Thursday, March 17, 2011

Yemen in emergency talks to guard rial

By Abigail Fielding-Smith in Sana’a

Sana'a, March 17, 2011- The central bank of Yemen has held an emergency meeting with commercial banks amid growing concern that a surge in demand for dollars caused by worsening security could trigger a run on the rial.

The International Bank of Yemen said on Thursday that its demand for cash dollars had risen from about $3m-$5m a day to $5m-$8m as the result of recent turmoil in which tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators have taken to the streets.

“The rial was vulnerable before the crisis,” said Wilfried Engelke, a senior economist with the World Bank in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital. “Those structural issues have become more exposed.”

Yemen is particularly sensitive to concerns about its currency because it is so dependent on imports, with 80 per cent of its food coming from abroad. The rial tumbled 17 per cent to a record low of 250 rials to the dollar last year. According to analysts, the root of the problem is Yemen’s failure to generate enough hard currency export revenues to pay for its import bill.

Various measures undertaken since then, including intervention by the central bank, appeared to be succeeding in stabilising the currency. In recent weeks, however, an unprecedented popular protest movement, inspired by the uprising in Egypt has threatened the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

“All economic actors try to hedge against risk,” Mr Engelke said. “[The political crisis] would be an enormous stress on any financial system, not only Yemen’s.”

The central bank is expected to take several steps to stabilise the situation, including moving the official exchange rate closer to currency traders prices, as panicked citizens have been rushing to acquire foreign currency. According to traders, the value of the rial against the dollar has fallen almost 8 per cent in the past week.

Before the central bank brought in $100m in cash from abroad to lend to the banks a few weeks ago, there were not enough dollars in the system to meet the surge in demand. Frustrated bank customers contributed to a sense of panic.

Now banks are thought to be rationing supply in an effort to curb speculation and, although dollars are, in theory, available, many report problems withdrawing them from banks. “I tried to get out $5,000,” said one Sana’a resident who holds an account in dollars to pay employees. “They said, ‘there is no cash’.”

The last line of defence is the central bank’s foreign currency reserves, estimated at $5.9bn, which provides about six months of import cover. But with import costs rising and oil revenues, Yemen’s only substantial source of foreign currency, declining, reserves have been falling rapidly. They dropped by $1.6bn last year, and the Economist Intelligence Unit has predicted they are likely to dip below $4bn by 2012, although the forecast is expected to be revised further downwards following recent unrest.

According to Ibrahim al- Nahari, the deputy governor of the foreign banking operation at the central bank, the exchange rate should stabilise in 2011 when liquefied natural gas revenues produce new currency inflows. But Philip McCrum, a Yemen analyst at the EIU, said: “LNG revenue is a bonus but it’s not going to solve Yemen’s problems.”

Source: Financial Times

Tensions in Yemen: An Inside View

Thomas Finn of the English-language Yemen Times offers insights and observations he has gleaned from living and working in the country

Sana'a, Mar 17, 2011- For weeks, thousands of protesters have been gathering regularly in a central square in the Yemen's capital, Sana’a, demanding an immediate end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 32-year rule. Even though some rallies have turned violent resulting in the loss of human life, Saleh has, so far, only offered not to run for re-election in 2013 and not pass power to his son.

To get an inside view of events in Yemen and to examine them in the context of revolutions in other Arab countries, we contacted Thomas Finn, Features Editor at the English-language Yemen Times, who also files reports for The Guardian. VOA’s Davin Hutchins spoke to him ahead of another planned large anti-government rally in Sana’a, which traditionally take place on Fridays.

Hutchins: In recent weeks, Yemen has witnessed rallies - those which strongly reject the regime of Ali Abdullah al-Saleh and others strongly supporting the regime. Which protest group do you think better represents the wider sentiment in the country?

Finn: Actually, it is something that is not that easy to gauge. Talking to people in the streets in Sana’a, shopkeepers and taxi drivers, you would reckon that it is somewhere about fifty-fifty. You have lots of people saying that the president is the only person who can hold Yemen together. And you have other people saying that the president is the only thing that is stopping Yemen from developing and growing out of being such a poor country.

But something that you do notice about the pro-government protesters and the anti-government protesters is the age gap. The people who are protesting against the government are generally young and educated, unemployed, some of them English-speaking professionals, whereas the government supporters tend to be in their thirties and forties, and traditionally dressed. They are not wearing jeans. They are wearing traditional Yemeni garb.

Now, three quarters of the population is Yemen is under the age of 25. It has a massively young population. So, if you went by that, you would suggest that the wider sentiment in Yemen is against the president. But it’s by no means as clear as it was in cases like Egypt and Tunisia.

Hutchins: What are the anti-regime protesters specific demands?

Finn: The protesters in Yemen are a mixed bunch. As I said, you have young people, students but, firstly, almost everyone is calling for the president to go. Demands other than that differ a lot. You have young people who want jobs, who want an end to unemployment. And you also have tribesmen who are against the government and who are calling for an end to corruption and an end to bribery.

And the other demand that you often hear on the street is for the president to remove his family from positions of power in Yemen. His sons all hold powerful positions in the military. And aside from the president stepping down, something people would like to see here is him removing them from those positions.

Hutchins: You had an article in your paper recently from the U.S. Ambassador to Yemen, Gerald Feierstein, who says that the opposition movements have not really articulated what kind of rule they would want or how the government would function after Saleh. Do you think that this is a fair characterization?

Finn: Yes, it probably is. As I said, the opposition here is very divided. It’s a mixed bunch. You have an Islamist party called the Islah and some within it are calling for an Islamic caliphate in Yemen. You also have a bunch of time-worn socialists from back-in-the-day, who have a completely different set of demands. But the hardest question you can put to anti-regime protesters at the moment is – give the name of Yemen's next president. It is something that people are very unsure of.

However, young people with whom you would speak at the university, who are protesting, say that once the president is gone, that would clear the path for true democracy in Yemen. And the reason why they really don’t know the name of the next president in Yemen is because they would like for it to be a civilian, somebody who is not a powerful figure in Yemeni politics at the moment…

And, certainly, if [Saleh] continues to stay in power and things continue to escalate the way they are, they could get a lot more anguish and violence as a result of him being in Yemen rather than him not being here, and we could see parts of the country completely breaking from his control if things continue the way they are.

Hutchins: Speaking of that escalation, have you seen from Friday to Friday an increase in tension? And what do you expect to see this coming Friday?

Finn: The pattern so far has been that the protesters gather en masse on Friday. They all go to the mosque at 12 o'clock and pray, and then they all pull out together afterwards and head to the protests. Now, what we have been seeing in Sana’a University is protesters praying en masse together on the grounds. I mean thousands and thousands of people.

And they also, as well as praying, hold memorials and ceremony [in memory] of the protesters that have been killed recently. Last weekend in Yemen we saw seven protesters killed by riot police using tears gas, water cannons and batons. So I expect this rally to be a bigger turnout than last week’s – over 40 of 50,000 people in the capital, I would imagine, and a mass prayer in memory of these martyrs, as they call them.

Hutchins: Do you think Saleh will call a state of emergency if [these rallies] get much larger?

Finn: I think it is unlikely that President Saleh will call a state of emergency unless he really has to. He has been doing his best not to give the media much in terms of reporting on these protests. His strategy at the moment seems to be to prevent foreign journalists from entering the country. He also kicked four foreign journalists out of the country last week. But I don’t think that he is likely to call a state of emergency, unless things really escalate and we start seeing people getting shot in the street and severe violence in the streets.

Hutchins: And if these are Saleh’s final days, do you think he will approach a transition more like Mubarak or more like Gadhafi?

Finn: I spoke to a member of the ruling party who has recently resigned from the party, and he said that while Saleh is aware of the opposition against him, he still does not really believe it. He’s ruled the country for 32 years and he really views himself as a savior of this country. We saw him the other day blaming the unrest in the Middle East on America and Israel to, in a way, scapegoat himself. I would say that President Saleh is more likely to behave like Gadhafi in his final days than Mubarak.

Source: VOA

Yemen: Police Fail to Stop Attacks on Protesters

Sana'a, Mar 17, 2011 -Yemeni authorities should take immediate steps to ensure that security forces prevent assaults against anti-government protesters and arrest those responsible, Human Rights Watch said today. In city after city in Yemen, security forces have stood by or fled, and failed to protect people exercising their right to peaceful assembly. In some cases it appeared that too few police were deployed to halt the attacks.

Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that on March 6, 2011, in the south-central city of Ibb, about100 men armed mostly with rocks, sticks, and glass bottles attacked hundreds of demonstrators calling for the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, wounding dozens. Some security staff abandoned their posts. Others who struggled to stop the violence were overrun by the assailants and allowed the attackers to leave the scene after the two-hour rampage without apprehending them. President Saleh said on February 23 that security forces would protect demonstrators from such attacks.

“Three weeks after President Saleh promised to protect demonstrators, pro-government gangs are still viciously assaulting protesters while the security forces largely stand by and watch,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Saleh should forcefully condemn these attacks and take meaningful action to stop them.”

Human Rights Watch previously documented attacks against anti-government demonstrators in the central town of al-Baida on March 3, the western port of al-Hudaida on March 2, and the capital, Sanaa, on February 18 and 22, in which security forces also abandoned their posts or simply watched the violence unfold.

Five witnesses in Ibb told Human Rights Watch that shortly before midday on March 6, the assailants attacked anti-government protesters at the city’s main bus station, renamed “Freedom Square,” which had been peacefully occupied by thousands of people since mid-February. An hour earlier, government supporters held a rally in the municipal stadium on the other side of the city, the second since the sit-in at the bus station began, several sources told Human Rights Watch.

The authorities closed schools and government offices in Ibb that day, the sources said, apparently to ensure that officials and students could attend the rally. Two local journalists, Mohamed Al-Khairi and Ibrahim al-Baidani, told Human Rights Watch that they saw numerous military and police pickup trucks and 4x4s transport hundreds of pro-government demonstrators through town to the stadium.

Al-Baidani said that some days earlier a contact in General Security, Yemen’s police force, had told him that the local branch of the General People’s Congress, the president’s ruling party, was planning to bring in hundreds – and perhaps thousands – of people from outside the city to attend the rally.

Both journalists said that at 11:45 a.m. on March 6, shortly after the pro-government rally ended, dozens of men approached the eastern side of the bus station. Carrying sticks, rocks, and glass bottles, they chanted pro-government slogans and shouted insults at the protesters, some of whom formed a chain across the bus station entrance.

Al-Baidani said he saw and heard a senior military police officer approach the demonstrators and tell them not to worry or fight the approaching crowd. The assailants tried to get past about 10 military police who were standing in front of the anti-government protesters, but the military police held the assailants back and fired warning shots in the air when they faced resistance.

Al-Baidani also said that 11 General Security officers as well as the deputy director of the city’s Criminal Investigation Department, along with about 15 men in military uniform, were standing near the pro-government crowd, watching them closely. Al-Khairi said a number of officers had left the scene in a Central Security vehicle.

Al-Khairi, who watched the start of the clash from the roof of the nearby al-Ghufran mosque, said that about 50 assailants appeared on the eastern side of the bus station and threw stones at the protesters. About 10 military police and 20 armed General Security officers tried to stop the assailants from advancing by hitting them on the legs with sticks and firing guns in the air. Al-Khairi said the protesters were shouting, “Our revolution is peaceful,” “Police and military, you are one of us,” and “Shame on you, President Saleh. Why are you attacking us?”

One protester, Yahya Ali Mohammed Sharif, told Human Rights Watch he was one of the first to be injured when a stone struck his forehead: “They were throwing glass bottles so at first I thought it was a water bottle. Then I realized it was blood running down my face, so I stumbled to our medical tent.”

Al-Khairi, the journalist, moved to the eastern side of the square. He said he could then see the pro-government gang throwing stones at the protesters, injuring several dozen. Some anti-government protesters responded by throwing stones back, he said, while other protesters restrained them. Al-Khairi said General Security officers told him after the attack that none of the pro-government assailants were injured.

Al-Khairi said that at around 2:15 p.m., shots were fired and he heard some of the protesters shout, “They are dead! They are dead!” at which point the assailants stopped throwing stones. Both journalists said the assailants then left, while the military police and dozens of General Security officers stood next to five General Security vehicles and watched, without trying to arrest any of them. At 3 p.m., al-Khairi said, after all the assailants had left, anti-riot police arrived and formed a cordon around the anti-government protesters for about 20 minutes.

“Despite initial attempts to prevent the assailants from reaching the protesters, the security forces simply let them go,” Stork said. “Yemeni authorities should arrest and prosecute those responsible for these criminal attacks.”

Yemeni authorities should deploy sufficient security personnel to protect anti-government protesters from violent attacks, Human Rights Watch said. All too often, Yemeni security forces have been used to attack peaceful protesters rather than to ensure their security, Human Rights Watch said. The security forces have shot and killed at least 10 anti-government protesters at largely peaceful rallies – nine in February in the southern port city of Aden and one on March 8 in Sanaa – and injured more than 200 others.

A doctor at Ibb’s Dar al-Shifa hospital told Human Rights Watch that he interviewed 11 injured protesters admitted to the hospital between 12:30 and 4 p.m. on March 6. He said all 11 told him they had been attacked by assailants in “Freedom Square” with sticks, stones, and daggers.

The doctor said that three of the patients were seriously injured, two from dagger wounds and a third who had been struck in the back with a heavy rock and then stomped on. Others had broken noses and minor head injuries. The doctor said he knew of 11 other patients who had been admitted to al-Shifa hospital on March 6 in the aftermath of the attack on the protesters.

On March 7, the doctor said, several men in military uniform came to the hospital to get a list of the injured protesters and asked whether they had left the hospital.

A protester who assisted the demonstrators’ medical committee during the attack told Human Rights Watch that as of March 8, the committee had registered 67 injured protesters, some of whom had only come forward the day after the attack. He said most injuries were to the head and chest and caused by rocks.

Al-Baidani, the journalist, told Human Rights Watch he had spent some of the time during the attack in the protesters’ medical tent, where he said he interviewed and photographed 34 of the injured, most of whom had head and limb injuries caused by stones and sticks.

The doctor said that five of the injured told him that unknown persons had shot at the protesters from a white building overlooking the square. The second journalist, al-Khairi, said the protesters’ medical committee had recorded two gunshot wounds. One man was hit in the chest, and a second man’s head was grazed by a bullet. Sharif, the protester who was one of the first to be injured, also said that he had seen one person whose head had been grazed by a bullet, whom he had taken to the Nasr government hospital.

Sharif said that late on March 6 some assailants returned to “Freedom Square” and shouted at protesters that if they did not leave, the assailants would throw grenades into the protest site.

“The pattern of violence in Ibb and other Yemeni cities suggests that pro-government assailants are confident they will not be stopped or held to account,” Stork said. “If President Saleh fails to fulfil his promise of protection, peaceful protesters will continue to end up in hospitals and graves.”

Source: Human Rights Watch

Who's who in Yemen's opposition?

As protests against Ali Abdullah Saleh continue, opposition remains fractured, riven with differences.

Mar 17, 2011

Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's president, has tried to defuse ongoing anti-government protests by offering to form a unity government. The offer was quickly spurned by the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), a coalition of opposition parties, which called it a "waste of time".

Their quick rejection meant Saleh did not have to answer an important question: who, exactly, would be included in this unity government?

Yemen's opposition, indeed its entire political system, is deeply fractured. There are organised opposition parties within the JMP, which brings together, among others, socialists and Islamists. There are tribal elements, like the Ahmar family, fast emerging as Saleh's main challenger. And there are insurrections in the north and south, both of which have longstanding grievances with Sanaa.

Saleh likes to portray himself as the only man capable of keeping Yemen united. There is a strong element of fearmongering in that boast, of course, but also a grain of truth: It's unclear what role Yemen's various political and tribal factions would play if Saleh quits.

Islah (Reform) Party

The Islah is the main opposition party in Yemen, and currently holds about 20 per cent of the seats in Yemen's legislature. Islah had played an on-again, off-again role in the Yemeni government. It joined the government in 1994, at the end of Yemen's civil war, only to withdraw in 1997 following a poor showing in legislative elections.

The party pulls together both Islamists and tribal elements. Yemen's Muslim Brotherhood is part of it, as is Abdul Majid al-Zindani, a Salafi preacher who is considered a "specially designated global terrorist" by the United States. The party also incorporates members of the Ahmar family (see below). It was founded by Abdullah al-Ahmar, the family's late patriarch.

The party suffers from deep internal divisions over its relationship with the government, the role of women in politics, and other issues. The Salafi wing of the party, for example, is deeply sceptical about engaging with the ruling party. Thus Islah has been minimally effective as a political player, with few (if any) legislative accomplishments to its name.

Joint Meeting Parties

The Islah party has since become a part of the JMP, a coalition formed in 2002. It also includes the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) - still somewhat popular in the south, where it was once the ruling party - and three other minor parties (Al-Haq, the Unionist party, and the Popular Forces Union party).

Given its eclectic makeup, the JMP is - not surprisingly - also plagued by divisions. These occur both between parties and within individual parties - Islah's Islamist/tribal splits, for example, or the YSP's uncertainty about how to interact with the secessionist Southern Movement (see below).

Thus the JMP has struggled to articulate a political platform. It has called for a few obvious reforms - less corruption, a more democratic government - all of which are universally popular. But it has struggled to win widespread support and articulate a clear legislative platform.

Al-Ahmar family

One of Saleh's main political challenges comes from the sons of the late Abdullah al-Ahmar, the former leader of the Hashid tribal confederation. Abdullah was a longtime ally of the president's, but his sons are less loyal - particularly Hamid, a prominent businessman who is considered a potential successor to Saleh.

Hamid has opposed the president for a number of years - in a 2009 interview with Al Jazeera, he accused the president of treason.

Several other Ahmar brothers help to make the family a potent political force. Himyar al-Ahmar is the deputy speaker of parliament, and Hussein al-Ahmar is a leader of the Hashid - though his influence is limited - who resigned last week from the ruling General People's Congress.

"The Ahmars are the paramount sheikhs of the Hashid confederacy," said Abdul Ghani al-Iryani, a prominent Yemeni political analyst. "They clearly think this is an opportunity to take what they're entitled to."

Houthi rebellion

It is hard to imagine the Houthis, who have fought an on-again, off-again civil war with Sanaa since 2004, playing any role in any "unity government" sponsored by Saleh.

Their grievances are complicated. They worry that their religion (the Houthis are Zaydi Shia) is threatened by creeping Wahhabi influence; and they are frustrated with the economic marginalisation of the north, particularly Saada province. Sanaa, in turn, has accused the Houthis of being Iranian agents.

Various cease-fires since 2004 have inevitably collapsed, and so the Houthis' political role has been extremely limited. Saleh said last year, following the most recent truce, that the Houthis could form a political party and contest elections. But they have had little involvement with Yemeni politics since.

The Houthis issued a statement endorsing the anti-Saleh protests, but it is unclear what role, if any, they would seek to play in a post-Saleh Yemen.

Southern Movement

Also murky are the desires of the secessionist Southern Movement. The movement's leaders have temporarily dropped their demands for independence, choosing instead to support the protests and call for Saleh's ouster. If he is to fall, it is uncertain though whether the Southern Movement would revert back to demanding secession.

The movement traces its roots back to 1994, when south Yemen tried (and failed) to secede from the north. Its longstanding grievances are economic: Sanaa has not done enough to develop the south's economy, the movement argues, and many northerners enriched themselves by illegally seizing land from southerners.

Its anti-government demonstrations have increased over the last two years, and the movement enjoys popular support from many in the south. And its grievances are systemic: Saleh's resignation would not, by itself, resolve Yemen's economic inequality.

Source: Al-Jazeera