Wednesday,17 October, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1352, (13 - 19 July 2017)
Wednesday,17 October, 2018
Issue 1352, (13 - 19 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Yemen’s southern question

The political future of South Yemen is a fulcrum point that could decide the fate of the nation, writes Hossam Radman


Yemen’s southern question
Yemen’s southern question

اقرأ باللغة العربية

As “Southern Movement” activists in Yemen put their final touches on plans to stage a mass rally in the temporary Yemeni capital, Aden, Prime Minister Ahmed Obeid bin Daghr prepared a statement that he hoped would contain rising tensions.

In a marked departure from the authoritarian custom in Yemen for the past two decades, Bin Daghr acknowledged the right of demonstrators of the separatist Southern Movement to assemble peacefully and express their demands. At the same time, he appealed to affiliates of other political trends to avoid central public spaces that Friday so as to forestall any possible clashes.

The last-minute flirtation on the part of that southern official who has displayed the greatest facility for changing his political stripes was not solely responsible for containing the situation, even if it was instrumental. Bin Daghr’s remarks were also packed with implicit warnings for the “Southern Interim Council” all the members of which had returned to Aden to attend the Friday rally.

“Let’s read between the lines of some of the details of the situation,” Bin Daghr said, rhetorically addressing the southern movement activists. “The more you try to weaken the legitimacy in Aden or work against the elected President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the more you pave the way for the return of the Houthis and [former president Ali Abdullah] Saleh.”

The prime minister when further to conjure up the spectre of a resurgence of regional conflict between Abyan and Al-Dalie, alluding the types of regional divides that characterised the 1986 civil war in southern Yemen.

Recollections from the civil war do not only haunt the residents of the Maashik Presidential Palace in Aden. Many politicians and observers grow anxious at a time when the South, which all parties saw as a space in which to carve out a realm of influence for themselves, is trying with all its remaining autonomous might to position itself as an effective player in a tumultuous field with no sign of a settlement on the horizon.


THE SOUTH: PLAYER AND PLAYING FIELD: Yemen, suffering the ravages of civil war since late 2015, is impossible to understand if one relies on the official map based on the dichotomy between “legitimacy” (the internationally recognised government supported by the Saudi-led Arab coalition) versus the “armed insurgence” (made up of the Houthi-Saleh alliance). The oversimplifications in the media are incapable of grasping how the multifarious parts overlap and interweave in a conflict shaped by geographic and demographic realities and the residual legacies of past conflicts. At the heart of this complex fabric, the Yemeni South has been a crucial element in determining the layout of political and military lines, from the time southern fighters began their tenacious struggle to return as a major player in the Yemeni political power equations to the present, when the south has become a secondary playing field in the conflict between regional powers.

With the launch of Operation Storm of Resolve, the Southern Movement inaugurated a new phase in which its armed faction, led by Aidaroos Al-Zubaidi, became a politically and morally welcome player in view of the prominent role it played in the confrontation against the forces of the Houthi-Saleh alliance. Al-Dalie, the stronghold of the Southern Movement, was the first governorate to be liberated from Houthi control, without direct support from the Saudi-led Arab coalition. It was therefore only natural that the UAE in its bid to establish a foothold of influence in the South would seek closer political and military relations with the Southern Movement so as to benefit from its popularity, local influence and military strength as a counterweight against terrorist groups. Indeed, the movement, beneath the emergent leadership of Aidaroos Al-Zubaidi and Shalal Shaei, masterfully averted the scenario of being reduced to an Islamic emirate subordinate to Al-Qaeda or IS and, in the process, escaped numerous assassination attempts on the part of these terrorist organisations.

From December 2015 to April 2017, the Hadi government adopted a policy of empowering southern leaders in positions of local government and incorporating large numbers of Southern Movement youth into the army and security services. “Power in exchange for unity” was the motto of this phase that led Al-Zubaidi depart from his secessionist discourse on a number of occasions, the most salient being his declaration of Aden as a “capital that welcomed all Yemenis”. However, the new partnership formula appeared to serve the interests of the “Southern Movement-UAE camp” to the detriment of other parties and cast into relief a rivalry between two distinct projects: the six federal regions project espoused by Riyadh, President Hadi and the Yemeni Congregation for Reform (Al-Islah) Party versus the bi-regional project favoured by the Southern Movement with the tacit support of the UAE.

As tensions mounted between the Southern Movement camp (which is primarily based in Al-Dalie and Lahij) and the legitimacy camp (which consists of pro-government southerners primarily from Abyan and Shabwah, plus the Islah Party which had been totally excluded from the southern pie due to the staunchly anti-Muslim Brotherhood stance of the UAE), regional contradictions and tensions (between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, on the one hand, and the UAE and Qatar, on the other) added fuel to the fire. The process culminated in divorce in April, when Hadi dismissed Aidaroos from his post as governor of Aden.

With that divorce, the Southern Movement was stripped of its position in power which created a kind of impetus of its own in view of the movement’s organisational fluidity. The legitimacy camp had hoped that the impetus would drive the movement into becoming a rogue force or to disintegration, which would have eliminated the UAE’s key to its presence in the south. Indeed, at first this seemed the most likely scenario, had it not been for Aidaroos’s surprise move that once again reshaped the political scene. His declaration of the “Southern Interim Council” furnished political cover to enable the movement to sustain and consolidate its accumulated gains and benefits, and gave a new platform for UAE influence that contributed to engineering this political output.

However, the new political development would not have acquired legitimacy and impetus without appealing to the street. Accordingly, Al-Zubaidi, who had previously asked the grassroots supporters of the Southern Movement to move their struggle “from the streets to the political chambers”, once again called on them to return to the streets. In May, they rallied to protest decrees excluding the movement from positions of power. This was followed by a second rally to give him a popular mandate to form the Interim Council. Then, in July, he issued his third call for a rally.

For the first time in the history of the movement, demonstrations became a means to achieve political outputs whereas previously they had been an end in and of themselves.


7 JULY: BETWEEN SYMBOLISM AND REALISM: 7 July will remain alive in the South’s collective memory because of the complex feelings it evokes. On the one hand, it stands for the history of defeat and the point, in 1994, where the forces of President Saleh allied with Islah invaded Aden, the capital of the south. On the other hand, the date signifies the moment that the Southern Movement was sparked in 2007, a moment that proved a major nail in the coffin of the Saleh regime and its legitimacy. However, the resurgence of the southerners this time is not seasonal or purely symbolic. It marks a new chapter in a confrontation that has unfolded at diverse levels and in different ways. Indeed, the mass rally staged by the southerners 7 July 2017 is the prelude of a new de facto reality.

Al-Zubaidi succeeded in turning mass demonstrations into a means to augment his legitimacy within the narrow scope of time available to him. The government had continued its exclusionist policies with the dismissals of the governors of Socotra, Shabwah and Hadramawt, all of whom were members of the Interim Council. Therefore, Al-Zubaidi and his team decided to return to Aden, make a vivid demonstration and capitalise on fervent mass support in order to complete the organisational structuring of the council.

Yet, while the council proved able to occupy a large portion of the political sphere in view of the mass presence behind it and its significance as a green light to the UAE and a amber light to the Saudis, it epitomises a range of contradictions that render it incapable of presenting itself as an alternative to the legitimacy camp or an improvement on the risk of a declaration of secession.

Even so, during the recent event that was dubbed “Rejection of the continuation of the occupation”, the Southern Interim Council did not hesitate to present itself as a ready alternative in the event that the government failed “to meet the people’s demands for services and security”. Moreover, it moved to brand the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation alongside Al-Qaeda, IS and the Houthi movement and, simultaneously, to establish its alignment within the framework of the “Sunni axis” opposed to Iranian influence, thereby bringing itself strategically closer to the Gulf countries.

The Southern Movement seems perpetually caught in a paradox which is that the moment of its glory and rising power is simultaneously the moment of crisis which wrenches it apart. Today the movement stands at a crossroads. Either it takes the long political road that leads to power or it chooses the road to open conflict with the forces of legitimacy that have reneged on their obligations. The step to form the Interim Council suggests that the first option is closer to Al-Zubaidi’s way of thinking. In taking that step he halted the fallout of the decree to dismiss him, but he did not go so far as to deny the legitimacy of the current government or to renounce his positioning within the framework of the Riyadh-Abu Dhabi axis. On the other hand, his recent refusal to recognise the other dismissal decrees has kept alive the possibility of the second road, one that would throw all the cards up in the air if he chooses it.

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