Going South

“The unification of Yemen is the only positive event in modern Arab history,” the late Muammar al-Gaddafi apparently once remarked.

Two and a half decades after the merger of the former Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) and People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), (“north” and “south” Yemen, respectively), the Colonel’s words arguably come off as a tragic joke.

” يا وحدة الشعب حلم السنين (Oh, the unity of the people, dream of the years),” reads a line from a famous Yemeni poem that was adapted into one of my favorite Yemeni songs. In 1990, the fulfillment of this collective longing for the unification of greater Yemen fueled a collective burst of celebration across the newly formed country. In light of the events that followed, its rather depressing to think back to the unfulfilled hopes of that particular moment in the recent past.

The bulk of Yemenis may have been blinded by a collective sense of optimism at the time, but regardless of whether it marked the fulfillment of the country’s historical destiny, its not hard to make the case that Yemen’s unity was doomed from the start. As the two Yemens’ leaders ostensibly shared power at the top, with longtime YAR president Ali Abdullah Saleh heading the newly unified country with the PDRY’s Haider Abu Bakr al-Attas and Ali Salem al-Beidh as his Prime Minister and deputy, respectively, the merger of governments was arguably aesthetic. Parliamentary elections in 1993 underlined the far less populous south’s new position. The Socialist party, which has previously controlled the PDRY, was unable to make significant gains outside of the south, fueling fears that it was doomed to a position as a permanent minority. Political conflict reached a boiling point months later, and despite attempts to defuse the situation, civil war erupted in 1994. The merger of the two Yemens’ armies had yet to occur.

By mid-summer, the south’s attempt at secession was defeated in a rout. Unity was preserved. But any pretense of power sharing, many southerners balk, was replaced with northern domination or, as unifications most vocal southern detractors cast it, “northern occupation.”

In 2007, lingering grievances birthed Yemen’s Southern Movement; the events of the following years only served to convince greater numbers of southerners that unity–at least in its current form–was untenable. At least at their nascence, there was some hope 2011’s anti-government protests would spawn some new order.  Heading to Aden in the wake of a recent outbreak of unrest, it was hard not to see those hopes as misplaced.

In the minds of most of those affiliated with the Southern Movement, the end of Saleh’s rule hasn’t to lead to any amelioration of their plight. The current president and prime minister may both be southerners, they’ll acknowledge, but power remains concentrated in the hands of a small number of northern elites. Even many Sanaa-based politicians will privately note that the post-Saleh government could have done a far batter job of reaching out to southerners.

The solution, many–especially international diplomats–say, will come through the National Dialogue Conference, which ostensibly starts in less than two weeks. Many southerners emphatically disagree. This dialogue, they argue, is simply the latest iteration of the empty words of years past, a new marathon of political theater that will, at best, yield only aesthetic change. Regardless of whether one agrees with such sentiments, the key facts of the current situation in the former PDRY are, in my opinion, rather uncontroversial: pessimism is pervasive, the disconnect with Sanaa is palpable, and tensions continue to simmer.

Its something of a cliche to describe “simmering tensions” in south Yemen. They were simmering before 2011 and they were simmering before 2007; as some see it, they’ve been simmering since 1992. Still, to continue the metaphor, even if the pot has been on the stovetop for more than a decade, it has yet to boil over. However, the question of whether things will eventually reach a breaking point increasingly seems less a matter of “if” and more a matter of “when.”

Articles from my recent trip down south:

The South (of Yemen) will rise again (VICE)

(الجنوب ينتهض من جديد (نفس المقالة بالغة العربية

In some parts of Yemen, the “Free South Lives” (CSM)

(في اجزاء من اليمن “يعيش الجنوب الحر” (نفس المقالة بالغة العربية

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