Yemenis going in the footsteps of Somalia and Iraq if the situation remains as it is. This was the frightening warning that Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh made a few days ago.
President Saleh was not talking about the danger of Al-Qaeda or the Hutis, although he did wave it. He was talking specifically about the “peaceful action” groups, the name given to Southern Yemen currents that are calling for ending the unity experiment on the grounds of injustice from the North to the South.
The Yemeni President’s basic argument in raising fears about a Somalia-type scenario in Yemen is that matters will not proceed as expected by those aspiring for an independent southern identity. This will not be restricted to a formula of two states, one in the north and another in the south. According to Saleh, if the door of partition is opened it will mean all-out civil war in Yemen and fighting from village to village, governorate to governorate, and from province to province. In a society of tribal entities that is armed to the teeth and enflamed with historical and fundamentalist dreams, and frustrated by poverty, need and the fragility of the central authority, one can expect that what President Saleh warned about is a real threat and no mere scare tactic like those applied by Saudi mothers who wave “ghouls” to control their kids.
A quick look back demonstrates that unity between the two parts of Yemen, which was announced in May 1990, almost ended when civil war broke out on the union’s anniversary in May 1994. President Saleh emerged victorious along with his allies from the Muslim Brotherhood (the Islah Party). The salafi Jihad currents lined up under the umbrella of the Brotherhood, along with powerful southern parties including Sheikh Tariq al-Fadli who was one of the symbols of the salafi Jihad current against the southern Socialist Party. Al-Fadliis now one of the loudest voices calling for secession of the south and stressing the identity and uniqueness of the culture of Southern Yemen. These are of the paradoxes of the day, for Al-Fadli has turned from calling for destruction of artificial borders and establishment of an Islamic Caliphate State, on the pattern advocated by Al-Zawahiri and Osama Bin Laden, to championing southern identity and addressing its inhabitants as “the free sons of the South”. This was repeated in his last speech in which he called for demonstrations and rallies in the region of Abyin. He denounced the northern thieves who are “alien” to the people of the South. Such terms do not exist in the salafi Islamic glossary, for all Muslims are brothers and there are no aliens among them. What is strange is that when Ali Salim al-Baydh, the leader of the secessionist war of1994, delivered his war address, he did not base it on secession of the South and did not confine his speech to the inhabitants of the South and rousing their local fervor. He addressed the inhabitants of the whole of Yemen, calling for re-assembling Yemen unity on a just democratic basis. That was his approach, irrespective of anything else. What was important here was the type of the dissertation which was unionist for Ali Salim al-Baydh and separatist for the “mujahid” Tariq al-Fadli.
Yemenis going through a critical stage with the escalation of the southern secessionist currents. This is the most dangerous development that can threaten the current Yemen entity, especially when coupled with the Huti rebellion, which is a northern Zaidi movement, and with moves by Al-Qaeda here and there. Perhaps what the Southerners demand will materialize. Here we must be realistic and avoid wishful thinking. These are the more important movement because of the presence of an influential Southern “elite” abroad that supports this inclination, whether in Southeast Asia or other countries where there are Yemeni communities. There is also the fact that the Southern arguments are based on economic and developmental injustices and on giving the impression of a Southern victim that has not gained anything from unity except the influx of Northern “intruders” who take over resources, lands, and riches of the South. This is what the southern opposition says, and it is a highly effective argument under the shadows of the economic deterioration Yemen is passing through because of paucity of resources and because of mismanagement. The State is practically the primary economic resource for the citizens, especially because of the weakness and extreme feebleness of the private sector despite the promises of the State that await international and regional loans, assistance, and grants.
But Yemeni observers warn that the issue is more complex than the bilateralism of north and South. Perhaps we shall witness cases of more fragmentation and worse splintering, even inside the South itself and the North itself. It should be noted that there are multiple sultanates and sheikhdoms in the South that existed in the British era, and the “Zaidi” rebellion in the mountains of Northern Yemen should also be taken into consideration. This group has a sharp ideological dissertation that is getting more acute with the passage of time and the increasing frequency of military confrontations. This group is not going to willingly accept conceding leadership to the rest of the Sunni Northern inhabitants. If you take all this combined with the weak control of the central authority in Sana’a, then as Saleh said we come face to face with the gloomy scenario of Somalia–the ailing and contagious State that is a stone’s throw away from the Yemeni sea.
Since Ali Abdullah Saleh cited Somalia as an example, we have to remember that the current crisis there and Somalia’s transformation into a haven for pirates, terrorists, and dreamers about establishing sultanates and war emirates all along the Somali mainland is not a child of today but began since the 1991collapse of the regime of Muhammad Siad Barre. Barre was an ally of the Soviets then turned against them after they sided with Ethiopia against him in the Ogadin war. His attempt to get American support did not help him. There has also been Arab laxity toward the Somali problem from the beginning. So matters became more complex by the avarice of the African neighbors, the surprise at the collapse of the Communist pole, and the proclamation of the new global order. The fragmentation of big entities was not limited to Somalia and resembled what happened in the European Balkan region. What made Somalia distinct was the fact that its crisis has continued until today.
There are similarities and differences between Somalia and Yemen. The International conditions are unlike those faced by Siad Barre’s Somalia. Yemen represents a principal pivot in the war on terrorism. Its coasts are of extreme importance and it has long borders with Saudi Arabia, the most important country in the global oil market and the country with the strongest moral weight in the Islamic world.
There is also the experience President Ali Abdullah Saleh enjoys. But the difficulties he faces are substantial, starting from convincing the citizen of the benefit of unity to their daily and standards of living. Unity, the homeland, and identity are not merely sentimental slogans but conditions that assure those who identify with them “a stake” that motivates them protect and defend it. Slogans fly only on the wings of benefits. There is also the need to take serious action about the grievances of the people of the South and the others. What happened was a “unity” war, not a conquest to get bounty.
To be fair, the Yemeni President was transparent in his speech a few days ago as he admitted the mistakes committed against the people of the South and promised change. The more important thing is that he explained the truth about the economic problem Yemen faces and demanded cooperation in order to create real development–15 years after the Yemen Unity War.
This is the portrait drawn by the Yemeni President. But his adversaries do not agree with him and are making preparations to split Yemen. Some of these adversaries were allies of yesterday, like Tariq al-Fadli who was a prominent leader in the ruling Congress Party. Some of them lost their positions and influence in the old South Yemen. All count on the feelings of dismay among the Southerners that were expressed in a chain of angry demonstrations in some towns and provinces of the South like Al-Mukalla.
The situation is dangerous, and things could get worse unless Yemen gets help. Oman and Saudi Arabia will become neighbors to a new Somalia, closer to home this time! Perhaps the solution is in calling for a conference of reconciliation and candid dialogue among the adversaries, sponsored by Saudi Arabia and the Sultanate of Oman or perhaps under the umbrella of the Gulf Cooperation Council, considering that the GCC is the most proximal regional organization to Yemen. Arab and international cooperation is definitely required. Steps have to be initiated to save Yemen, starting by the initiation of national reconciliation and perhaps expanding self-rule powers for some provinces and launching major development projects to resuscitate hopes and take the wind away from the sails of secession, for joint interests are the glue of relations.
No one, particularly the Gulf countries, can tolerate further deterioration of political and security conditions in Yemen. President Saleh, with his experience, will perhaps be the one who extends the hand of reconciliation to his adversaries–for the sake of a Yemen that is not affiliated to anybody, for Yemen is affiliated to Yemen only, as its President has said.