Will Houthis' ultimatum end Yemen's power vacuum?

Government bodies and civil servants are in limbo following the resignation of Yemen's president and his cabinet.

    Will Houthis' ultimatum end Yemen's power vacuum?
    A few more workers have an excuse not to come now, but the punctual ones still manage to make it to the office [EPA]

    Sanaa - As Houthi rebels set a three-day deadline for rival factions to resolve Yemen's political crisis, the country's civil servants are navigating the power vacuum left after President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi and his cabinet resigned on January 22.

    At the ministry of water and environment in northern Sanaa, on average one-third of the 140 employees who make up the ministry's workforce have been showing up for work.

    "There's no work to do; why would we stay?" said one employee from a tiny office on the first floor of the three-storey government building. 

    Civil servants at the ministry - charged with the colossal mission of shaping hydro policy in a country where water reserves have been dwindling at unsustainable rates - say that technically, they have been working for no one for almost two weeks. 

    Their minister, along with 35 others ushered in as part of a government reshuffle in mid-December, resigned en masse along with newly appointed Prime Minister Khaled Bahah.

    Houthis militias have been stationed outside Yemen's ministries for months, defending their presence with claims that they are battling corruption [EPA]

    This unexpected departure left government bodies in limbo, somewhere between a state and a collection of institutions loosely tied together under the banner of the Yemeni flag.

    Analysts say this type of arrangement has always greased Yemen's bureaucratic wheels, but the delicate system ruptured after Yemen's 2011 anti-government uprising, which pushed longtime leader Ali Abdullah Saleh out of power.

    Despite attempts at reform under new leadership, government employees say their work has only grown increasingly more difficult and less effective, as Yemen has become more fragmented during a three-year transitional government.   

    "The number of employees showing up now isn't necessarily bound to the existence of government," said Ala Ahaddi, an information officer at the water and environment ministry. Although only three of his six colleges in the department clocked in on a recent day, he says it was neither surprising nor a cause for concern.  

    A few more workers have an "excuse" not to come now for security reasons, he says, but the "punctual ones" still manage to make it to the office - even if there is not much work for them.

    "We've always said, as Yemenis, we don't rely on the government. But as long as there are salaries still being paid, we will still come to work," Ahaddi told Al Jazeera.

    Ever since Houthi rebels seized control of the capital last September, they have been stationed outside Yemen's ministries. Houthis have defended their presence and - at times - interference in the ministries' work by claiming they were combating government corruption.

    In a statement on Sunday, the group said "the revolutionary leadership" would take over the state's affairs if the three-day deadline was not met. But officials and workers say Houthis are already present within the state machinery. 

    We've always said as Yemenis we don't rely on the government. The employees here are just part of that society. As long as there are salaries still being paid, we will still come to work.

    Ala Ahaddi, government information officer

    Houthi infringements range from subtle intervention to total appropriation of certain departments, namely finance.

    "Sometimes they win and sometimes we win," one deputy minister, whose ministry has been subjected to "examination of financial records" by Houthi-run committees, told Al Jazeera. 

    On the second floor of the Ministry of water and environment, a string of empty offices, desks and file cabinets litter the corridors. Only a handful of employees were present on a recent afternoon. Frequent and unpredictable power outages that plague the entire nation have also undermined the ministry's productivity.

    Tucked inside one office with the door open, Raja Saaed sat crafting an evaluation form with a colleague to identify technical training needs for women in the ministry.

    Saaed, 30, a supervisor at the women's empowerment department, has not missed a day of work since the cabinet resigned.

    Accompanied by her seven-year-old daughter, who had the day off from school, Saaed said she was more concerned about lobbying to get a daycare room at the ministry than about finding a new minister to fill the vacancy.

    The government's next move is out of her control, Saaed added. "This will make you laugh," she said. "You wouldn't see this anywhere else. Yemen is exceptional."

    For now, deputy ministers are in a caretaker position at Yemen's ministries. Bahah recently posted a statement on his Facebook page noting that the cabinet's resignation was "irreversible". Several ministers' houses remain surrounded by Houthi fighters, while other ministers fled Sanaa following their resignation.

    Rival rallies staged in fractious Yemen

    Several deputies have expressed concern that they are not sure what to tell employees. Some even said they may also resign pending the outcome of the political talks. 

    "They [ministers] didn't even tell us we were in charge," said one deputy minister who asked not be named due to the sensitivity of the issue. "I mean, who would tell us? There's no one above us. We are running the government … if there is anything left to run."

    Each ministry is dealing with its own set of uncertainties. At the ministry of Foreign Affairs,employees' salaries have been paid for now, one financial officer said, but the ministry is months behind on invoices from Yemeni ambassadors abroad who are waiting on insurance payments and other benefits. 

    There has been concern for months now that government salaries across the board would not be paid.

    "At the last minute we always get foreign support," said Zuhair al-Romi, a payment officer in the finance department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "But now everyone is afraid that a foreign country will not bail us out. Maybe we get this month's salary, but there is no guarantee for next month."

    When asked if employees would continue to be paid, one government official told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity: "That's the million-dollar question."

    For now, al-Romi is more focused on work and is carefully watching political developments. 

    "At the end of the day, there has to be a government," he said. "The other option is the scary option. That's when we don't have the luxury of thinking about jobs, the country will move towards a civil war." 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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