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Yemen forms unity government, but Saleh's fate still unclear

SANAA, Yemen — Yemeni Vice President Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi formed a new, 35-member unity government, state media reported Wednesday, a key step in a Western-backed agreement to secure President Ali Abdullah Saleh's exit from power while putting an end to months of demonstrations and unrest.

Technocrats dominated the National Reconciliation Government, which was split equally between members of Saleh's party and names put forward by a coalition of opposition parties that includes socialists and Islamists.

But the announcement seemed unlikely to lessen continuing opposition to the power transfer deal among many demonstrators, who object to its provision for immunity for Saleh and argue that it doesn't fulfil their demands of comprehensive reform.

Following months of equivocation, Saleh on Nov. 23 signed the initiative put forward by the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, ostensibly handing power to Hadi in exchange for immunity from prosecution. But while the vice president already has set a February date for early elections, protests have continued unabated, while deadly violence has continued in many parts of an impoverished country that's teetering on the brink of civil war.

Two senior cabinet officials, Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al Kirbi and Defense Minister Mohammed Nasser Ahmed Ali, are to remain in their posts. Opposition politicians will head the powerful ministries of information and the interior.

Leading opposition figures have maintained that they will continue to support demonstrations. They have expressed sympathy for protesters' demands.

"Political consensus was important to rescue Yemen," Hooria Mashhour, the new minister for human rights, wrote on her Twitter account. "All options remain open for the youth, and they should continue guarding the revolution."

In a speech to his party that was broadcast shortly after the cabinet announcement, Saleh said he remained committed to the GCC deal.

After signing the power transfer deal in Saudi Arabia, Saleh has returned to Yemen and remained there, and his powerful son and nephews still hold military and intelligence positions. Many remain wary of their continued presence, arguing that they will obstruct any progress toward transition.

"The names in the new government aren't as important as what the new government can do," said Faizah al Sulimani, a youth activist. "Even if the faces are changing on the surface, we believe Saleh's regime is still in control behind the scenes."

The unity government faces numerous challenges in restoring order in the run-up to February's presidential elections. Severe fuel shortages and electricity blackouts have seen much of nation grind to a halt, while Yemen's already weak economy has edged perilously close to collapse.

Unemployment is estimated to exceed 50 percent, and the International Monetary Fund has warned that Yemen's economy is on course to shrink for the first time since the country's unification in 1990.

Violence has continued across the country since Saleh signed the deal. Weeks of clashes between Shiite Muslim rebels and Salafi Islamists have left at least 25 dead in the northern province of Saada, while government forces continue a months-long battle against Islamic militants who have taken control of many parts of the southern province of Abyan.

Days of fighting between government forces and opponents left dozens dead in the city of Taiz, a hotbed of anti-government activity, nearly scuttling the new government. And in Sanaa, clashes between troops loyal to Saleh's regime and dissident tribesmen threatened to break a fragile calm in the capital, which remains divided into areas controlled by government forces, troops who have defected and anti-government tribal fighters.

(Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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