THE political and economic crises in the Republic of Yemen on the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula deteriorated sharply when Vice President Ali Al-Baidh decided to boycott a critical meeting with President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The failed reconciliation bid had been arranged on Sunday by Yemen's religious leadership.
The clerics share a popular concern that unless the two men can work together, the tenuous unity forged in May 1990 out of two former Yemeni republics will collapse. At present, it rests on a shaky coalition government.
``What is happening now is a de facto repartitioning of the country. The Army, the banking system - even the airlines - were never properly integrated, and it now appears that each side is readying itself to pull apart,'' explains Dr. Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf, editor of the Yemen Times, speaking from Sana.
Since August, Mr. Al-Baidh, head of the Yemen Socialist Party (YSP), which ran South Yemen as a one-party state until the south and north were unified, has remained in Aden, the former southern capital, in protest at the deteriorating security situation in the country. The YSP maintains that more than 150 of its members have been killed in recent months and has demanded that the president bring the perpetrators to justice.
In the latest incident, tribal leader and YSP member Abdel-Karim Saleh Al-Ghami was shot in the head on Friday night as he was arriving at his home in Sana, the capital. The YSP has dismissed early reports that Mr. Al-Ghami was killed in a tribal feud and issued a statement warning that his death was yet another political assassination ``pushing the country toward a destructive civil war.'' On Sunday there were reports that the vice president's house in Aden had been fired on but that no one was injured.
Last month President Saleh was reported to have accepted the 18 demands his vice president had made as a condition to taking part in the government. The demands included acceptance of more decentralization to allay the south's concern that it is being neglected by the Sana bureaucracy. Improved security - a concern voiced by a most Yemenis - was another demand. Lawlessness has reached unprecedented levels, even in the capital.
After last weekend's killing, Al-Baidh is apparently unwilling to engage in dialogue until action is taken. Saleh, who is having trouble in his own northern tribal heartland, told Yemeni journalists Sunday that he is ``still holding out his hand'' to his vice president.
There are also frequent accusations from well-placed Yemenis and from diplomats based in Sana that those close to authority are using their positions to circumvent the law and persecute the president's opponents, including the YSP.
Despite open elections last April, bitter competition between the YSP and the president's General People's Congress - more of a personal political vehicle than a political party - has accelerated. The YSP's leadership was particularly irate at the decision of Saleh to bring into the coalition the Islamic Al-Islah Party. Its leadership has strong links to Saudi Arabia and is deeply opposed to the YSP, but has the tie-breaking vote in the five-member presidential council.
THE failure to integrate the military establishments of north and south has been a key source of friction. Saleh, the former military leader of the north, has been accused by the YSP of moving to resupply his former border troops with ``arms, ammunition, and funds.''
Demonstrations last week in Taizz, the commercial center of the north, and in the capital Sana, indicated another serious factor destabilizing Yemen: widespread anger at soaring food prices. Most of Yemen's food is imported and as fears of political insecurity increase, the black-market value of the dollar has skyrocketed. Two weeks ago the US dollar was exchanged for 55 rials; early this week it took 80 rials to buy one dollar. Parliament was scheduled to meet on Jan. 11 to discuss the economic crisis, but government ministry chaos and a budget deficit leave little hope of changing the downward spiral.
Increasingly, Yemenis fear that the two Alis will not be able to reconcile either their personal or political differences, with disastrous implications for the future of a united Yemen.