the day after the subsidy was lifted, in Sanaa, Dhala and Dhamar, eventually spreading across the country to other major cities such as Aden, Hudayda, Marib, Saada and Ta‘izz. By the time it was all over, different power bases, such as factions within the military and tribal blocs, were shocked into acquiescence in the president’s bit of political theater, fearing the instability and inevitable regime shakeup that would follow Salih’s resignation from politics.
In Sanaa, the first day of the riots was extremely violent, with large mobs marching throughout the city destroying property, attacking banks, car dealerships and government offices, burning cars and tires in the streets, and looting stores. The police and army responded with tear gas, clubs and live ammunition, which they fired into the crowd in attempts to quell the riots. Other, more specialized troops used pepper spray and the training they had recently received from US advisers to scatter the crowds. One professor from Sanaa University later joked at a qat chew that the spray was “bisbas al-dimuqratiyya,” or the pepper of democracy. There were chants calling for the fall of Bajammal’s cabinet as well as some against the president, but dutifully the Yemeni papers only reported the public’s anger with the prime minister.
A heavy afternoon thunderstorm dispersed most of the rioters in Sanaa, many retreating to the comfort of their daily qat chew. That night, the army brought in large numbers of tanks and troops, strategically positioning them at major intersections and in public squares, cordoning off neighborhoods and containing the riots over the next two days. It was much the same throughout the rest of the country. By the end of the third day, the official death toll stood at 22 with 375 injured, but unofficial estimates, including reporting from al-Jazeera and al-Arabiyya, put the figure as high as 50 dead.
On the second day of the riots, Salih took his first step toward setting up his return to politics, announcing that all government employees would receive a salary increase of 8 to 10 percent. He quickly followed up by slashing the sales tax from 10 to 5 percent. Salih held his last move in check until the rest of the political players had carried out their roles. Opposition parties, including Islah and the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP), condemned the rioting, as did prominent figures like Sheikh Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, a veteran of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan who is listed as a “specially designated global terrorist” by the US and the UN.
Finally, following a meeting with tribal leaders on July 25, Salih commanded the government to reduce the price on gas and diesel by 10 Yemeni riyals, or about $.02, a liter. Among those attending the meeting with Salih was Sheikh Abdallah al-Ahmar, the second most powerful man in the country as the speaker of Parliament and, more importantly, as the paramount sheikh of the Hashid tribal confederation. Ahmar is reported to have opposed lifting the subsidies. His presence at the meeting, and his tacit acceptance of Salih’s policies, were another important step on the president’s road to reelection, as Salih cannot afford to alienate the speaker’s substantial constituencies.
Bajammal reportedly disagreed with the lifting of the subsidies, and was understandably angry at taking the fall for a policy he opposed. A semi-public feud between the prime minister and the president came to a head in early August when Bajammal headed to Europe for a “vacation” that many saw as a cooling-off period. The two men seem to have patched over their differences since, with Salih strongly urging Bajammal to run for the position of secretary-general of the GPC, which the latter won during the party’s December conference.
There is still tension between Salih and Ahmar over the subsidies, however, and in late December the speaker sent the president an unsubtle message through his son, Hussein al-Ahmar, who along with three of his brothers is a parliamentary deputy. Two hold seats for their father’s Islah party and two are members of GPC. Hussein, a GPC member, warned in an interview that he was contemplating breaking away to form a new party, if the GPC did not change its policy.
Not everyone accepted Salih’s pledge and the ensuing week of drama as a mere ploy to ensure a warm welcome back to the presidential palace. Abdallah Ahmad Numan, a former Yemeni ambassador to South Africa who is living in self-imposed exile in Geneva, told United Press International on July 20 that he was announcing his candidacy for president as an independent. On the same day, the weekly independent al-Wasat reported — in an article entitled “The First Candidate for President” — that Muhammad Abdallah Rakan, a regional secretary for the YSP in the governorate of Jawf, had also announced his intention to seek the office.
The announcements of these two potential candidates were followed throughout the fall and winter by seven others, including a female candidate, but none of the names seem to command a great deal of respect in Yemen. Despite being a son of Ahmad Numan, a revolutionary war hero, little is known about Abdallah and his status as a dissident in exile does not bode well for his chances. Rakan is also a mysterious figure, and little has been heard of him since his announcement; even his own party seems to be ignoring him.
In addition to Numan, four other Yemenis living abroad have declared themselves as candidates. The first to do so, Abdallah Salam al-Hakimi, who fled Yemen in 1979 following a failed coup attempt against Salih and who lives in Cairo, told al-Wasat on the eve of the GPC conference that he would remain a candidate even if Salih reversed his position not to run. The future of the other three is less clear. Yahya al-Huthi’s candidacy from Sweden seems to be a publicity stunt, as the family of this member of Parliament has been involved in a low-level war with the government in and around the northern city of Saada since 2004. Abd al-Rahman al-Baidhani, a former deputy president of Yemen who also lives in Cairo, said he based his decision to run on the assumption that Salih would adhere to his pledge. Likewise, Jamal al-Murshid, a lawyer working in the United Arab Emirates, has said his candidacy was based on that assumption. Neither has spoken publicly on their future as candidates since Salih accepted the nomination of the GPC.
The final three candidates — Tawfiq al-Khamiri, Nasir Sabr and Sumayya Ali Raja — are all on the record as saying they would compete whether or not Salih chose to run. Al-Khamiri is a local businessman who claims to be forming a new party to be known as Hizb al-Ghad, or the Party of Tomorrow. Sabr, director of the illiteracy eradication authority in Sanaa and a member of the GPC, has said that “superior figures” in his party have urged him to withdraw his name from consideration. In November, his car was attacked with a hand grenade while it was parked near the US Embassy in Sanaa.
Raja, Yemen’s first female presidential candidate, has lived abroad for much of her life, both in the US and in Europe. She earned an undergraduate degree in television directing during study in the US, was briefly a news anchor on Yemeni state television in the late 1970s and has since worked for a number of other television stations, including the BBC. She also has headed the Yemeni-French cultural forum in France, and she is now working to reestablish that group in Sanaa. Raja has been the most active of Salih’s putative antagonists, publicly questioning the neutrality of the official press with her assertion that its reporting has ignored every opposition candidate.
None of the potential opposition candidates has been endorsed by an opposition party, though they will need such support to get the 10 percent approval vote in the 301-seat parliament required to place their names on the ballot. Islah and the YSP, the two largest opposition parties, have been silent as to whom they might nominate to compete against Salih. Islah nominated Salih as its candidate in 1999, despite the fact that he was also the GPC’s candidate, and many think the party may do the same this time around.
Lost in Translation
The US, which presumably would like to present a contested presidential race in Yemen as proof of results in its declared push to foster democracy in the region, has also been a player in President Salih’s production. In an interview on October 6 with the independent daily al-Ayyam, US Ambassador Thomas Krajeski was quoted as saying that the progress of democracy in Yemen had “stopped.” His comments drew sharp criticism, with columnists and writers warning him not to interfere in Yemen’s internal affairs, and within days Krajeski was backtracking, saying he was misquoted. Four days later, in an interview with the publisher of the Yemen Observer, Faris Sanabani, who doubles as Salih’s press secretary, Krajeski claimed he had said Yemen’s progress towards democracy had “stalled” or “slowed down,” which was then mistranslated into Arabic as “stopped.”
The diplomatic flap over Krajeski’s remarks was still making headlines in Yemen and the Arab world a month later, as Salih prepared for a three-day state visit to the US. Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi told al-Sharq al-Awsat that his government was still “annoyed” with the ambassador’s earlier comments, but did not believe that it would adversely affect Salih’s pursuit of his goals in Washington.
The visit, however, did not go as well as Yemen had hoped. On the first day, Salih was told that Yemen was being suspended from a US government program, the Millennium Challenge Account, by which, according to the Millennium Challenge Corporation website, development assistance is “provided to those countries that rule justly, invest in their people and encourage economic freedom.” This suspension cost Yemen $20 million in aid. The World Bank also told Salih that it was cutting its assistance from $420 million to $280 million. Both groups cited Yemeni government corruption as the key reason for the cuts. The remainder of the visit was overshadowed by the November 10 terrorist attacks in Amman.
But on the specific issue of Salih’s pledge not to run — the issue that Yemenis were most anxious to see discussed — nothing was said. Krajeski told Nabil al-Sufi of News Yemen in an interview following the visit that Salih’s pledge did not come up. “This really is an issue for Yemenis to decide, for President Salih to decide, for the party to decide, and I hope, inshallah, for the election to decide.” Krajeski seemed eager to talk about other things, such as the movement of weapons in Yemen, saying: “Yemenis love guns. Americans love guns. President Bush is from Texas, he understands how difficult it is to control the trade of weapons.” Regarding the state of democracy in Yemen, the ambassador employed a formulation heard in State Department responses to the dubious Egyptian electoral exercises in 2005: “Sometimes it happens very fast; sometimes — get this word right, now — it slows down.” But he refused to give a direct US response to Salih’s pledge.
The Ruler You Know
Many in Yemen, including journalists and analysts, equated the lack of an official US response as veiled encouragement for Salih to seek reelection. Writing on News Yemen’s website in November, Walid al-Saqaf speculated that the US was concerned that Yemen could descend into chaos without Salih at the helm. This is a view that many Yemenis share. Fears of instability and fragmentation could very well propel Salih to an election victory even if he were pitted against a legitimate opponent in truly free and fair elections.
Already two polls have Salih well in front of any potential opponents. The first one, conducted by the Ra’id Center for Studies and Research in the days leading up to the GPC conference in December, surveyed 350 people and found that 53 percent would support Salih’s nomination, while 43 percent hoped that he would not run again. The second poll, carried out by the Future Studies Center in the week following the conference, found that 87 percent of the 3,500 people surveyed would vote for Salih in the upcoming elections.
The future, at least for the moment, seems clear: Salih will have little opposition in strolling to victory in September.