After Saleh, Yemen's divisions reappear
The deposed president marginalised Yemen's separatist south. As voters elect his successor, former political foes are working together to heal old wounds. Hugh Naylor and Hakim Almasmari, Foreign Correspondents, report
SANAA // Seated cross-legged on cushions in an ornate majlis, a dozen men argued passionately for hours over what might be Yemen's most fraught issue: the political divide between north and south.
The formation of a republic in 1990 brought two independent states under one flag, but resentment over the union endures and secessionist sentiment persists.
As the republic's only president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, leaves office today and Yemenis vote to elect his successor, part of the glue that held the two sides together will melt away. Anxiety about what will happen next gives new urgency to previously stale arguments.
"You hurt the south, which we built ourselves! People like you are the ones who destroyed us!" shouted one man said to have ties with southern separatists.
A northerner retorted in frustration: "What do you mean by 'the south'? We're all one country in Yemen!"
To span the north-south breach that many here expect to widen with Mr Saleh's departure, prominent northern and southern political and civic leaders - pro-reform activists, businessmen, even southern separatists - have been holding meetings such as this one in an effort to avert a potential crisis that some fear could lead to a repeat of the civil war in 1994.
They express hope for resolving the grievances of the south's six million residents - in particular, the damage of what they view as Mr Saleh's corrupt rule and his forced appropriation of the south's land and resources.
Indeed, critics say attempts at reconciliation that redressed these grievances were always crushed by Mr Saleh, who is stepping down under the terms of a transition deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council in the shadow of nationwide protests against his three-decade rule.
"I am optimistic," said Mohammed Abu Lahoum, a former leader of Mr Saleh's ruling party, the General People's Congress, who hosted last week's discussion in Sanaa.
The people in the south "are serious, and we have to listen to their demands and work together".
Mr Abu Lahoum is one of a group of northern leaders asked by the incoming president, Abdurabu Mansour Hadi, to hold discussions with their southern counterparts. Mr Hadi will oversee constitutional reform and a two-year transition to parliamentary elections.
Even before taking office, however, he has moved to address Yemen's north-south divide, having Mr Abu Lahoum meet a number of southern leaders in Cairo recently to convince them to support Yemen's transitional government.
The list includes Mr Saleh's enemies, such as former presidents and prime ministers of what was once the independent nation of South Yemen, formally known as the Socialist People's Democratic Republic of Yemen.
"We've been making a lot of progress," he said. "I strongly believe the new president is the right person to meet and deal with these challenges. He is serious in wanting to face them."
Mr Abu Lahoum, who fled Yemen to the United States after angering Mr Saleh, acknowledges that the south's "loss of confidence in the state" could take years to overcome.
Many are bitter at Mr Saleh's neglect of the south and what they say is a patronage system that favoured his friends and allies at the expense of the south and the soldiers and officers who hailed from there.
Compounding southern resentment is a cultural gulf with the north.
While the tribal-dominated north functions on patronage networks, socialist rule in the south diminished the importance of tribal affiliation, putting the region at a disadvantage when the republic was formed and the capital established in Sanaa.
Moreover, analysts say, southerners have higher expectations for government support. Soaring unemployment nationwide has intensified their sense of alienation from the central government in Sanaa.
The combined effect of all this is potentially irreconcilable anti-northern sentiment, said Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, professor of political science at United Arab Emirates University.
"It really feels that the southern problem is intensifying because the majority doesn't want to be associated with greater Yemen any more," he said.
From this catalogue of perceived wrongs a loosely knit coalition of separatist factions has gained influence in recent years. Whether in favour of autonomy or outright independence, they stand shoulder to shoulder in their disdain for the north. They call the union a "northern occupation".
Hassan Jilani, a member of Al Harak, a separatist group calling for boycotts of today's vote, called reconciliation dialogue "useless".
"There is no other choice but southern separation and independence," he said.
Northern leaders acknowledge that these groups may never agree to reconciliation. But with Mr Saleh's departure, some northerners such as Tawfiq Al Hamri, a prominent businessman, believe they can court moderates, such as Ali Nasser Mohammad, a former South Yemen president.
"They may not support the election, but you can feel they want to work with you," Mr Hamri said.
The improvement of north-south relations and keeping Yemen unified would probably require unsettling concessions from northern leaders, perhaps including some form of southern autonomy, said Abdul-Ghani Al Iryani, a political analyst.
Whatever the compromises are made, no progress is possible without an acknowledgement by northern officials of their complicity in Mr Saleh's anti-southern policies, he added.
"The marginalisation and abuse of the south that took place over the last 10 years was actually a regime policy," he said. "Right now the level of distrust and the gap in confidence between the southern people and government are so high because the southerners haven't seen anything to persuade them that things are going to be different."
The mistrust can be overcome, according to Mohammed Qara'a, the former governor of the southern governorate of Shabwa.
"If northern leaders are serious about change, then we are prepared to move forward," he said.
Seated across from Mr Qara'a was Mr Abu Lahoum, the former ruling party official. He expressed cautious optimism.
"What has been done to the south is unforgivable. But I'm hoping through their leaders' wisdom they see that a strong Yemen is a united Yemen," he said.
"But it's going to be a long journey."
Updated: February 21, 2012 04:00 AM