There is a pattern in the way the [Arab] authoritarian regimes have collapsed. When these regimes lost their ability to achieve [an equitable] distribution [of wealth/resources] in society and renew their political and ideological legitimacy, they have tended to resort to clamping down on security, nurturing internal hypocrisies, and clinging excessively to regional and international roles [to compensate for domestic weakness]. This was the case with the regime of [Yemeni President] Ali Abdullah Saleh. In the final years of his tenure, Saleh posed as the protector of the Arabian Peninsula against the infiltration of “Iranian influence” in the form of the Houthi movement. Saleh also presented himself to the world - that is, to the US administration and the European Union - as at the forefront of the global war on “terror.” [Meanwhile,] he brought in terrorists from Afghanistan and used them in his war against the South in 1994. Later on, he [turned against] the same jihadists recycling them as “Al-Qaeda” militants so as to provoke [Western] fears and divert attention from the [real] issues in South Yemen.
Paradoxically, the Yemeni revolution united the masses across the country under the banner of overthrowing the tyrant. But the ruler’s departure - under US-Saudi patronage and with no effect to the pillars of his regime - exposed gaps that were not at the heart of the revolutionary movement itself. The receding [role] of the central autocracy in Sana'a produced three conspicuous - and rather repulsive - movements:
The Houthi movement, whose demand for autonomy in the northwestern part of Yemen is combined with calls to defend the freedom of religious belief.
The importance of Ta’izz as a center of revolutionary mobility. Ta’izz is a neglected and marginalized area, although the most populated and economically robust. It has also been subjected to its ample share of repression.
The Southern Mobility Movement [SMM] in the [Yemeni] southern governorates calls for federalism or secession. [However, the SMM does not represent the majority] of the people in that region.
The least that can be said here is that the disintegration of the central authority with which Ali Abdullah Saleh and his regime ruled requires restructuring based on the minimal recognition of the multiplicity of [power] centers in a sprawling country [such as Yemen].
Here [I] would like to make a few brief observations about one of these three issues, namely the situation in southern [Yemen], which [I] have researched extensively in recent weeks.
Yemen - both its North and South - has paid a high price for the arbitrary way in which unity between the two parts of the country was achieved in 1990, and the way the conflict between the two sides was concluded [after] the 1994 war. At the time, the regime in the South was desperate to achieve unity following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The leader of the North - supported by the US administration - acted in a manner suggesting that the achievement of unity meant the return of the Communist “wayward son” to the “House of Obedience” [a provision in Islamic law that allows men to place their wives under house arrest, here indicating that Communist South Yemen was punished and disenfranchised following unification with the North].
Much has been written about the patterns of comprehensive domination and the forms of excessive discrimination and corruption exercised by Ali Abdullah Saleh, his regime and [inner] circles against the defeated South. A great deal of blood was shed as a result. But what is not being emphasized enough is the nationalist assumption that accompanied these practices, which can be described as “divisive unitarianism” or “centrifugalism”. It is an assumption that unity existed normally [between Yemenis] and that normal [unity] would be restored after eliminating the artificial and abnormal borders between the “two parts” [of the country] - despite the fact that the Yemeni people have not lived together under one rule for centuries. What is worse still is that instead of establishing and creating unity and solidifying and legitimizing [this unity] by reinforcing relations between the people, institutions, and common interests and aspirations [of the two Yemens], the so-called “de-secession” [of the South] was simply dealt with as the return of a “branch” to the “source.” The result was not surprising: The ruler of the North [Ali Abdullah Saleh] excluded his partner from the South [Ali Salim al-Bid]. And since each authority still retained its armed forces, things quickly degenerated into armed confrontation. Saudi Arabia encouraged the South’s commanders to declare secession as a pretext for sending joint Arab League forces to separate [Yemen’s] two parts, thus reinforcing the two-state reality. [Why] Saudi Arabia backed away from this project or failed to achieve it remains a mystery. What matters is that the South lost the war, and Yemen lost its unity.
The way the SMM is being represented and led today raises concerns about the [possible] repetition of [past] experiences, when foreign [actors] had been counted on. The southern leaders have not provided any explanations to their people regarding the experience of socialist rule, how unity was [negotiated], or the role [of these leaders] in the deteriorating [situation] which [eventually] led to the re-imposition of [their rule] by military force. The [SMM] leaders today seem to be divided between those who want to call for Saudi-Gulf support aimed at establishing a federal [state], and those who seek to elicit an Iranian intervention in support of the South’s secession, providing the Islamic Republic with a foothold in the Arabian Peninsula.
Those who have been following up on conferences held recently on Yemen must be surprised about the dominance of this external illusion and the myths it creates, and how the affairs of the southern governorates are being distanced from the ongoing developments in the rest of the country. This is only rivaled by the delusion of [South Yemeni secessionists,] who have adopted nationalist identities rooted in the past. [They cling to these identities] regardless of whether or not Yemen’s democratic experience between 1967 and 1990 suggests that the governorates of South Yemen are in fact capable of economic and financial autonomy. As if a people that has expelled British colonialism through armed struggle and enormous sacrifices does not deserve to be called the “Arab South,” a label given by the British administration to that region in the last years of British colonialism. And as if the call to build “Great Hadramout” is not a provocation to fanaticism, like those that invoked the specter of civil strife in January 1986 [Hadramout is a province in Southern Yemen, bordering Oman].
It would not be preaching to say that democracy is the way to rebuild the unity of Yemen on new foundations, for the following reasons:
Firstly, the main principle of democracy is the declaration of political and legal equality among citizens and the elimination of all forms of discrimination among them, at least in those two areas [political and legal]. The public mobilization in the southern governorates is, before everything else, over discrimination in citizenship.
Secondly, since democracy gives priority to the popular will above all else, this means that the citizens of southern governorates have the right to self-determination through a free referendum, according to which they would choose the form of their institutional relationship with other parts of the new Yemen.
Finally, democracy is a framework that most respects plurality and helps engage the largest possible popular segments in political life and decision-making.
In conclusion, regarding the experiences of Arab despotic regimes, a unitary [government] does not result in [greater] power. The most powerful countries in the world are federal states, or confederations. Most importantly, the single unitary authorities and their military bases only exercised power over their peoples, until [the people] succeeded in breaking the barrier of fear and challenging their rulers. But [these authorities] have never allowed any Arab state to gather its strength and defeat the Israeli enemy [once and for all].
A truly powerful [government] is one that draws its power from its people. It is [a government] based on popular legitimacy, reflected through elections and the devolution of power on the basis of citizens’ political and legal equality. [Finally, it is a government that ensures] the provision of a decent living and hope for the future of its people.