The present crisis in Yemen is serious indeed, but its origins have been widely misunderstood regionally and internationally. Ours is not a crisis of democracy, as it is so often portrayed, even though some of the government’s political opponents have ruthlessly exploited it to further their own ends. The truth is that the crisis, at its heart, is one of poverty, dependency and development.
Yemen is one of the world’s poorest countries. It has limited but declining oil revenues, few other natural resources and a growing water shortage, which is undermining its agricultural potential. At the same time, Yemen has a rapidly growing population of almost 25 million and an unemployment rate that is far higher than the official figure of 35 percent, especially among our young people.
Our annual government income is around $7 billion. Yet we have expenditures of $10 billion. Much of this goes to subsidies without which many Yemenis would be unable to survive. Fuel subsidies account for 30 percent of our expenditure. We sell power to our people at 20 percent of its cost, and water at 30 percent. The government knows that this is unsustainable and has been putting in place proposals to boost economic growth, increase inward investment and strengthen the private sector.
Yet our efforts to pull our people out of poverty and put Yemen on the road to recovery, stability and growth have been frustrated by a lack of financial resources. Yemen receives about 50 percent less per capita than the international average of other aid recipients.The growing threat from al Qaeda has forced us to divert resources to meeting this new and dangerous challenge to the safety of our people. Additional perils emanate from tribal conflict and efforts of militant separatists to undo the unity we achieved between north and south in 1994.
Amid these problems we have attempted to negotiate relentlessly and in good faith with the opposition, who, notwithstanding their professed support for democracy, ignore the fact that in the 2006 elections, President Ali Abdullah Saleh was returned to office with more than 4 million votes to the opposition’s 1.25 million. Despite flaws, these elections were described by European Union observers as “a milestone in the democratic development of Yemen.” The government agreed to postpone parliamentary elections scheduled for 2009 only because of the opposition’s insistence on changes to our constitution and electoral laws; otherwise they threatened to boycott them.
Then came the “Arab Spring,” and on the back of it, our political opponents have sought to capitalize on our economic misfortunes, exploit the grievances of our young people, mobilize them in the streets and squares of our cities and at the same time commit acts that brought economic activity and investment in Yemen to a virtual halt and inflicted further misery on ordinary people.
To complicate matters further, the attempt to assassinate the president and leading members of the government on June 3 was the culmination of a protracted effort by enemies of the democratic process to remove the government by any means other than through the ballot box. However, they know that despite the compelling but misleadingly incomplete scenes of popular street protest, they cannot win because they do not command sufficient popular support.
So what needs to happen next?
A dialogue is essential to restore confidence and stability and pave the way for a coalition government. That will serve as preparation for constitutional and election-law changes and new elections on the basis of the results of dialogue between the General People’s Congress (GPC) and Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), based on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative.
President Saleh, who is recovering from his injuries, has already made known his intention to stand down from office. While his term runs until 2013, he and the ruling party have expressed their willingness to hold elections earlier and in the meantime to accept a coalition government. With this as his objective, the president has asked the vice president, as acting head of government, to pursue a dialogue with all relevant parties in order to achieve a coalition government. This dialogue will be based on the GCC agreement and with the input of the U.N. special envoy.
Let it be clearly understood, the government and the ruling party are committed to democracy. Yemen faces many serious problems – above all how to lift its people out of poverty. Only a government that has the confidence and support of the people will have the mandate and the authority to make and implement the hard decisions that will be necessary to secure Yemen’s future. That mandate can only be delivered by democratic means through fresh elections. If that means elections sooner than later, then we will welcome it. Then we shall see who the real democrats in Yemen are and who supports them.
We expect that the friends of Yemen will stand by the principles of democracy, law and order, and the peaceful and safe transfer of power, which cannot take place except through the ballot box.
Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, the foreign minister of Yemen.