A House Divided

President Saleh may be stepping down, but the threat of civil war is growing.


SANAA AND ADEN, Yemen – As Egyptians storm back into Tahrir Square and Libyans round up their remaining war criminals, Yemenis are praying that a power-transfer deal signed by President Ali Abdullah Saleh on Wednesday will prevent their nine-month civil uprising from descending into civil war.

Saleh, 67, had survived months of mass protests, defections from within his army, party, and tribe, and a June bomb attack on his palace that left him bed-ridden for three months in a Saudi Arabian military hospital. But with the economy of the verge of collapse, armed factions of the military clashing in the capital, and the threat of U.N. sanctions and asset-freezes looming, Yemen’s wily leader of three decades appears finally to have decided to take a step back.

"This disagreement for the last 10 months has had a big impact on Yemen in the realms of culture, development, politics, which led to a threat to national unity and destroyed what has been built in past years," he told a flock of Saudi sheikhs, foreign ambassadors, and U.N. diplomats seated on gold-crested chairs in a lavish Saudi palace after singing four copies of the agreement.

The deal, which had been initially cobbled together by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the United States back in April, requires an immediate transfer of power to Saleh’s deputy, the relatively impotent Abd Rab Mansour al-Hadi, who will preside over a national unity government until early presidential elections scheduled for Feb. 21.

In return for signing, Yemeni lawmakers will grant Saleh and his sons immunity from prosecution — not a bad deal given the corruption allegations, and the hundreds of protesters shot dead in recent months by government troops. Yemenis, meanwhile, get a rare chance to push their faltering uprising into a new phase and search for a way out of the raging political turmoil.

But with Saleh now entrenched in his palace, clinging to the honorary title of president, and his sons and nephews still holding key positions in the military and intelligence services, the regime remains largely intact. Irked by the shortfalls of the GCC deal and the thought of Saleh escaping prosecution, the tens of thousands of protesters who remain camped out in dusty squares across Yemen have pressed on with their rallies, marching daily. On Thursday, just a day after the agreement was signed, a mob of Kalashnikov-wielding balaatija, as the protesters call them — plainclothes government thugs — shot dead five demonstrators and maimed a further 30 as they stormed through the streets of Sanaa calling for Saleh to be put on trial.

Despite the violence, the sight of Saleh finally signing the deal came as a relief to many. But despite the breakthrough, Yemen faces a flawed and failed political compact. The country’s future, most notably the question of its unity — the status of the South — now hangs ominously in the balance.

Saleh has long seen the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990 as the jewel crowning his 33 years in power. His ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), has banged the drum of unity so hard and for so long that anyone caught questioning the merger is seen as a turncoat and risks being labeled an "enemy of the state."

In reality, Yemen’s 21 years of existence have been wracked by internal wars, regional fragmentation, and mass protests. Yemen was, in many ways, the forerunner to this year’s Arab Spring. A peaceful intifada has been in motion since the summer of 2007 in the southern governorates of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, once the Arab world’s only Marxist state, before state bankruptcy and the collapse of the Soviet Union hastened its merger with the north in 1990. The new republican state never achieved its goal of full territorial sovereignty and large parts of the northern and eastern regions remain under tribal control.

A brief and bloody civil war in 1994 saw Saleh call in Salafi mercenaries — fresh from anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan — to crush the southern army. Flames rose from a government-owned beer factory torched by the Islamist mujahideen in Aden, the old capital of the south, as the Socialist leaders fled in fishing boats to Oman.

Northern military officers and opportunist merchants then descended on the south, grabbing land, oil, factories, pensions, and governmental posts. Men deprived of their jobs and pensions and women stripped of the rights enjoyed under the old Socialist administration bristled under what they regarded as northern occupation. Oil revenues from wells on what had been southern soil flowed into the coffers of Saleh and his followers.

The two parts of the country have irreversibly different cultures, many Yemenis believe. In the North it was common in the early years of unity to hear people referring to Southerners as "disbelievers" and describing their women as "loose"; in the South many saw Northerners as "ignorant" and "looters of state property."

Ironically, it was the outpouring of dissent against Saleh this past February — inspired by the uprising in Egypt — that made the president’s long-held dream of a unified Yemen look for the first time like a real possibility. Brought together under a broad, anti-Saleh umbrella, societal groups with previously nothing in common were suddenly cast together, now willing to die for the same cause.

The fungal-like growth of a pro-democracy tented city in downtown Sanaa, later dubbed "Change Square," became the melting pot where jean-clad students from the capital mingled with northern Houthi rebels and gray-haired southern socialists camped in tents next to dagger-bearing tribesman from the east. Joyous chants such as "Our unity is a unity of hearts, no north and no south" captured newfound feelings of national solidarity. Youth coalitions in Change Square included members from Aden and Hadramout, both in Yemen’s south.

But the initial euphoria soon gave way to disenchantment. As Saleh clung to power and mass protests continued without result, frustration grew, along with southerners’ doubts that events in the north would have a positive impact in the south. Today, many southerners feel that a revolution led by independent youth has been hijacked and transformed into a personal power struggle between elites in the north over power.

In the southern port city of Aden, a former British colony built in the dusty crevices of an extinct volcano, leaders of the Hirak, a five-year secessionist movement, who have long seethed at the region’s marginalization under northern rule, are now threatening to overturn the 1990 unification deal and declare independence.

Years of intimidation, daylight floggings and midnight arrests by the regime’s secret police had forced most of the Hirak’s leadership abroad or underground. But with government troops now occupied in the north, they are able to move freely about the city, organizing weekly rallies and holding round-table discussions in coffee shops and restaurants.

"We give the regime this ultimatum: either you acknowledge our legitimate demands to self-determination or you will soon find Yemen split once again into two countries," said Gen. Nasser al-Taweel, a prominent leader of the Hirak, delivering an anti-unity speech from a shabby bus stop turned protest podium in the rundown streets of downtown Aden. Despite brutal repression from Saleh’s regime, the secessionists have proved remarkably resilient, deriving strength from a broad support as well as from charismatic leaders capable of mobilizing the population through a compelling narrative of injustice, marginalization, and a history of independence.

But while the secessionist cry is loud, it is also fragmented. Its more radical leaders like Ali Salem Al Beidh — the exiled former general secretary of the Yemeni Socialist Party — demand "complete and immediate separation" while a more moderate faction headed by Haidar al-Attas advocate a federal system of two governorates for five years followed by a Sudan-style referendum for self-determination. Others just want an end to land expropriation and job discrimination and a greater devolution of power to the provinces. Their visions for what a future southern Yemen might look like also vary — from a return to Marxism to a secular multi-party democracy to an Islamist caliphate.

Still, the Hirak leaders do appear to be getting their house in order. A group of prominent exiled leaders told a packed conference hall in downtown Cairo on Nov. 22 they had agreed on federalism as the best way to resolve the south’s "unconditional right to self-determination," but warned that a lack of response to this solution would give southerners "the right to resort to all options."

But a serious bid for separation at this point could spell disaster for Yemen. Saleh may be out of the picture, but both the ruling party and the opposition remain, at least overtly, staunch supporters of unity. The south lost its army after the 1994 war, and most of its experienced commanders are now elderly men hobbling around Aden with walking canes. The Hirak’s military wing, meanwhile, comprising at most a few hundred men bearing light weapons, would stand little chance against Saleh’s tanks and fighter jets. Moreover, a declaration of independence would likely lead to infighting and additional fragmentation within the south itself.  

Having followed the plight of the South Sudanese just across the Red Sea, the southern movement leaders are well aware of the importance of garnering international support. But their bid for Western sympathies is likely to be met with bitter disappointment.

Western and Gulf nations continue to pledge billions of dollars to Yemen’s central government, insisting that the stability and unity of the regime is paramount. Alarmed as they are by the growing threat of al Qaeda, whose regional branch has established strongholds in parts of the remote southern provinces, the idea of Yemen being carved back into two countries no doubt sends shivers down the spines of Western diplomats. With Saleh gone, the United States in particular will be seeking a strong partner in the north, fearing that a fresh bout of conflict between north and south would only create more elbow room for the militants.

The Yemeni government, meanwhile, which has mastered the art of manipulating international military aid to use against its internal foes, continues to dismiss the movement as a small band of malcontents and has repeatedly accused its leaders of being affiliated with al Qaeda. Southerners accuse Saleh of deliberately fomenting conflict in the south in order to make the south seem unworthy of statehood.

An unintended consequence of Yemen’s Arab Spring has been the resurfacing of the southerners’ grievances. The Hirak are currently pursuing two tracks — a push for federalism by some and for complete separation by others. Which one prevails will largely boil down to how the ongoing political transition pans out in the north.

As things stand, the appeal of independence is strong; if the emerging government of national unity fails to even recognize the movement’s demands for greater equity as legitimate, that appeal will only grow stronger. And if the political transition degenerates into another power squabble between Saleh’s boys and his rival-elites, the consequences could more drastic. It may embolden those southerners entertaining the prospect of declaring independence to take the plunge.

In turn, secession will likely trigger a broader and bloodier conflict as northerners wage war to maintain the country’s unity. With rising unemployment, grinding poverty, Salafi militants, U.S. drone strikes, and thousands of internally displaced people, the south is already basket case of problems. Yemen’s uprising has considerably raised the price of inaction.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola