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Can Houthis bribe their way out of anti-corruption protests?

The de facto Houthi government in Yemen has introduced the first phase of an anti-corruption drive that relies on citizen participation and has elicited criticism from opponents.

SANAA, Yemen — In an attempt to avoid the scenes of discontent being broadcast from anti-corruption protests in the Middle East and elsewhere, the de facto Houthi government in Sanaa recently announced measures to assuage Yemenis disgruntled by entrenched government corruption. The first phase calls on citizens to report instances of financial and administrative malfeasance using new toll-free hotlines set up by the Supreme Political Council (SPC), the executive body created by the Houthis and the General People's Congress to rule Yemen in July 2016.

At the gathering to announce the launch of the first phase on Oct. 30, SPC President Mahdi al-Mashat directed government agencies and institutions to “activate” their departments of public services and install the hotlines to log complaints of blackmail, bribery and extortion. A complaints department will also be created at the SPC President's Office. The Ministries of Health, Justice and Oil have already set up call systems. For the time being, a complaint can be lodged with the SPC's dedicated department to report an employee who does not work at one of the ministers cited.

In Yemen, it is not uncommon that when seeking government services, residents must not only pay the statutory fee to arrange for a service, they but must also pay the government employee or employees a bribe to make sure it gets done. According to Mashat, citizens who report corruption and bribery will be exempted from the service fees they would normally be required to pay and will also be awarded additional financial compensation. 

Abdul-Mughni, a pseudonym for a retired senior official from the Finance Ministry who requested anonymity for fear of retribution, told Al-Monitor, “These measures are an attempt to prevent anti-corruption protests similar to [what is happening in] Iraq and Lebanon.”

Abdul-Mughni, standing outside the Finance Ministry, where huge crowds were attending a celebration of Prophet Muhammad's birthday inside, expressed pessimism about the proposed measures. “Combating corruption should be done through the Supreme National Anti-Corruption Commission [SNACC], on the condition that this authority is given full authority,” he said. Abdul-Mughni worked at the Finance Ministry for 40 years. 

The SNACC was established in 2007 with the task of not only investigating corruption, but also of raising public awareness. According to Abdul-Mughni, however, one major problem is that even the SNACC is corrupt. “The declared measures are an attempt to absorb the street anger,” Abdul-Mughni reiterated.

When asked whether the people’s demands would be met by the Houthi government if they decide to take to the streets to protest corruption, Abdul-Mughni hypothesized, “Their demands will be met with not only bullets, but also with artillery fire.” He stressed that the proper way to fight corruption would be to appoint people at the SNACC whose hands are not tainted by corruption. 

On Nov. 4, Ahmed Hamid, who has held an incredible array of government positions, including current director of the SPC President's Office, paid a visit to the Finance Ministry to attend the inauguration of the anti-corruption drive there.

“If you don’t pay a certain amount to the financial officer, he does not complete your formalities,” Hamid remarked. “And if you do pay him, he will forget [about serving] millions of others. This is unacceptable going forward.” In May, SPC member Sultan al-Samai had accused Hamid himself of corruption, igniting a war of words between the two in the media. 

Abdo Beshr, a member of parliament who backed the Houthis during the National Dialogue Conference (2013-14) but is now a staunch critic of them, ridiculed Mashat's attempt to take on corruption.

“Dear brother [Mashat], there are appointments of corrupt people by the SPC itself. There is protection from the SPC itself for corrupt officials,” Beshr charged in the legislature on Nov. 2. “Then they [Houthi officials] set up phone numbers for citizens to submit complaints about corrupt officials. Isn't it the duty of parliament to monitor the executive, its bodies and institutions?”

Al-Monitor visited the SNACC office in central Sanaa on Tahrir Square to interview commission officials but was told that its director, Mohammed al-Ghashm, and his deputy, Saleem al-Sayani, were in a meeting. The head of the office promised an interview after the meeting, but then backtracked. The interview never transpired.

An employee at the Tax Authority who requested anonymity claimed that there is rampant corruption and bribery at the agency and expressed the hope that the new initiative will actually help the situation. “I have been waiting for these measures for a while now,” the official told Al-Monitor. “The correct way is to raise public awareness, because citizens are the ones who pay the [public] employees.” He added, “I don't think these measures aim to prevent protests like what's happening in Iraq and Lebanon.”

In September 2016, the internationally recognized government led by President Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi moved the central bank from Sanaa to Aden, and the following year stopped paying public servants working in Houthi-controlled areas. As a result, government workers in Sanaa have only been paid sporadically since 2017, and in addition, the Houthis adopted the practice of disbursing salaries twice a year, on Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, when possible. This month, Mashat ordered the distribution of one of the half salaries on the occasion of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, the main celebration of which fell this year on Nov. 9.

Ashbat, another employee at the Tax Authority, told Al-Monitor that he hasn't received his most recently scheduled half salary and that he was last paid during Ramadan, in May, before the Eid al-Fitr. When asked about the attempt to curb corruption, he remarked, “These measures go in the right direction, as they give citizens the confidence to come and receive their services without fear of corruption.”

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