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Violence between Zaidi Muslim rebels in the north and the Yemeni government continued through mid-2008, with the two sides agreeing to a fragile ceasefire in August. State security forces violently dispersed massive demonstrations by an increasingly confrontational separatist political movement in the south protesting government abuses. In May, Yemen held its first elections for provincial governors, though opposition groups refused to participate. Meanwhile, authorities continued to monitor and censor the press during the year by prosecuting journalists for criticizing the government, blocking access to internet websites, and banning print media.
For centuries after the advent of Islam, a series of dynastic imams controlled most of northern Yemen and parts of the south. The Ottoman Empire ruled many of the cities from the 16th to the early 20th centuries, and the British controlled areas in the southern part of the country, including the port of Aden, beginning in the 19th century.
After the imam was ousted in a 1960s civil war and the British left the south in 1967, Yemen remained divided into two countries: the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen). The two states ultimately unified in 1990 after decades of conflict. In the face of widespread poverty and illiteracy, tribal influences that limit the central government’s authority in certain parts of the country, a heavily armed citizenry, and the threat of Islamist terrorism, Yemen has taken limited steps to improve the status of political rights and civil liberties in the years since unification.
In September 2006, Yemen held its second presidential election since unification. President Ali Abdullah Saleh was reelected with 77 percent of the vote, and the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) party won by a similar margin in concurrent provincial and local council elections. The 2006 presidential race was the first in which a serious opposition candidate challenged the incumbent. Saleh’s main opponent, Faisal Ben Shamlan, was supported by a coalition of Islamist and other opposition parties and received 22 percent of the vote.The elections secured Saleh’s rule for another seven years and opened the door for the possible political candidacy of his son.
In May 2008, Yemen held its first ever elections for 20 provincial governors, posts previously appointed by the government. Opposition groups refused to participate, claiming government manipulation. Progovernment candidates were elected in seventeen of the twenty districts that participated, and independents were elected in the remaining three. One province did not hold elections as a result of protests held by unemployed Yemenis. Meanwhile, tensions between the government and the opposition escalated late in the year. At the end of 2008, the opposition group the Joint Meeting Parties—a coalition that includes the Yemeni Socialist Party and Islah, an Islamist party—threatened to boycott elections for the country’s parliament scheduled for April 2009.
Over the past decade, Yemen has faced security challenges from terrorist and secessionist movements. Clashes in the northern region of Saada as part of an uprising by some members of Yemen’s large community of Zaidi Shiite Muslims continued through mid-2008; hundreds have been killed in the fighting since 2004. In August 2008, Abdelmalek al-Houthi, the leader of the rebellion, accepted a ceasefire proposal to end the conflict. In exchange, the government has promised to open blocked roads into the region, release loyalists to al-Houthi, and attempt to repair damage caused since the start of the conflict. The ceasefire in Saada, however, did not spell an end to violent conflict, and according to a 2008 Human Rights Watch report, the government has failed to live up to the ceasefire agreement. In September, six suspected al-Qaeda terrorists carried out coordinated car bomb attacks on the U.S. embassy in Sanaa in which sixteen people, including all six militants, were killed.
The country continues to be plagued by serious economic problems, including widespread poverty. Economic growth has been slow, and unemployment hovers around 40 percent. Meanwhile, in October 2008, flooding from heavy rains killed over 60 people.
Yemen is not an electoral democracy. The country appears to have a relatively open democratic system, with citizens voting for president, members of parliament, and provincial governors. However, Yemen’s politics are dominated by the ruling GPC party, which has increased its share of elected parliament seats from 145 in 1993 to 237 in the current parliament. The government structure suffers from the absence of any significant limits on the executive’s authority, and President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been serving continuously since 1978, when he became president of North Yemen in a military coup.
The president of Yemen is elected for seven-year terms, and appoints the 111 members of the bicameral parliament’s largely advisory upper house, the Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council). The 301 members of the lower house, the House of Representatives, are elected to serve six-year terms. The next parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2009. Local council members are also elected. There is limited competition among the ruling GPC party, two main opposition parties (the Islamist party Islah and the Yemeni Socialist Party), and a handful of other parties.
Corruption is an endemic problem. Despite recent efforts by the government to fight graft, Yemen lacks most legal safeguards against conflicts of interest. Auditing and investigative bodies are not sufficiently independent of the executive authorities. Yemen was ranked 141 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The state maintains a monopoly over the media that reach the most people—television and radio. Article 103 of the Press and Publications Law outlaws direct personal criticism of the head of state and publication of material that “might spread a spirit of dissent and division among the people” or “leads to the spread of ideas contrary to the principles of the Yemeni Revolution, [is] prejudicial to national unity or [distorts] the image of the Yemeni, Arab, or Islamic heritage.” Access to the internet is not widespread, and the authorities block websites they deem offensive. In January 2008, Yemeni authorities blocked the news website Yemen Portal. In March, authorities permanently closed the newspaper al-Sabah for being critical of the government. The government also temporarily banned a new monthly magazine, Abwab, in March, although it lifted the ban after the magazine removed a photograph deemed offensive to the country’s president. A state security court in June sentenced Abdulkarim al-Khalwani, the former editor of the banned weekly newspaper al-Shura,to six years in prison for collaborating with Zaidi rebels in the north and for “publishing information liable to undermine army morale;” Al-Khalwani was released from prison as a result of a presidential order in September.
Article 2 of the constitution states that Islam is the official religion, and Article 3 declares Sharia (Islamic law) to be the source of all legislation. Yemen has few non-Muslim religious minorities, and their rights are generally respected in practice. The government has imposed some restrictions on religious activity in the context of the rebellion in the northern region of Saada. Mosques’ hours of operation have been limited in the area, and imams suspected of extremism have been removed.Strong politicization of campus life, including tensions between supporters of the ruling GPC and opposition Islah parties, places limits on academic freedom.
Yemenis enjoy some freedom of assembly, with periodic restrictions by the government. The authorities were accused of using excessive force against protesters and rioters demonstrating against fuel-price increases in 2005; more than 40 people were killed and hundreds were injured in the violence. However, opposition political rallies were permitted across the country during the 2006 election season. Throughout 2008, Yemenis in the southern part of the country staged protests challenging what they consider to be the GPC’s abuse of power and the government’s inability to address pressing social and economic concerns. Hundreds of thousands of protestors assembled throughout the year, many advocating secession from the country. The authorities responded with violence, killing several protestors and arresting hundreds of others.
Yemenis have the right to form associations according to Article 58 of the constitution, and several thousand nongovernmental organizations operate in the country. The government respects the right to form and join trade unions, but some critics claim that the government and ruling party elements have stepped up efforts to control the affairs of these organizations.
The judiciary is nominally independent, but in practice it is susceptible to interference from the executive branch. Authorities have a spotty record on enforcing judicial rulings, particularly those issued against prominent tribal or political leaders. Lacking an effective court system, citizens often resort to tribal forms of justice or direct appeals to the executive branch of government. In 2006, Yemen restructured its judicial system to remove the president as head of the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC), which oversees the judiciary; it would instead be led by the chief justice of the Supreme Court. In September 2006, a female judge was appointed to the Supreme Court, and another woman was appointed as the head of the civil court of appeals for Aden governorate.
Arbitrary detention occurs, partly because law enforcement officers lack proper training and senior government officials lack the political will to eliminate the problem. Security forces affiliated with the Political Security Office (PSO) and the Ministry of the Interior torture and abuse detainees, and torture remains a problem in PSO prisons, which are not closely monitored.
Yemen is relatively homogeneous ethnically and racially. The Akhdam, a small minority group, live in poverty and face social discrimination.
Thousands of refugees seeking relief from war and poverty in the Horn of Africa are smuggled into Yemen annually. Refugees, who pay smugglers between US$50 and US$100, are routinely subjected to theft, abuse, and even murder.
Women are afforded most legal protections against discrimination and provided with guarantees of equality. In practice, however, they continue to face pervasive discrimination in several aspects of life. A woman must obtain permission from her husband or father to receive a passport and travel abroad. Unlike men, women do not have the right to confer citizenship on a foreign-born spouse, and the process of obtaining citizenship for a child of a Yemeni mother and a foreign-born father is more difficult than that for a child born to a Yemeni father and a foreign-born mother. Yemen’s penal code allows lenient sentences for those convicted of “honor crimes”—assaults or killings of women for alleged immoral behavior. Laws requiring that a wife obey her husband were abolished by presidential decree in 2004. In April 2008, the Yemeni parliament voted down legislation that would have banned female genital mutilation. Women are vastly underrepresented in elected office. According to the UN Development Programme in 2005, Yemen has one of the largest gaps in the world between boys’ and girls’ primary-school attendance rates.