A Yemen Built for Two?

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With violent protests swelling in Egypt and fighting escalating in Syria, there's a sense these days that the Arab Spring has taken a dark turn. This week, Jamal Benomar, the U.N. envoy to Yemen, expressed similar concerns about Yemen, which is beset by challenges ranging from water and fuel shortages to a growing al Qaeda presence to separatist movements in the north and south. "The transition is threatened," Benomar warned, adding that the Yemeni government should "take confidence-building measures to address the grievances of the southerners" for national reconciliation talks to work.

In the once-prosperous southern port city of Aden, which I visited twice in October and November, the demand for secession from the country's north is everywhere -- from the city's beaches to its graffiti-covered walls. Shaking off more than a century of British rule in 1967, Aden served as the capital of the Marxist People's Democratic Republic of Yemen until 1990, when Ali Abdullah Saleh unified the country's north and south. The former Yemeni president solidified his control over the country in a bloody civil war four year later, leaving behind bitter feelings in the south that linger even after Saleh relinquished power earlier this year.

The primary force behind the secessionist push is the Southern Movement (known as al-Hirak in Arabic), an assortment of groups united by the goal of southern autonomy. Their mission appeals to southerners who are embittered by what they perceive as aggression by armed tribesmen and Yemeni military forces in the north, and corruption and land grabs by government officials in the northern capital Sanaa.

Yemen's new president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, has pinned hopes for ironing out differences between the north and south after the revolution on a National Dialogue Conference bringing together the deeply fragmented country's disparate factions and political parties. Twice delayed -- largely due to difficulties in arranging southern participation -- the conference is now expected to begin in roughly two months. Even if these discussions prove productive, my impression after 15 days in Aden is that the government will have to launch a much more ambitious on-the-ground campaign for hearts and minds in southern Yemen to preserve national unity -- and to head off secessionist bids in the future.

Above, a father and son sit at a Southern Movement meeting place in Aden. Behind them, a message geared toward foreigners suggests that the Southern Movement is channeling an Adeni desire to join a global community that values principles of progress and modernity. The Southern Movement's flag originally belonged to the now-defunct People's Democratic Republic of Yemen.


A man holds up his old passport and identity card during a Southern Movement march in Aden's Ma'alla district. Both were rendered null and void when Saleh united the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen with North Yemen in 1990.


Men spend an evening playing cards and dominoes on one of Aden's main streets against the backdrop of secessionist graffiti, which is ubiquitous in the city's streets.


During the Eid al-Adha holiday in late October, a small but vocal group of Southern Movement followers participate in a march on a beach in Aden.


In an Adeni marketplace, a portrait of Saleh has been painted over in red. To the dismay of a great many citizens and politicians, the ousted Yemeni leader has remained in the country and continues to wield influence as one of Yemen's main power brokers.


Southern Movement followers hold outdoor prayer sessions and marches like this one on a weekly basis in Aden's Ma'alla district.


With a secessionist symbol and the words "Falcon of the South" painted on the wall behind him, a street vendor prepares paan, a mixture of spices and nuts wrapped in betel leaves and a legacy of Aden's once-thriving Indian population.


Identifiable as northerners from their dress and traditional janbiya daggers, two men perform a dance on an Adeni beach before bemused onlookers. Southerners refer to northerners by the derogatory term dahbashi after a popular Yemeni television show about a buffoon from the north. For Adenis, who see themselves as sophisticated and worldy, Dahbash came to personify their perception of northerners as low-class and tribal.


Graffiti above the picture of a slain Southern Movement follower on a building in Aden reads, "The Street of the Martyr Hero Ahmed al-Darwish -- we will not forget you."


"We don't want a national dialogue," a Southern Movement follower named Menhel tells me during a late-night discussion about the upcoming National Dialogue Conference in Aden's Crater District. "We want a dialogue between two countries."


A picture of prominent Southern Movement leader Hassan Ba'oum flies above Aden's al-Mansura Square, the site of violent confrontations between armed Southern Movement followers and government forces over the past year.


Southern Movement followers attend a meeting to discuss the possibility of taking part in the National Dialogue Conference. While speakers devoted a fair amount of time to discussing their differences with particular Southern Movement leaders, they ultimately expressed an inclination toward participating in the dialogue.


Islah, Yemen's main opposition party, is a powerful national force closely linked with the Muslim Brotherhood. But its influence and ability to operate in Aden are severely limited by secessionist groups. "Propaganda about Islah from Hirak or Ali Abdullah Saleh's forces isn't good -- or true," Says Khaled al-Shodhuri (left), a journalist and local Islah Party organizer.


Southern Movement followers march through streets in Aden's Crater District. Young people, assail by rampant unemployment, are well-represented in the Southern Movement's ranks.


At the conclusion of a march in Aden, a woman calls for an independent southern Yemeni state.


While Yemen's national flag is largely absent from Aden's streets, the flag adopted by the Southern Movement has been painted on every conceivable surface throughout the city. In addition to the secessionist messages they convey, these hand-painted flags and slogans communicate an absence of government control and authority. While the authorities could whitewash the city's walls, it's clear from talking to local residents that the government would need to do much more than that to convince Adenis of the benefits of national unity.

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