Yemen, like many of the other countries of the Arab Spring, appears to be fated to a period of extended instability, the worst aspect of which is that the effects of foreign intervention and foreign interests far outweigh the effects of internal factors.
The National Dialogue Conference, in which most if not all the Yemeni factions participated, began its activities in 2013 as an essential attempt to save the country’s revolution and to save the country from the perils of civil war and internal strife and the mounting repercussions of that strife.
Among the other spectres that loomed then was that of a possible “American solution,” one originally tailored for Iraq on the ostensible grounds that it would be the cure-all to that country’s crises, and holding out the idea that partition was the key.
The National Conference convened to ward off the spectre of partition as the consequence of the internal strife that in part had taken the form of the secessionist call advocated primarily by the Southern Movement.
Formed in 2007, this is made up of a number of political groups and forces, most notably the larger portion of the Yemeni Socialist Party that governed the southern half of Yemen following independence in 1967 and subsequently entered into a partnership, following the unification of Yemen in 1990, with the General People’s Congress (GPC) headed by ousted former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
However, there were three movements driving the country towards possible partition. There was the campaign launched by the Southern Movement to avenge itself against the unified state and revert to the era of the great split that had divided historic Yemen into a northern state and a collection of smaller states in the south that the Socialist Party brought together in the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) following independence.
There was also the Houthi drive emanating from the northern governorate of Saada and expanding towards the capital Sanaa and having its sights set on founding a Zaidi theocracy. As Houthi Zaidiya doctrines have come to have much in common with Twelver Shia ones, the Houthis have become prime candidates for Iranian support, and their movement has fired Tehran’s ambitions to insert a Shia state or statelet in the southern flank of the Arabian Peninsula.
With this Houthi-Shia tide came a third source of peril in the escalating warfare that Al-Qaeda was waging in many Yemeni governorates, together with the increasing US strikes against Al-Qaeda bastions in Yemen. All the foregoing was combining to turn Yemen into a failed state.
The National Dialogue Conference that was initiated in order to address these dangers and ward off their threats to national unity was originally supposed to finish its activities within six months, which is to say in September 2013. For various reasons, its term was extended to 25 January 2014, on which date it held its closing session with high-profile Arab, regional and international attendance.
Before this closing session, the Conference adopted a Dialogue Charter by a large majority vote, one of the articles of which called for the creation of a federal state to replace the current centralised state system. The participants at the Conference also agreed to create a 22-member committee, headed by President Abd-Rabbou Mansour Hadi and representatives of all the political forces in the country, to study the possible options for a federal system and approve one of them.
There were three basic options on the table, all of which had been discussed at length during the National Dialogue. The first two were a six-region federal state with four regions in the north and two in the south, or a federation consisting of two large regions, one in the north and the other in the south. The participants hailing from the Southern Movement were the chief advocates of the latter option, as it could prelude a return to the two separate states that had existed before unification in 1990. The third option was kept open and left to the committee members to decide.
On 10 February, the committee concluded its activities. It had adopted the first option – the six-region formula – by a large majority. Foremost among the committee members to vote in favour were the representatives of the Islah (Reform) Party, the Nasserist Party, the GPC, the Justice and Construction Party, and representatives of women and youth.
Voting against it were the representatives of the Socialist Party and the Houthi group that calls itself Ansar Allah (Champions of God). Both of these groups lashed out at the committee, criticising the way it was formed and combining their justifications for opposing the selected option with harshly worded threats and warnings.
Suddenly the clock was being turned back to the period before the National Dialogue. Once again, the warring groups were reproducing the options of failure and failed solutions and pitting Yemen against challenges that threatened it with partition and civil war.
FEDERATION OR PARTITION? Those who have cheered the committee’s approval of the six-region formula see it as a decision that will safeguard Yemen from fragmentation and the imposition of the secessionist option favoured especially by the Socialist Party and extremists from the Southern Movement.
They also hold that the purpose of the federal formula is to promote modern government and administration in the regions that will have the power to supervise and address their particular issues and concerns related to development, progress and security and stability.
The chief guarantee of the success of the federal system, according to the supporters of the committee’s decision, will be the constitution. The drafting of this is set to become the focus of national activity in Yemen in the coming months in the framework of a new interim phase ushered in with the extension of the current president’s term of office for a year in order to oversee the completion of this task.
The hope is that the new constitution will enshrine a number of principles recommended by the committee. According to officials from the committee, regions should have the option to modify their internal administrative boundaries (as defined by the existing boundaries of their component provinces) and jurisdictions after one or more electoral term. This process would be subject to specific regulations as established by a law issued by the legislative authority in each region.
The committee also called for guarantees to ensure the true partnership of each region in the federal legislative and executive authorities. One mechanism towards this end would be to implement the rotation of the post of speaker of the legislative assembly. At the regional level, the principle of partnership among the constituent provinces would be ensured by guaranteeing that no one province dominates the regional cabinet.
The committee members further stressed that they had taken into account such factors as geographic contiguity, demographic homogeneity and social relations, and economic capacities in their determination of the constituent provinces of the regions and that they had resolved to retain a special status for Sanaa and Aden in view of their political and economic importance.
These recommendations were supported by some representatives of the Southern Movement who had participated in the National Dialogue, which set them apart from most other leaders of that movement who, from the outset of the dialogue, had remained bent on southern secession.
Yassin Makawi, a member of the committee representing the Southern Movement, said that the six-region federal formula “achieves for southerners, in particular, and northerners, in general, what all previous civil wars failed to achieve.” He added that the federal partitioning “is only a first step towards the restructuring of the south in the framework of forthcoming institutions” and that the elected assemblies would be instrumental in setting on course legislation that followed through on the guarantees adopted by the National Dialogue.
An antithetical stance was voiced by the other camp in the Southern Movement, as well as by the Socialist Party which had boycotted the National Dialogue Conference. The tenor of this was made explicit by the Supreme Council for the Southern Movement at the outset of the Dialogue last year. “This step emanating from the Gulf Initiative does not concern the southerners, who demand freedom, independence and the restoration of the state of [South Yemen],” it said.
The Council added that “the [National Dialogue] initiative was not conceived to resolve the southern question, but merely to resolve the crisis between the government and the opposition in the north.”
Ali Salem Al-Beidh, formerly the PDRY president who became Yemeni vice-president after unification, was harsher in his criticism of the six-region federal solution. It was “no more than a game that will have its day,” he said, adding that he had been opposed from the outset to engaging in a Dialogue “aimed solely at solving the problem of the fight over seats in the government in Sanaa” and that he did not expect the powers-that-be in Sanaa to produce anything approaching a democratic system of government.
In sum, “the southerners reject the decision of the committee because it will not produce anything new as the social forces are incapable of carrying it out,” Al-Beidh said. He also expressed his conviction that the government in Sanaa “has come under the international mandate of the countries sponsoring the Gulf Initiative” and that although the six-region federal decision may not favour any one particular country, “the governments that sponsored the Gulf Initiative played a part in this decision given that the government in Sanaa is under their mandate.”
THE HOUTHI POSITION: Houthi challenges to the federal project have compounded the problems now facing it.
Houthi spokesmen have protested that the six-region plan as devised by the presidential committee will “divide Yemen into rich and poor.” Their proof of this has been that the plan attaches the province of Saada – the Houthi bastion – to the region of Azal, together with Amran, Dhamar and Sanaa. This runs counter to the principles of the committee, they say, as in their opinion Saada is culturally, geographically and socially closer to Hajja and Al-Jawf, which have been attached to the regions of Tahama and Saba, respectively.
The Houthis believe that the committee’s decisions regarding the composition of the regions have been informed by Saudi pressures. Saudi Arabia, they say, seeks a large tribal and oil-producing hinterland in Yemen, particularly in the oil-rich regions of Hadramawt and Saba which have close tribal links to Saudi Arabia.
According to Houthi spokesman Mohamed Abdel-Salam, “[the federal decision] reflects the view of certain forces and does not promote true partnership. It is neither a solution to the southern question that it was meant to address, nor to the other problems in the country.” He denied that Saleh Hira, president of the political council of the Houthi group, had taken part in the committee, stating that the participant had been Hussein Al-Ezzi, who had refused to sign the committee’s report.
Another reason cited by Houthi spokesmen for their opposition to the federal scheme is that it cuts Saada off from access to Red Sea ports. Some observers take this to mean that the Houthis fear that they are being deprived of links to abroad and, specifically, to foreign support.
At another level, the Houthi rejection of the federal plan coincides with their ongoing battle with a number of tribes affiliated with the Islah Party. These confrontations, raging in the province of Amran and the Arhab district near Sanaa airport, are only rivalled in their ferocity by the battles waged by Al-Qaeda in many parts of Yemen against the state and the Americans.
It appears, therefore, that the federal decision, given such formidable opposition and the ongoing strife in the country, will not solve the crises in Yemen, even if its stated purpose is to resolve the contests over power and wealth in the country. These conflicts are intimately connected with the evolution of the state and the diverse political, social and economic factors that led to the creation of two separate Yemens, unification and civil war. It is a history brimming with conflict.
The signs are that the conflict will not now end and that it will ultimately cause the collapse of the federal state if, indeed, it comes into being. In that event, Yemen faces the prospect of the dismantling of the Yemeni nation state, for the establishment of which so many Yemenis sacrificed their lives and that had revived Arab hopes for comprehensive Arab unity when the Yemeni republic was declared in 1990.
Unfortunately, it appears that the enemies of comprehensive Arab unity have not been satisfied with partitioning the Arab nation and preventing its unification. Since they proclaimed the Greater Middle East project on the eve of the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, they have been working to repartition the earlier partitions and to re-fragment the already fragmented Arab lands. The purported justification has been to create more homogeneous countries to replace what they have called “failed states” that were heterogeneous in their ethnic and religious composition.
The collapse of the federal state in Yemen, if that occurs, will parade beneath the call to create homogeneous statelets based on ethnic, religious and sectarian divides. Another name for that repartitioning and further fragmentation will be the rival of the Great Middle East project. That project failed in Iraq. But its architects have not given up, and thwarting the establishment of the federal state in Yemen may be an end in and of itself in order to extend the experiment elsewhere in the Arab region.