Future of Yemeni Unity

Dr. Ahmad Youssef Ahmad: Future of Yemeni Unity

  • 27 July 2009

Yemen achieved reunification of its two parts in 1990, which became the first merger of states in the Arab world since the dissolution of the Egyptian-Syrian alliance in 1961, and the second experience of inter-Arab union with the establishment of the United Arab Emirates in early 1970s.

Since its early years, the unification of Yemen has faced many challenges and dangers. Its problems began with the inability to merge armies of the North and South. Yemeni unity has also been built on a delicate political balance that deals with the South and the North equitably. However, there has been one exception in that the majority of the presidential council, which handles the functions of the President of the Republic, has had a slight tilt toward the north, as it has three northern members and two southern members. In addition, the chairmanship of the council was given to President Ali Abdullah Al-Saleh. This looked like an early attempt by the Yemeni leadership to confront difficulties that usually face unification attempts when former members of the ruling elite are ignored in the new union, and usually suffer a fall in the positions. For this reason, the almost equitable manner in which the roles were allocated in the new Yemeni republic were clearly an attempt to overcome this difficulty. The new dispensation kept almost all leaders of the former ruling elite in the southern region in influential positions under the unified state.

However, this policy of reinstating members of the former ruling elite in the South soon proved ineffectual. It is known that the Yemeni union paved the way to political plurality, unlike the Egyptian-Syrian unity that was forged by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser on the condition that all political parties would be abolished both in Syria and Egypt. The newly formed union of Yemen initially had only two parties- the People's Conference Party (the only political party that existed in the North before the formation of the Union) and the Socialist Party (the only party of the South before the unification). Following the formation of the new Union, the establishment of new political parties was allowed. This led to the formation of many new parties, most prominent among them being the Reform Party, which is based in the North and has Islamist orientations. After the first parliamentary elections of 1993, the Reform Party emerged as the second biggest party in the Yemeni political arena and it became obvious that a coalition government can be formed without the inclusion of the Socialist Party from the South. At this stage, a phase of mutual recriminations and suspicion began between the Socialist Party and the Conference Party, and the latter started calling for guarantees. All efforts to reach a solution failed, and the differences boiled over into an armed clash between armies of the North and South in 1994, following the declaration of secession by the former leadership of the south from the Union.

The Yemeni central leadership succeeded in settling the conflict, and soon it became obvious that it was already prepared for the war, and may have even hoped for it to break out to settle matters decisively. The war had its obvious adverse consequences for the Yemeni union. To begin with, the adverse consequences became evident in what happened to the former ruling elite in the South and the decline in their status, and then those effects spread to the second and the third tier of the elite hierarchy that lost its positions after the war of secession, especially the military of the south. For this reason, the demand for justice and fairness towards them fomented recurrent crises in the South. Subsequently, grievances of southern Yemeni groups against the Union started including everyday matters of living, and then took a political form when the groups started demanding a greater say in the administration of the union and the just distribution of its resources between the two parts. The crisis reached its apogee with the recurrence of secessionist slogans and protests in the south.

Another dilemma that usually confronts attempts at forging a union is the sharp increase in expectations of the citizens from the union even before the supposed benefits start to make a positive impact on their daily lives.

After three months of Yemen's unification, the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait took place. During the crisis, the Yemeni position was supportive of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein- as it was then explained to the GCC countries. The consequence was that Yemeni workers were forced to leave Saudi Arabia, in numbers estimated to be between 750,000 and 850,000. It was also denied essential aid from GCC countries, particularly from Kuwait. Hence, there was a steep decline in the standard of living in Yemen. If we believe in that the accusations against the Union authorities over the alleged injustice in the distribution of resources between the two parts of the country, then it would imply that the South suffered more than the North in this respect. The recent global financial crisis has further worsened the economy of Yemen. It would suffice to refer only to the record fall in Yemeni oil revenues, which have fell by 74.5% in the first quarter of this year.

There is a third problem that usually confronts the forging of unions which also confronts the Yemeni experiment at unification. This problem pertains to the movement of populations across old political borders, which is more accelerated than the actual commingling of the populations with each other. It is true that the union is based on the premise that Yemen comprises of one people, in every sense of the term. However, it seems the above-mentioned problems have instilled a feeling of belongingness among citizens toward their own respective regions. The northerners view some of their southern co-citizens as having deviated from the original Yemeni traditions under the influence of Marxist ideology. On the other hand, southerners are suspicious of the process of redrawing of the country's internal map with the assimilation of southern territories into northern provinces, as well as the growing migration of northern citizens to the south for investment, which they feel the north's desire for control. Some, southerners even use the term 'occupation' to describe this perceived northern control of the south.

For these reasons, the crisis of Yemen's unification has exacerbated in the current year (2009), particularly in July. Although making a judgment on the position of the Yemeni people in the south would lack any empirical justification (in the absence of public opinion surveys), a southern group called the Peaceful Southern Mobilization Movement is clearly opposed to the unification. This political movement opposes the general inertia of the South since its war of secession in 1994. Several indicators point out that the crisis is becoming more dangerous by the day. One of the most important indicators is the growing frequency of protests. This month (July 2009) witnessed, two important protests: one to mark the 15th anniversary of the war of secession and the other set off with an explosion of events in the city of Zangibar, the capital of Abeen governorate. The second incident shows that protests are slowly taking a violent turn. Although the leaders of the protest movement belong to an organization that calls itself a 'peaceful' southern movement, however matters are veering towards violence, which could be a reaction to the authority's aggressive crackdown. It is obvious that the 'peaceful' movement has been anticipating violence, and is prepared for it- if not having started it. Recent events in Zangibar show the movement and its supporters staging a coup-like operation. The third indicator is that the anti-unity slogans, the demand for secession and the call for an independent state in the south once again has become more recurrent and vicious than before. The central  government is now being described as an occupying power by some southern movements. Ali Salem Al-Beid, former president of Southern region, is openly urging people of the south and demanding from Yemeni authorities and the international community to recognize the independent republic of the south and to consider him as the president of that republic.

As this crisis escalates and assumes more dangerous proportions, it is still being handled in the conventional means-such as aggressive crackdown-which could be counterproductive if there is real support for the cause behind the protest movements. For this reason, an in-depth and objective study of the situation is essential. In addition, there is a need to determine the legitimacy of the demands made by the protest movement, and it is important to take serious steps for addressing genuine concerns so that the illegitimate demands can be countered in an easier and manner.

Although there is no imminent danger to Yemeni unity, because if a large majority of southern people were opposed to the union then they would have been able to impose their will. However, one has to accept that there are problems confronting the unification issue, which is undermining its strength. Fortunately, these problems have escalated in an environment, where foreign countries have been supportive or have accepted Yemeni unification. The region in general was generally against this unity in the past due to matters pertaining to balance of power in the Arabian peninsula; but the region has now become wary of the possibilities of disintegration because such an eventuality could threaten every country, as was evident following the occupation of Iraq. The international environment, especially the US position, was never opposed to Yemeni unity from the start. For this reason, the central authority can operate without any strong outside pressure, but it faces a real internal challenge from the Al-Houthians. Consequently, its room for maneuver is limited and this could force it to deal with this crisis through political rather than security means. Without this approach, the stability of Yemen would deteriorate rapidly and the problem will no longer be between the north and south as much as souther desires for more disintegration of the sort the world saw following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. This will reflect negatively on the north itself. The Yemeni union is still capable of confronting the current challenges, but addressing these challenges in a wrong manner could have dire consequences for the unification itself.