Dr. Yahya Al-Shaibi speaks to the Yemen Times
Today he is known for being one of the political movers and shakers on behalf of the General People’s Congress (GPC), as a member of its general committee, and one of the moderate politicians of the former regime who were instrumental in making the Gulf Initiative happen. Prior to his post today as the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research in the reconciliation government, he was the Minister of Civil Services. Previously he has been Mayor of Sana’a and Governor of Aden, Minister of Education and Minister of Higher Education.
In addition to his official posts, Al-Shaibi co-founded the “Yemen First” organization which aims at strengthening national identity and a culture of tolerance. He was recently appointed as a member of the ministerial committee to negotiate with protestors to clear the squares.
The Yemen Times met with Al-Shaibi to talk about higher education, the GPC and other current issues.
State universities are going through tough financial, academic and even political crises which are affecting students’ education. As Minister of Higher Education, what are you doing about that?
During the last year, because of the overall sentiments around the country, many problems in state universities have surfaced. The accumulation of political, financial and academic problems blew up together and complaints of corruption, illegal appointments, nepotism, shortages in lab equipment, buildings and so on, sped up the deterioration of the universities affecting mostly the students.
Another major problem the universities are suffering from is the heavy politicizing of the educational environment. This has caused conflicts between the teachers, between the students, and between teachers and students. This is why, for example, I am against any sort of elections for university president vacancies at several universities, because I know it will turn into a political campaign rather than a choice to elect the best person for the job. The university law stipulates a specific mechanism for this through the forming of the universities’ boards of trusties. I expect the cabinet to form them by the end of this week.
I used to teach at Sana’a University for many years in the past. We took so much pride in our job, and when we as professors travelled, we could not wait to come back to give to our students. Upon my appointment as the Minister of Higher Education, I paid visits to all the universities and was very depressed at what has become of the higher education system in Yemen.
The way things were managed at the universities was chaotic and irresponsible. There was no planning, budgeting, vision or whatever. There is redundancy in teachers of some disciplines and shortages in others. The parallel system outside the competitive mainstream enrollment is a problem. It started at a five percent of admissions, which was intended to create a supplementary source of income for the university. However, because of greed it has increased up to 100 percent of the official admission, which creates a huge burden on the educational capacity of the universities, and at the same time the financial returns are not utilized for the improvement of the education system.
Now the Higher Education Ministry presented a study on the parallel system to the High Council for Education on this issue. In turn the council has created a committee to look into the matter and decide on whether to shut down the system entirely or allow it to exist according to strict conditions.
We have also created other committees to review the problems in the higher education system especially quality of education. The Higher Council for Education has already decided on several reform measures which the ministry will implement soon.
We will also appoint a chief of academic accreditation and quality control who will evaluate the curriculums and educational structure in all colleges in both public and private universities.
Accordingly we will take some decisions even if it means shutting down some colleges or universities all together and reforming the educational system.
We will also launch a number of creative discipline diplomas of one or two years, such as in graphics, 3D design, radio production, e-commerce, etc. I believe that students graduating from these courses will have the required skills to start their own businesses and become entrepreneurs rather than wait for a job.
There are current steps being taking for this starting with 12 disciplines funded by the World Bank and will be under the sponsorship of the quality control project in the ministry for the academic years 2012-2013.
The annual budget has recently been approved and we will use whatever funds we have to reform the system. One of the measures I have taken is to stop state sponsored scholarships, which cost us over YR 11 billion. We are sticking with the cultural exchange programs, which include around 300 Yemeni students in various disciplines as well as state sponsored students on rare specializations.
I am under a lot of pressure to bend the rules and follow the old way of running things, but I am a man of order and believe that the rules were meant to be implemented and this is my personal source of strength.
Why instead of direct appointment did you open to competition the cultural attaché vacancies in our embassies abroad? Also what’s new in the Top-100 qualified government leaders project that you championed a couple of years ago?
Many were surprised at my decision to open the doors to competition instead of direct appointment for the 13 cultural attaché vacancies in our consulates abroad. Unfortunately those who criticized this decision were not used to transparency and selection by merit for government posts. Through this decision we received 1,100 applications and I am sure that we will be able to choose the best qualified men and women which will positively affect our image abroad and their performance.
This notion of choosing the best was also the driving force behind the Top-100 project I suggested along with a group of others. The point was to recruit 100 highly qualified Yemenis, offer them encouraging compensation and appoint them in high decision making positions so that they positively contributed to the development of the country.
We had successfully experimented with this project during my work as Minister of Civil Services as we advertised for deputy ministers and general manager’s positions. We have a highly qualified team now at that ministry.
The suggestion is to have them run the economic and financial institutions of the country, of which there are over 50, as well as forming advisory groups at both the president’s and prime minister’s offices.
Having those men and women in high decision making positions in economic institutions would create new sources of income for the country, and would also help top decision makers make the right decisions. Having them at the top of the institutions they would be working in and giving them full authority would save them from being sabotaged by their bosses and colleagues who would be receiving less than one quarter of their salaries.
The project is put forward again today and was presented to the Ministry of Planning which is the concern authority as well as the Prime Minister. I hope that it will be discussed in the donors meeting to come.
Between 2003 and 2006 you were governor of Aden, which today is witnessing extreme security and political conflicts. How can we save Aden?
During the three years I was governor of Aden I came to understand and appreciate the governorate, and it saddens me to see what has become of it today. It is a situation that is not far from what the entire country is going through.
Previously Aden was an especially civil refuge. Today it is a hub of criminals, armed gangs and Islamic militia, etc.
The conflict in Aden is not only a political one but an armed one, and this is caused by the absence of the rule of law and the weak security apparatus.
Enforcing security in Aden should be a national priority and could be easily achieved within three or four months if the needed funds were there supported by political will. We just need strong security and enough numbers to ensure control over unruly gangs and enforce the rule of law.
Having a strong security hold over the governorate does not mean there is no space for political disagreement. It means that within the law anyone can exercise their right to political affiliation and freedom of expression, they can hold protests, seminars or whatever, as long as they don’t vandalize property or terrorize the people.
In your view, what are the real reasons that prevent political solutions today?
The main political problem in Yemen is a trust issue between the various political opponents, which explains the slow progress in the transitional steps according to the Gulf Initiative. The lack of trust should be overcome by the moderate personalities on both sides to reach compromises.
There are many Yemenis who put the country’s best interest before their personal gains. However, they are hesitating because they are faced with political tensions and bias. They need to be welcomed and provided with a friendly environment that would make use of their expertise for the sake of Yemen.
We have less than two years to fix our country and all Yemenis, especially decision makers, must realize that this is not enough. But we will have to deal with it, because otherwise the country will get into deeper trouble and a constitutional vacuum if the parliamentary elections don’t take place in 2014.
Unfortunately, the delay in progress and slowness in effective decisions makes me believe that this government is not taking its job seriously.
What about the restructuring of the army and the national dialogue?
Unifying the army under the command of the Ministry of Defense is a crucial matter and may take longer than two years. However, there are initial steps that could and should be taken today.
Ironically, I think the national dialogue is a much more difficult task than the army since there are so many political differences and stakeholders.
The implementing bodies of the transitional stages, whether it is the army or the dialogue, are still distrustful of each other. This lack of trust is delaying planning and execution while we don’t really have that much time.
The foremost priority now is to created a timely plan for each of the transition’s stages so that we can complete one and immediately jump into the another. The problem is that the country’s leadership keeps getting distracted by the petty problems leaving the main issues unsolved.
President Hadi needs to realize this and remember that he is a reconciliation president and hence does not need to flex his muscles through confrontation. Instead, he should reach compromises and arrive at solutions with the least losses possible.
In the mean time the prime minister needs to realize the intensity of his position and toughen up and stand his ground by not submitting to various pressures in order to achieve results in the Gulf Initiative process.
If the leaders create a political environment that comforts Yemenis and make them regain their trust in their state they will support it with all their might. Evidence of this is already visible when the citizens supported the army in kicking out the terrorist group Ansar Al-Sharia from Lawdar in Abyan.
You are now a member of the ministerial committee in dialogue with the youth in the squares. What is the best way to reach out to them in your opinion?
We should have created this committee the day after signing the Gulf Initiative, but it was unfortunately pushed back until today, which is why the protestors believe the government is not serious in attending to their demands.
The committee I am a member of is tasked with negotiating with the protestors in the squares to reach an agreement on what guarantees they need to clear the squares.
I believe the priority should be to negotiate with the independent youth who formed coalitions and groups and were sidelined by the political parties. Protestors affiliated with political parties will be addressed through their parties.
What we will be doing now is reaching out to the independent groups, helping them identify common demands and visions for what they want in order to reach joint programs. Then representation will be much easier after reaching a common vision and plan.
I support the methodology through which we gather the various proposals from youth groups, create workshops to discuss them and come out with a shared program that can be agreed on.
As for youth who belong to political entities but were not signatories to the Gulf Initiative, such as the youths of Houthis and the Southern Movement, they should be dealt with separately since they have specific grievances and demands unlike the independent youth who are concerned with national issues.
The importance of the national conference lies in the fact that it would deal with all political groups, and the results of these discussions will define the future of this country. People responsible for the dialogue should realize this and take it seriously.
I have a problem with the slow pace at which the dialogue and all the transitional steps are happening, which makes me question the seriousness of the government.
The donors’ conference was delayed more than once despite the urgent need for support. Why is that?
It is true that Yemen needs urgent support, especially financial, from its friends but they have made their position clear. It was highlighted by King Abdullah of Saudi who said, “Help yourselves in order for us to help you.”
The international community is still waiting to see serious steps taken by the Yemeni government to deal with its pending issues, such as removing signs of the military in the cities, unifying the army and clearing the squares.
The longer we take to do these things the longer we will wait for help to come. The donors’ conference was supposed to take place in March, then it was delayed to April, and now May. It could be delayed further if we don’t “help ourselves, so that they can help us.”
In order for us to help ourselves we need to put Yemen first above our personal interests and to be serious in dealing with the national issues. This should be reflected in quick decisions and reaching compromises away from confrontation and random work.
In fact, this should be how everyone operates in this transition including the youth in the squares who demand change. I was disappointed at their attitude towards change because it seems it has not moved beyond their lips to reach their minds or hearts.
I was waiting for them from the first day they occupied Change Square to say this is a time for change and from now on we will not chew qat or we will respect time and commitments more, etc. But they remained as they were before, practicing their old ways. How can we demand change and not want to live it?
The first time I was Minister of Civil Services, I received 1,006 presidential orders and more than 10,000 from the prime minister to hire people outside the recruitment system. All of which I took no heed of and left in the drawers of my office.
Because I was able to say no based on conviction and according to the system, not once was I reproached on ignoring those orders. And this is what I hope Yemenis will learn, to respect and live by the law.
You are a member of the general committee at the General People’s Congress, which is the highest level in the organization. Is there an intention to reform the party?
The seventh term of the party ended in December last year. We are supposed to hold the eighth conference some time soon in order to discuss this issue and many other pending issues of the party.
There is need for reform and intent to reform, but we can’t do it outside the general assembly of all members in the coming conference. Major decisions such as electing the president, general secretary, assistant general secretaries and the general committee members will be done during this conference.
The GPC needs to realize that the situation has changed and that while yesterday it was the ruling party, today it is only a partner in power. The GPC must review its structure and reform itself if it wants to remain a strong political player in Yemen’s future according to the new variables.
Although there are many within this party who understand the changes and who are trying to bring points of view closer, and who were also instrumental in reaching the Gulf Initiative, there are yet others who are still holding on to the old ways.
Fortunately for Yemen, the moderates from the GPC and other parties overcame the rigidity of the old school fellows. The same moderates must continue to push forward so that we don’t lose all that we worked for.
As for former President Saleh’s role in today’s political arena and in his own party, it is completely up to Saleh himself to decide whether he is interested and capable of playing a significant political role in the future. It is up to him to decide if he wants to remain as head of the GPC or resign and be happy with an honorary role in the party. As it is, Saleh still has many supporters in the GPC who will vote for him in the coming assembly if he chooses to nominate himself.
As for his son Ahmed, I believe it is far-fetched that he plays a political role in the party today or in the near future, because of the law that prevents those holding military positions to be politically active. His presence today in the Republican Guard is more important than in the party.
If in the future he decides to quit his post in the military and join the party, it is up to the party to decide whether his presence amongst it will be in its favor or not, and decide accordingly.