Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1319, (10 - 16 November 2016)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1319, (10 - 16 November 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Transformation in South Yemen

While central authority in Yemen collapsed following the 2011 Revolution, support appeared to wane for the southern project of secession, with a few backers remaining, writes Ahmed Eleiba

Al-Ahram Weekly

On 3 November, Southern Yemeni cities and especially Aden, the country’s “second capital”, were the scene of mass rallies in support of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The event speaks of an interesting transformation in the southern political scene where demonstrations were always focused on the southern cause. The Southern Movement, spearheaded by retired army officers from the south in 2007, has since evolved from a protest movement demanding regional rights to a secessionist drive as its members became increasingly convinced that, as a former spokesman for that movement, Nasser Al-Tawil, put it in a past interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, “The unity is a sham and has not been realised in concrete terms.”

Today, the banners raised and slogans shouted in the south express very different ideas and sentiments. They are a protest against the diplomatic process concerning Yemen as a whole and not just how it impacts on the southern question. The people rallied in city squares that day opposed the latest peace initiative by UN Special Envoy for Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, which proposes a kind of reproduction of the Gulf Initiative. The UN envoy’s proposal calls for stripping the Yemeni president of his powers, which would be transferred to a vice president while he is retained as a kind of honorary figure at best. While the demonstrations conveyed many direct and indirect messages, perhaps the most salient was that they signalled an ebb in the advocacy of the southern drive, at least in the current phase, in favour of unity which, in turn, reflects trends in the southern political map.

The past five years since the Yemeni revolution of February 2011 have offered the south many opportunities to secede from the north. Most of the barriers had vanished. Above all, central authority had crumbled and with it the power to enforce unity by force of arms. At the same time, the incentives to secede were growing, the most compelling being the civil war into which the south was plunged in March 2015. So why did the south not secede when conditions seemed to favour or propel toward this option?

Bassem Al-Shaabi, director of the Aden-based Masarat Centre for Strategy and Media, said in a telephone interview with the Weekly: “There are no horizons for the secessionist project just as there are no horizons for the centralised state project which caused all this upheaval in the country.” “Therefore, in order to promote the welfare of the Yemeni people we need to explore alternative options that fulfil their aspirations for a just state in which power and wealth are equitably distributed and social and political exclusion and marginalisation are eliminated. The National Dialogue Conference crowned the struggles of the Yemeni people when it formulated a new political vision that merits attention because of its attention to issues regarding the form and substance of the state. Unfortunately, the Houthis and their ally [former president] Saleh turned against it and launched a war against the Yemeni people.”

According to Yemeni press reports, it was local authorities in the south who called for the demonstrations in support of President Hadi last week. The officials are affiliated with the Hadi government but also with the Southern Movement, a phenomenon that observers such as Al-Shaabi believe signifies an essential shift in southern political performance and discourse. Al-Shaabi added: “Yes, the war engendered new alliances in order to confront the coup. Foremost among them is the alliance between the Southern Movement and the forces of the Popular Youth Revolution within the framework of the defence of Yemeni legitimacy led by President Hadi. Recently, this alliance has evolved into a partnership in power. The Southern Movement has become a partner in the legitimate government and it administers governorates and important cities in the south, most notably the [southern] capital Aden, Lahij and Al-Dali. This relationship and partnership appears to be making great progress at present. The Southern Movement, or a large part of this movement, has become a part of the legitimate authority and the project for change in Yemen which involves the search for the solution to the problem of the Yemeni state. One presumes that this transformation will draw sufficient attention among political elites and the political leadership to compel them to work seriously toward consolidating this partnership in a manner that serves the interests of the Yemeni people, rebuilds the federal Yemeni state and averts the agonies of partition and fragmentation.”

Indeed, the Southern Movement backed away from its radical alternative, evidence of which is to be found in its participation in what Al-Shaabi termed the “national federal state project.” This also signifies the rise a new pragmatism made possible by growing areas of common interest. It thus appears that southerners have turned over the page of the past, a development made all the more likely by the absence or senescence of the generation of southern activists opposed to unity and, consequently, the disappearance of the organisational structures to promote action towards secession or even to mouth its slogans vigorously enough to challenge other slogans. Ultimately, the Southern Movement had its roots in a protest movement driven by various grievances. Perhaps it could best be described as a reform movement that began to pursue its political and economic causes through a different approach. What has become of those causes? What has happened to the idea of reform and the pursuit of southerners’ rights?

Al-Shaabi responds: “Before the war erupted, a giant step forward had been taken towards comprehensive compensation for retired military officers and civilians in the south. A special fund had been created for this purpose and Qatar donated around $250 million to the fund which set to work compensating victims. But then the war erupted and brought everything to a halt. It is expected that when things settle down again, the fund will resume its work. There are thousands who will benefit from compensation. In addition, quite a few retired officers were reabsorbed. Most of them took part in the war on the side of legitimacy and today are stationed in military units that are being formed in the liberated cities. As for the question of rights, this will be addressed in a comprehensive manner once conditions in the country settle down and the war ends.”

In addition to signs of the waning of the secessionist project, there appears to be no international or regional support for it, which means that even in the event that a secessionist drive resumes it would encounter the problem of international backing and recognition. Following the overthrow of Ali Abdullah Saleh in February 2011, the international community declared its commitment to the unity of Yemen. This stance was reaffirmed following the outbreak of the civil war and was incorporated into relevant UN resolutions. In the prologue to Resolution 2140, for example, the UN Security Council reiterates “its strong commitment to the unity, sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Yemen.” Even more strenuously, in Resolution 2216, the Security Council reaffirmed “its support for the legitimacy of the President of Yemen, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi,” and reiterated “its call to all parties and member states to refrain from taking any actions that undermine the unity, sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Yemen, and the legitimacy of the president of Yemen.”

In addition, regionally, none of the countries that are influential in Yemen, most notably the Gulf countries, show any inclination to support a partition project. Most are of the opinion that the aim behind the current wars in the region is precisely to divide and fragment the states of the region and that any support for a secessionist project in Yemen would only further weaken the region and promote the fragmentation by inspiring similar drives elsewhere.

Ultimately, the southern cause faces a two-pronged dilemma as neither option — secession or unity — offers a solution, at least in their current form, capable of achieving lasting stability. Both options present their particular challenges, which are considerable. This said, historical experience has demonstrated that it is better to address the challenges posed by unity, as in this case the Yemenis are merely addressing grievances that, in the most difficult cases, can be remedied through economic programmes.

Nevertheless, this will require international support. The Gulf will find it difficult to sustain the costs of post-war reconstruction in Yemen given the current situation with oil prices. More immediately, the liberated cities are in urgent need of reconstruction under UN supervision.

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