Yemen faces worse prospects than Tunisia

It is now widely expected that Yemen’s current unrest will lead to secession and not merely to the flight of its president, as has happened in Tunisia. The background to this situation is that the Republic of Yemen was born in May 22, 1990, when the two states of North and South Yemen merged after several clashes that led eventually to negotiations and a commitment to unity. Lt-General Ali Abdullah Saleh, president of North Yemen since 1978, became president of the united country from the outset and still remains in power. His corrupt and oppressive rule has helped engulf Yemen in disruption and disorder. The two components of the new state fought a civil war in 1994 (only a few years after merging), and relations between the two populations have been uncertain since then.

Before the reunification of 1990, South Yemen was known as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen and was ruled by a socialist party, while North Yemen was much more conventional. To some extent this explains why Southerners –” particularly the young majority –” believe that a socialist rule is better for the people: it provides greater economic and social benefits than the traditional tribal autocracy that ruled the north then. Moreover, the southerners believe that the northerners exploit their hold on political power to confine the limited economic benefits and jobs available to themselves, and analysts appear to agree with them, as a report in the Financial Times on January 13 confirmed.

“Analysts say there is legitimacy to the frequent complaint that the few government jobs that exist are often taken up by the better-connected northerners,” the report reads. “Another widely held belief is that the south has lost out on investment and development opportunities because the central government had no interest in promoting a strong, prosperous south, in spite of being happy to take advantage of its significant petroleum resources.”

Not surprisingly, this belief among southerners that they are not only being treated unequally but that their oil resources are also being stolen, is leading to demands for secession. The southern movement, founded in 2007 to seek more rights for southerners, is now openly calling for secession, and is receiving strong popular backing. However, it must be emphasised that, in normal circumstances, the people of the south are not necessarily more attracted to disunity than the northerners. The advance to secession will certainly be weakened if the corrupt and anti-Islamic regime in the capital Sanaa, led by President Ali Abdullah Saleh, were to be removed from office and the US intervention in Yemen halted.

There are many Yemeni “jihadists”, who want to overthrow the secular regime and replace it with Islamic rule. In fact, there have been many attacks by Islamic groups on the US presence in the region. In 2009, for instance, an attempted attack on an American passenger jet was barely foiled. The US has since then increased its military aid for the government of Yemen from US$70 million per annum to US$250 million. President Barak Obama insists that US military intervention in Yemen is out of the question, but American-funded units are engaged in fighting Islamic activists in the areas they control, where government presence is minimal. The provinces of Abyan, Shabwa and Ma’rib are the main hubs of this area. How involved the US is in the military war against “al-Qaeda in Yemen” was exposed by the publication of American diplomatic cables in WikiLeaks. The disclosure made it clear that President Saleh had allowed American air raids against al-Qaeda in Yemen.

The Obama administration was so worried about the consequences of the disclosure that Hilary Clinton, US secretary of state, flew to Sanaa on January 11 to pour oil on troubled waters. This was the first time that a US secretary of state had visited Yemen for two decades. Exploiting the fact that Yemen is the Middle East’s poorest country, Clinton said that the country needed more than military aid to fight the jihadists, emphasising the “urgency of economic and political reform”. But the majority of Yemenis are not likely to believe that she was serious in her call for economic and political reform, convinced as they are that the US is determined to keep Saleh in power and exclude all Islamic groups.

There is little doubt that Washington’s political, economic, and military backing is largely responsible for keeping a corrupt and hated regime in power, and is therefore contributing to the instability that might lead to secession.

Certainly the US intervention is intended to prevent Islamic organisations and leaders from playing any role in public life, although they are well-qualified and competent enough to run a clean and peaceful order. This determination to protect secular regimes in the Middle East also explains why the whole region is governed by corrupt and despotic leaders who fear a fate similar to that of the former Tunisian president and do not, therefore, want any change in Yemen’s leadership or political system.

Another development showing the differences between north and south Yemen’s reactions to the new situation occurred on January 20, when thousands of protesters took to the streets of Taiz, in southern Yemen, to reject the limited reforms proposed by Ali Abdullah Saleh. Taking note of this, opposition parties announced that they would meet the following day to discuss the proposals. Both sides will certainly examine the developments in Tunisia and will notice how al-Nahda, the oppressed Islamic group there, emerged on the public stage, receiving enormous popular support.

Such is al-Nahda’s prominence that it is widely believed that its leader will win any free election that will be held as a result of the new developments there. This explains why its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, who has been living in exile in London for many years, has announced that he will return to the country as soon as the threat of life imprisonment is lifted.

These developments will certainly encourage supporters of Islamic groups to come out into the open in Yemen and resist the emergence of another secular regime. The public support of the Western governments and media for secular groups will not deter them. For this reason, they certainly deserve the support of Islamic groups –” particularly when most Muslim countries have secular rulers and systems. This explains why the Arab League conference held recently on the Tunisian developments and their effects on the Middle East countries ignored the threat of secession to Yemen.