Ten months of popular protest spiked by periodic outbursts of violence have done little to clarify Yemen’s political future. Persistent street protests so far have failed to oust President Ali Abdullah Saleh or bring about genuine institutional reform. The country is more deeply divided between pro- and anti-Saleh forces than ever, its economy is in tatters and both security and humanitarian conditions are deteriorating. Amid the uncertainty fuelled by this lingering crisis, the country’s unity – and notably the status of the South – hangs in the balance. Old grievances are coming into sharper relief and, among some, secessionist aspirations gaining steam. There remains an opportunity for Yemen’s rulers, opposition groups and protesters to reach agreement on a political transition that would give priority to the Southern question and redefine relations between center and periphery, for example by moving toward a federal model. Should this chance be missed, the conflict risks getting bloodier. And Yemen’s unity could be a thing of the past.
The People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) merged with its northern neighbor, the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), on 22 May 1990 to form the Republic of Yemen. From the start, this was a troubled unification that resulted in a short, bloody civil war in 1994. The North emerged victorious, but this hardly closed the chapter. In the wake of the conflict, two profoundly different narratives took shape. Under one version, the war laid to rest the notion of separation and solidified national unity. According to the other, the war laid to rest the notion of unity and ushered in a period of Northern occupation of the South.
The most recent tensions did not suddenly erupt in the context of the January 2011 Yemeni uprising. In 2007, a broad-based popular protest movement known as the Southern Movement (Al-Hiraak al-Janoubi) had come to the fore.The Hiraak originated as a rights-based movement requesting equality under the law and a change in relations between North and South – all within a united country. The government responded to the demands with repression; it also largely ignored its own promises of reforms. By 2009, the Hiraak had begun to champion Southern independence. In the months leading up to the uprising that became the Yemeni Spring, its influence and popularity in the South clearly were on the ascent.
Could the popular uprising open up fresh opportunities to peacefully resolve the Southern issue? If the various sides act reasonably, it should. From the start, it facilitated cooperation between Northern and Southern protesters and broke through barriers of fear, allowing a larger spectrum of Southerners to join the national public debate on the status of the South. Most importantly, it has facilitated debate and growing consensus around federal options. If political foes can reach agreement on a transition of power in Sanaa and launch an inclusive national dialogue, they could seize the moment to negotiate a peaceful compromise on the Southern issue as well.
The problem is that there is no indication Yemen is heading there. Instead, as mass protests have continued without result, frustration has grown and so too has Southern distrust that anything that happens in the North will improve their lot. The risks are many. An enduring political impasse could prompt further collapse of security and economic conditions throughout the country, producing greater unrest and instability in the South. Alternatively, a full-fledged civil war could break out between Northern rival elites, a scenario that could prompt Southern stakeholders to pursue a serious bid for separation. Already, the early euphoria generated by coordination between protesters in the North and South is giving way to resurgent calls by some for Southern independence.
This is a dangerous brew. The South’s secession almost certainly would be resisted by the North and could spark a violent conflict. Any effort toward independence also could trigger in-fighting and additional fragmentation within the South itself. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and other violent groups already are prospering amid growing instability and chaos; further deterioration would only expand their reach.
A clear path toward a redefinition of relations between centre and periphery is badly needed. This can only be achieved through an inclusive dialogue that recognises Southerners’ legitimate grievances and the importance of profoundly amending that relationship. Four possible outcomes are being discussed in various forums, with varying degrees of popularity: maintenance of a unitary state albeit with more inclusive, transparent and accountable central government; maintenance of a unitary state but with significant powers devolved to local governments; a federal state consisting of two or more regions; and Southern secession.
Of these, the first and last are the more likely recipes for heightened conflict. The former (a kind of status quo plus) would essentially ignore Southerners’ legitimate demands for greater participation, control of local resources and protection of local identity and culture. The latter (Southern independence) would alienate not only Northerners but also many Southerners who strongly prefer reform within the context of unity.
That leaves the two middle options. Both have their problems. Hiraak supporters suspect that a mere strengthening of local government powers – even under a more democratic and representative central government – could be a subterfuge and fail to truly protect Southerners’ rights. For this and other reasons, they favour either immediate separation or, at a minimum, a federation of two states lasting four to five years, to be followed by a referendum on the South’s ultimate status.
On the other hand, federalism, especially under a two-state formula (one Northern, the other Southern), is eyed by many with considerable suspicion as only the first step toward the South’s eventual separation. Some form of multi-state federalism, with perhaps four or five regions, potentially could allay those anxieties. It has found relatively wider appeal in the North and arguably could gain traction even within staunchly pro-unity parties, such as the ruling General People’s Congress and the opposition Islamist party, Islah. But much more precision about the details of this model will be required before it does so. Overall, none of these fears ought be brushed aside or downplayed. Instead, they should be aired openly and discussed seriously through robust debate and peaceful negotiations.
External players, including the Gulf Cooperation Council members, the U.S., the UK, the EU and the UN, have a role to play. All officially support a unified Yemen. But that is an umbrella broad enough to accommodate the need for Yemenis to comprehensively renegotiate the relationship between the central government and regional entities.
Yemen’s upheaval presents a rare opportunity to redefine its flawed and failed political compact. At the same time, however, it has considerably raised the price of inaction. If nothing is done soon to peacefully address both national and Southern deep-seated grievances, a darker and more ominous chapter could yet be written.
To all Yemeni political stakeholders:
1. Agree immediately upon and implement a transition that facilitates a broadly inclusive national dialogue aimed at revising the existing political and social contract;
To the Yemeni Government:
2. Take immediate confidence-building measures to calm tensions in the South, including halting violence against peaceful demonstrators, releasing political prisoners, investigating alleged abuses, allowing human rights and humanitarian agencies full access to southern governorates, and removing controversial Northern military/security personnel, replacing them with Southern members of the security forces.
To the (ruling) General People’s Congress:
3. Acknowledge publicly the Southern issue as legitimate and commit to finding a just solution through national dialogue and negotiations.
4. Accept a special status for the Southern issue in the national dialogue, ensuring that it will be addressed both separately and as part of a larger package of reforms.
5. End inflammatory rhetoric against “separatists” and instead embrace dialogue and debate over a broad range of decentralisation options.
6. Prepare for dialogue by educating and canvassing supporters on a range of options, including federalism.
To the (opposition) Yemeni Socialist Party:
7. Continue to promote compromise positions, such as a form of federalism, that could bridge the gap between the Hiraak and staunchly pro-unity parties like the General People’s Congress and Islah.
To the (opposition) Islah:
8. Accept a special status for the Southern issue in the national dialogue, ensuring that it will be addressed both separately and as part of a larger package of reforms;
9. Allow Southerners within the party to take the lead in formulating policy on the South and present them as Islah’s public face there, replacing in this capacity controversial Northern leaders.
To Northern Protesters:
10. Continue to publicly acknowledge the Southern issue as legitimate and accept its special status in a national dialogue.
11. Continue to reach out to Southern protesters, especially in the Hiraak, to find common ground and gain an understanding of their grievances and their preferred ways to address them.
12. Reaffirm commitment to peaceful protest and, if the opportunity arises, participate in a national dialogue on the Southern issue.
To the Hiraak:
13. End inflammatory “in group, out group” labels that stereotype Northerners as occupiers and end attempts to label Southerners based on their preference for separation or unity.
14. Continue internal dialogue within the movement and with other Southerners to further clarify and articulate a range of policy options.
15. Accept a diversity of opinions within the South and be open to discussing solutions short of separation.
To Members of the International Community:
16. Continue to pressure both the regime and the opposition to move forward immediately with a peaceful political transition.
17. Support a special status for the Southern issue in a national dialogue through public statements and increased engagement with Southern activists, including the Hiraak.
18. Increase humanitarian assistance to Southern governorates affected by ongoing violence, particularly Abyan and Aden, and pressure the Yemeni government to provide full access to these areas.
Sanaa/Brussels, 20 October 2011
Middle East Report