Yemen was one of the few Arab states in which political upheaval was managed consensually. The new era contains several elements of the old; the new president, for example, was the former vice-president. Moreover, this took place without foreign military intervention or international sanctions. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh showed flexibility in dealing with the explosive situation in his country and, despite his initial hesitation and recalcitrance, voluntarily gave up the ‘throne’ and still lives in his country. Just so, the opposition agreed to grant him, his children and some of his close associates immunity from interrogation and prosecution. Had this solution not been reached (thanks to the Gulf Initiative), Yemeni blood would still be shed in the streets and the military would have been torn apart.
Unfortunately, there are still inherited problems that have yet to be solved, including the presence of al-Qaeda, Yemen's most prominent security challenge. And then there is the problem of southern Yemen, which constitutes a political challenge of the first order. This issue resurfaced after news spread of an assassination attempt last Monday evening [Aug. 27] against Yasin Numan, the General-Secretary of the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP), a southern party that led South Yemen until the two halves of the country were declared reunited in May 1990. Numan had been, until then, one of the three top advisers to President Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi. The attempt on his life is a poor omen in a number of respects and carries many class, party and institutional implications.
Curiously, the YSP is represented in the unity government led by Mohammed Basindawa while at the same time serving as one of the most prominent factions in the Peaceful Southern Movement, a group that calls for the re-establishment of an independent southern state. Some of the party literature even speaks of "the northern occupation of the south." The movement held demonstrations on August 30 and August 31, openly calling for secession, indicating that the public's pressure on Sanaa to meet this demand is gaining momentum.
Even for a transitional situation such as the one in which Yemen finds itself, these ironies seem exceptionally bizarre. The YSP participated in the Yemeni revolution. It consented to being a partner in the new era, no differently from the other political forces and parties, as indeed was expected and logical. But the south's particular demands nevertheless are unique and vary from those that provoked Yemen’s revolution and predate them. These demands date back to 2007, when their proponents were subjected to harassment by the old regime. Circumstances are different today, but the demands have not receded. These demands focus on equitable treatment of the south and those living there.
From a reading of the situation in the South, it appears evident that the separatist movement encompasses a multitude of opinions. Some call for resorting to arms. Indeed the last president of South Yemen, Ali Salim al-Beidh, may be classified as a supporter of this option and, from exile, is believed to be working with the Houthis toward that end. Meanwhile the larger portion focus on solely peaceful means, particularly since the dawn of a new era in Sanaa has all but dictated recourse to this option. Then there are a number who remain steadfast in supporting unity with the north, while still attaching the greatest degree of importance on southerners' demands to receive fair treatment (regarding land ownership, appointments to government and particularly military posts, supporting war victims and ex-soldiers). And there is yet a fourth view, one that calls for federalism to define the relationship between the northern and the southern states.
The political situation in southern Yemen is not limited to the goings on of the peaceful movement, for there are fundamentalist streams intertwined with tribal influences themselves intertwined with al-Qaeda. On the one hand, this deepens the situation’s complexity; on the other hand it renders it all the more dangerous, given the heavy concentration of weapons in the possession of all these groups and their desire to impose outcomes to their advantage. Any conflict with the new authorities in Sanaa will undoubtedly be accompanied by quarrels among different factions within the south itself, making this a perilous affair.
Another peril lies in wait, and this may be classified as ideological. Perpetuating the southern self-perception as an entity whose communal and individual fortunes are held hostage to developments in the north is a gravely mistaken form of national identity building and may, God forbid, lead to ongoing conflicts with the north.
The southerners, like the northerners, would be better served by making a fair, honest and intrepid review of the recent past to identify the mistakes that have been made and to rectify them, for the sake of both the present and future. The starting point would be the acceptance of the idea of a federal state joining the north and the south, one that would satisfy the need to keep the country united, provide for the equitable treatment of southerners and guarantee the establishment of a political entity that shares responsibility with the federal state on every level.
Without a doubt, the presence of southerners as both head of the country (in the form of President Hadi), as well as head of government (Prime Minister Basindawa) provides a certain guarantee that matters will proceed peacefully in this direction. A national dialogue is expected to be held in Sanaa within the coming weeks. It will provide an opportunity to lay these political concerns to rest with the greatest possible degree of transparency. The political and social forces in the south are invited to examine their options and forge a common vision based on the right to full equality, reserving the right to secede if necessary.
Here, federalism appears to be the wisest national choice for the both the north and the south. For the alternative is endless conflict between the two regions, inviting regional interventions and escalating militarization of society, to say nothing of the conflicts between contrasting visions and agendas within the south itself. Moreover one must take the lesson from history, insofar as the south was divided against itself into several districts throughout British occupation. The fear today is that separatist calls will not fall silent even if the south parts ways with the north.