"Large sections of the population of South Yemen favor independence"

Stephen W. Day

INTERVIEW. Professor Stephen W. Day specializes in Yemen and says "it is difficult to imagine a full revival of the old South" because of social and political changes undergone since unification with the North in 1990 · Yemen president proposes a federal

Pro-independence South Yemenites have been increasingly staging protests against Yemen's central government. What is behind the Southern Movement? Which is the impact of political islamism in the country? Stephen W. Day, Professor of Political Science (Stetson University, DeLand, Florida, United States) talks about these issues to Nationalia. He is also the author of Regionalism and Rebellion in Yemen: A Troubled National Union (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Who are the leaders of the Southern Movement and which is their real support among South Yemen population?

There is no simple answer to this question. The Southern Movement has never had a unified leadership. This is true for two reasons: first, old divisions predating Yemeni unity in 1990, and even earlier, the 1967 independence of "South Yemen" at the end of British colonial rule. The southern region of Yemen has long had multiple social and political divisions (as has the northern region of Yemen) because the people living on the southwest corner of the Arabian peninsula are traditional tribesmen with strong tribal and clan loyalties. The people never fully accepted life under a unitary state. Second, the old regime of President Ali Abdallah Saleh skillfully exploited the old divisions of south Yemen in order to maintain power via "divide and rule" schemes. The Southern Movement originates in 2006-2007 at a time when it struggled to gain momentum because President Saleh always managed to buy off  weak parties, while repressing others that became too strong.

Generally speaking, the Southern Movement comes from anti-Saleh opposition forces associated with the old ruling party of the former South Yemen (pre-1990), called the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP). Before 1990, South Yemen was the only state in the Arab world to adopt Marxist-Leninist ideology and form a full alliance with the Soviet Union. Four years later in 1994, YSP leaders reconsidered their decision to unite with North Yemen, due to many economic and political problems, including a string of assassination attempts against party officials in 1992-1993. In late May 1994, after a month of fighting between armed forces of the former North and South Yemen, the YSP joined other parties in the south to declare formal secession.  Less than two months later, Northern armed forces overtook the South, sending YSP leaders and thousands of others into exile.  Between 1994 and 2006, exiled YSP leaders continued opposing Saleh's rule, while maintaining ties to their own supporters inside the country. But throughout this period, President Saleh held the upper hand. The YSP was seen as eclipsed much like its former patron, the Soviet Union.

In 2006, during a time when Saleh was preoccupied with an armed rebellion north of Sana'a (led by anti-Saudi and anti-US forces that followed a traditional Shia Zaydi leader named al-Houthi), southern YSP supporters in Aden and two nearby provinces, Lahej and Abyan, started the process of unifying ranks in order to build stronger opposition against Saleh. This process was known as "reconciliation and forgiveness," and local YSP leaders (encouraged and funded by exiled YSP leaders) used it to overcome southern political divisions that had existed since the 1960s.  It is important to understand that local YSP leaders cooperated in this endeavor after an external reconciliation had been achieved between those exiled YSP leaders who fought each other in a deadly 1986 battle in Aden.

When do these events hit South Yemen streets?

In parallel with these reconciliation efforts, a group of retired southern army officers started a sit-in demonstration in Aden during the spring of 2007.  The main leader was Nasser al-Nuba. He and others demanded either the restoration of their jobs or an increase in their pensions. But their sit-ins were broken up by Saleh's security forces. Each act of state repression drew more supporters to weekly demonstrations. Soon the demonstrations spread to other southern provinces, where the "reconciliation and forgiveness" process bore fruit by uniting southern people against President  Saleh's rule. When Saleh used greater repression in the fall and winter of 2007, hundreds of thousands of southern citizens rallied to the cause, thus giving birth to a true social movement in early 2008.  It was at this time that southerners began describing their activities as the Southern Movement ("al-Hirak al-Junubi"). Protest actions were scheduled on a daily basis somewhere in the southern region, yet the leadership remained decentralized. Many individuals claimed to lead al-Hirak in different provinces and districts.

By the end of 2008, it was clear that a major division had formed in al-Hirak. Originally, the movement used peaceful means to assert civil rights claims for equality with northerners, as well as economic demands for jobs, pensions, etc. Some local leaders continued along this path.  But hardliners began pressing a militant course to achieve independence from North Yemen, much as YSP leaders had done in 1994.  The top YSP leader in 1994, Ali Salem al-Bid, now became the primary exiled al-Hirak leader who favored secession. Al-Bid is from the eastern province of Hadhramaut near the border with Oman. Inside Yemen, his closest ally is another man from Hadhramaut, named Hassan Ba Awm, who has long worked for the YSP inside this province. Ba Awm is considered one of the most influential leaders of al-Hirak because, from an early stage, he championed the cause of southern independence.  As a result, he also spent many years in government prison. The hardline group also has support in Lahej and al-Dali provinces.

Among moderate exiled leaders of al-Hirak are the former president of South Yemen, Ali Nasser Mohammad, from Abyan province, who ruled until the 1986 battle with al-Bid.  Muhammad has a long association with Abd al-Rabo Mansour Hadi, Yemen's southern vice president who replaced Saleh when the latter was forced from power in late 2011. Like Muhammad, Hadi comes from Abyan province. Another exiled moderate is the first prime minister of united Yemen, Haider al-Attas, who is a YSP technocrat from Hadramaut.  Muhammad and al-Attas coordinate their efforts with YSP leaders who operate at national and provincial levels.  But in recent years, Muhammad and al-Attas have increasingly moved in the direction of those who support independence. Mass rallies in Aden, Hadramaut, and other southern provinces also indicate large sections of the population favor independence because demonstrators regularly fly the pre-unity flag of South Yemen. Over time, al-Hirak attracted support from non-YSP members, including some tribesmen in the south who had previously fought the YSP, such as Sheikh Tareq al-Fadhli. The main opposition to al-Hirak comes from Islamists who support the largest Islamic party in the north called "Islah," meaning Reform.

Which is the position adopted by president Hadi?

Hadi claims that he wants to meet the demands of al-Hirak through a UN and GCC-sponsored "national dialogue," which is designed to maintain Yemeni unity. This dialogue is being directed from the government in Sana`a, and it has been postponed a few times because of al-Hirak's opposition. It is now scheduled to begin on March 18, 2013, but many observers doubt it will succeed. Even if it is held, it is not clear Hadi has the power to operate as head of state because powerful members of Saleh's family and Hashid tribe continue to act as independent military commanders.

Southerners argue that North Yemen discriminates against the South, both in economic and political terms. To what extent is that true?

After Yemeni unity, southerners felt their old customs and practices were being replaced by the northern governing system. Government power was centralized from the start in 1990. Aden lost its status as a national capital, and government officials in the southern port city were forced to carry out the orders of leaders in Sana'a. There was growing resistance against this trend on the eve of the 1994 civil war, and the desire of southerners to hold onto local rule was one of the causes of the fighting.  In late 1993 and early 1994, there were ongoing discussions about the possible revision of Yemeni unity along federal lines.  However, President Saleh and his supporters among the northern Hashid tribe accused anyone who favored federalism of being a traitor to the nation.  After the defeat of southern armed forces in the 1994 civil war, Saleh and northern leaders acted greedily by taking possession of many southern properties and resources. This included unofficial tribal leaders from the north, such as members of the al-Ahmar family who head the Hashid tribal federation. In many cases, members of the Saleh and al-Ahmar families took the homes of exiled YSP leaders.

I first arrived in Yemen in 1995, as a doctoral student in political science, and I documented many examples of northern seizure of property in the south.  Many north Yemenis naively spoke about this as a matter of national unity, brining northerners to the south just as southerners moved north after 1990.  But there was an important difference because southerners rented properties from northern landlords, while northern elites seized southern homes and land as their own private property.  One factor at work in the mid-1990s was that President Saleh adopted IMF-backed, western neoliberal schemes to sell state properties in South Yemen, where there had previously been no private property under YSP rule. Saleh and northern politicians used western neoliberal rhetoric to justify their own greed.  Meanwhile, southerners spoke of these activities as "internal colonialism". Despite President Saleh's token appointment of southerners (like Hadi) to serve in top positions of the government, most  southerners felt like second-class citizens.  The talk of "internal colonialism" had special resonance because the country's most valuable oil discoveries after 1990 were on the southern side of the old border. Northerners exploited these and other resources, such as the port facilities at Aden, in the name of "national development". Yet there was a great deal of corruption inside the regime, and citizens saw members of Saleh's family and Hashid tribe becoming excessively wealthy. In this way, the story of Saleh's family is similar to the story of Mubarak's family in Egypt before 2011.

In the mid-1990s, I concluded that, while there were a few northern government officials who genuinely tried to limit the exploitation of southern resources and prevent discrimination against southern citizens, the main powers inside the regime were greedy and exploitive. After a parliamentary election in April 1997, Saleh initially appointed a respectable southern technocrat to serve as prime minister. This man, Fareg Ben Ghanem, is from Hadramaut (where the largest southern oil field exists), and he is incorruptible. Ben Ghanem tried to bring transparency to the handling of government revenues from oil and other sources.  But in the end, he lasted less than a year in office, resigning because he lacked real authority to implement policy. His replacement, also an individual from Hadramaut, had a very corrupt reputation as a southerner who bore deep grudges against the YSP.  This man stayed in office until the early 2000s, when he left the country to live in a multi-million dollar home in London, England, which he could only afford after stealing money from the public treasury.

South Yemen was a socialist republic before merging with the North. What has remained from that period in South Yemen society? Is it true, as the Southern Movement sometimes says, that South Yemenites hold different, more progressive social values and practices, when compared to North Yemenites?

Yes, it is true of some areas in the South, especially Aden which is historically the most open and cosmopolitan city in Yemen. It was particularly true of the years between the 1960s and 1980s, when Yemen was divided north/south. During this time, the South sought to marginalize traditional religious and tribal influences in society, creating a secular-nationalist way of life. For instance, Southern women attained full rights under the law with guaranteed equal pay for equal work.  Southern women worked as professionals in many fields, including the army and the courts. Of course, there remained remote areas of South Yemen where traditional customs were slow to change, but the YSP greatly extended the power of the state.

North Yemen never moved in this direction. One leader in the middle 1970s tried, but he was assassinated in a 1977 plot led by conservative tribal elements. Saleh ruled the North without intention to upset tribal and religious forces. Indeed, in the decade of the 1980s, he allowed the spread of conservative Islamic forces because it helped weaken the appeal of Marxism south of the border.  After unity with the YSP in 1990, and then the civil war in 1994, Saleh encouraged the spread of conservative tribal and religious forces south of the border.  Between 1990 and 1994, southern women living in Aden felt social pressure to adopt the veil.  But after 1994, there was coercive pressure to veil. The most active, professional women in Aden complained about being forced from public spaces.

And what happened, in the end?

In this new environment, the YSP has been forced to adapt to a great extent. The Islamic trend is strong throughout the Arab world, and YSP leaders know they can not deny popular culture if they want to have influence. In 2006 and 2007, when southerners began the process of "reconciliation and forgiveness," the YSP was partly reaching out to conservative tribal and religious groups that were targeted by the old Southern state's Marxist socialist policies.  It is unlikely the South will witness a revival of progressive social values, if al-Hirak succeeds in gaining independence from North Yemen. Of course, progressive southern forces could revive practices of the old Southern state in certain localities. But it is difficult to imagine a full revival of the old South.

Has the Southern Movement any support from outside (other countries in the region, in the global sphere...)?

Yes, outside actors have given some support to the Southern Movement. But my view is that al-Hirak is a genuinely nationalist movement, which primarily relies on internal sources of support. Over the past few years, there has been a lot of rhetoric, both inside and outside Yemen, concerning a proxy war being fought in the country between Saudi Arabia and Iran. There is no doubt that different power centers in Saudi Arabia support Saleh, Hadi, and al-Hirak.  But wealthy donors in Saudi Arabia have long funded most influential players in Yemen. Saudi ties are especially strong with Yemen's tribal sheikhs, particularly Hashid leaders in North Yemen around Sana'a. But Saudi Arabia influences all sides of Yemeni politics, in order to keep the country off balance.  Iran has been accused of providing assistance, including armaments, to al-Hirak as well as the northern rebellion by al-Houthi leaders.  But I doubt the significance of this assistance, especially at a time when Iran is preoccupied by threats closer to home. Exiled southern leaders are known to rely on external alliances. Ali Salem al-Bid initially lived in exile in Oman. But when he began to play an active role with al-Hirak, calling for a return to national independence in South Yemen, the Sultan of Oman forced him to depart. He sought another residence nearby, but eventually was forced to live in Germany until he decided to set up a South Yemeni satellite television broadcasting company in Beirut, Lebanon. There are some supporters of al-Hirak in the United Arab Emirates.

How should recent clashes between Yemen security forces, islamist party Islah members and pro-independence South Yemenites be interpreted? Which are the links and grievances between those three political actors?

The recent clashes in Aden are typical of what has been happening over the past few years.  Following a similar incident in 2012, I wrote an article for the online European magazine Muftah, entitled "The Other Battle: Understanding the Fighting in South Yemen". This article is still relevant today.  The main difference now is that President Hadi has been in office for a full year without moving forward the National Dialogue process. The fact that these deadly clashes occurred in Aden one month prior to the next proposed start of National Dialogue is possibly leading to another delay.  After the clashes, there were a number of participants who announced that they would withdraw from National Dialogue. The seriousness of this matter is indicated by President Hadi's decision to fly immediately to Aden, where he tried to calm nerves in the city. In one speech, he talked of his vision of the future in a federal Yemeni state with as many as five self-rule regions, plus a special independent free-zone status for Aden. This was a smart move on Hadi's part to promise something dramatic like five-state federation. But it is too early to tell if he will succeed in the National Dialogue, let alone reforming the state along federal lines. As I indicated earlier, Yemen has multiple regional divisions on both sides of the old north/south divide, so one could talk of self-rule for citizens living in five or more different regions.

The recent clashes in Aden occurred when pro-unionist elements announced plans to celebrate the one year anniversary of Hadi's assumption of power. These elements are largely associated with the northern Islah party, so they represent conservative religious groups in the city, many of which are northern in origin.  Al-Hirak called for a counter-demonstration where its supporters would carry the banner of the old South Yemen, while Islah-affiliated groups would carry the flag of united Yemen. Security forces sought to disrupt the counter-demonstration of al-Hirak. When they intercepted groups traveling to Aden, this apparently led to a shooting incident causing many deaths and injuries. Al-Hirak leaders accused security forces of acting on orders given by a member of the al-Ahmar family, who is closely tied to Islah, and who has extensive business interests in Aden and other southern provinces.  It seems likely that a top official in the northern Islah party ordered harsh security measures against al-Hirak. It certainly was not an order given by President Hadi, since he had to respond to the dangerous situation left in its wake.

For more than a year, Hadi has run a coalition government that includes an alliance between Islah and the YSP against former President Saleh. Recent events suggest a growing southern rift between Islah and the YSP, perhaps signaling that al-Ahmar's Islah party is mending its differences with Saleh's family in Sana'a.  Both Saleh and al-Ahmar have huge business interests at stake as Yemen seeks to sort out its problems. Now that Hadi is talking of a federal state, the situation has returned to the era when federalism was debated on the eve of Yemen's 1994 civil war. At that time, Saleh and al-Ahmar saw the advocates of federalism as traitors. They are likely to see Hadi in similar terms as he attempts to meet the demands of al-Hirak.