x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Yemen's southern movement seeks real change from Sanaa

Without firm progress on the "southern question", Yemen's national dialogue will be a failure and it is impossible to imagine a successful transition in Yemen

Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

While the international community occasionally talks about applying a "Yemeni model" to solve the crisis in Syria, the reality in Yemen is far from inspiring.

Yemen has not made tangible political progress towards solving some of the most serious issues that were behind the 2011 uprising.

On Yemen's most serious political issue - the "southern question" of the movement for the south of Yemen to federate or secede from the north - progress has halted. Without firm progress, the "Yemeni model" of a managed transition from autocratic rule might not have prevented a civil war in the country after the 2011 revolution, but rather only delayed it.

Next week, the national dialogue conference is scheduled to begin. This is a core element of the GCC-backed deal that ended the Yemeni revolution, a space where various Yemeni political actors are supposed to come together to negotiate their biggest issues and reach solutions. At the top of the agenda is the southern cause.

Yet on such a critical front, even the smallest conceivable progress has not happened. Without a comprehensive solution to the southern issue, it is impossible to imagine a successful transition in Yemen.

A recent visit to four of the seven southern governorates shows how much the situation in the south is deteriorating, due partly to inaction by the central government in Sanaa, and partly to fragmentation among the southern leaders.

Hirak Al Janoubi, the Southern Movement, better known simply as Hirak, represents the southern cause, though more as an umbrella organisation for groups with different visions and alternative, sometimes contradictory, solutions.

Hirak started as a southern movement in 2007 and was immediately brutally attacked and repressed by the government. It was started by military and civilian officials who had been retired or sacked since 1994, after the civil war between north and south ended. They were seeking reparations for lost lands and a more equitable distribution of government posts. As a result of this government repression, Hirak soon transformed into a movement for independence.

Currently, many southerners consider the GCC deal a solution to the power struggle in Sanaa only, with little relevance for the south. To them, nothing has changed.

In February, security forces fired on protesters in Aden, the capital of the south. Further clashes left 10 people dead. In response, Hirak called for civil disobedience in Aden and other southern governorates and the main roads in Aden were blocked with burning tyres. After a week, the situation stabilised but is still likely to flare up again.

The use of force against Hirak is not new, but what is new is that even with a new president in power - and a president who is a southerner - there have been no real solutions to the grievances of the south. Hirak members remain in prison, and there has been no movement on the return of, or compensation for, private property southerners allege was expropriated or stolen since 1994.

At the end of last year, the president, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, appointed two committees to look into the issues of property and the sacking of military and civic leaders - but the power of the committees is limited to offering the president advice, and the time frame is a year long.

More problematic from the point of view of Hirak are the tensions with Islah, the largest Islamist party in the country. Islah consists of powerful tribal interests, along with ideologues of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists, and were former president Ali Abdullah Saleh's main ally in the 1994 war against the south.

Islah is seen in the south as an accomplice to Mr Saleh's actions in their region in the years after the end of the civil war, and remains highly hated among Hirak. Last month, the local headquarters of Islah were attacked in several southern governorates.

Such incidents make the disagreements between Hirak and Islah more likely to escalate into armed conflict. They also threaten what is still Hirak's most powerful weapon, its commitment to peaceful struggle.

Indeed, some of its allies have publicly spoken about the right of southerners to defend themselves with arms. Hirak's legitimacy as well as the progress it has made in years of peaceful struggle are now at risk.

"There is a difference between violence and self-defence," argues Fatima Al Maisari, a Hirak activist in her late 30s. "What we did [against Islah] wasn't violence but rather self-defence." But Hirak is being drawn into a battle it cannot fight, as well as one that could bleed away widespread support among southerners.

On a broader level, Hirak's leaders disagree about how to approach dialogue with the north.

One of the movement's most prominent leaders, Ali Salem Al Beidh, a former vice president and the man who declared the 1994 independence war, has rejected the national dialogue in its current form and called for independence from the "northern occupation". Others within the movement have agreed to the dialogue and seek limited federalism with the north.

But with the recent violence against protesters in the south, that wing of the movement is losing ground.

Sheikh Tarek Al Fathli, a leader in the restive southern province of Abyan, argues that the president is uninterested in a genuine resolution: "If President Hadi is serious about solving the southern issue, he should appoint a vice president to take care of the issue in Aden." The president, he argues, cannot do anything from Sanaa.

President Hadi visited Aden recently for the first time since he took office last year and met some of Hirak's leaders. While his visit was met with some success, it was criticised for focusing too much on meetings with the old elites. "A lot of talking with old friends," is how Areej Al Absi, a female activist from Aden, puts it.

It remains hard for southerners to believe that their cause is being thought of sincerely by the leadership in Sanaa, while at the same time the Hadi government supports stakeholders in the capital who contributed to the deterioration of the south.

What is needed now are confidence-building measures. The financial and political clout of northern elites in the south needs to be reduced. Equally important, GCC countries need to use their relations with some southern leaders to pressure them into playing an active role in the transition, and provide guarantees of a fair solution for the south. And the international community, and President Hadi, need to pay attention to the new generations in the south rather than empowering and disempowering the same faces of the old elites.

Combining those political changes with concrete steps in the south - economic investments, demilitarisation of the south, and the elimination of Sanaa's old guard - could bring a real change in the attitude of the population of the south.

Until southerners can see a real difference in their daily lives - and until their leaders care about the daily struggles of their people - the south will remain, as an Arabic expression has it, "a just cause with very unqualified lawyers".


Farea Al Muslimi is a Yemeni activist and writer

On Twitter: @Almuslimi