Updating Yemeni National Unity: Could Lingering Regional Divisions Bring Down the Regime?

By Day, Stephen | The Middle East Journal, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Updating Yemeni National Unity: Could Lingering Regional Divisions Bring Down the Regime?


Day, Stephen, The Middle East Journal


Since the summer of 2007, Yemen's southern provinces have witnessed widespread peaceful protest against the government in Sana'a. In order to understand the significance of this opposition movement, it is necessary to look back to unresolved political issues at the time of Yemen's unification in 1990. Events today reveal lingering problems with Yemen's unity arrangement - problems which first surfaced in political conflict leading to a brief civil war in 1994. Leaders of today's non-violent protests are successfully increasing political pressures which may soon lead to a change in Yemen's government.

For the first time in 40 years a revolutionary mood swept across Yemen from east to west, on both sides of the old North/South borderline. Not since November 30, 1967, when Yemenis celebrated southern independence from British colonial rule, has the call to remove a sitting government been heard at street level with similar force. Unlike the violent path Yemen's revolutions took in the 1960s, the current popular opposition to government rule is largely peaceful. The main exception is the armed resistance to President Salih's regime in the northwestern province of Sa'ada. There, along the border with Saudi Arabia, a few thousand tribesmen have engaged Yemen's military in running battles since the death of a Zaydi religious leader's son in September 2004. Husayn bin Badr al-Din al-Huthi was killed by government forces during an extended confrontation between army soldiers and members of his "Believing Youth" group (alshabab al-mu'min). Since 2004, thousands have been killed in this fighting in Sa'ada, including hundreds on the side of the government.1

Elsewhere in the country, from Hadramawt in the east to Aden in the southwest, and northward across the pre-1990 border to Ta'iz, Ibb, and the capital, Sana'a, far larger numbers of government opponents have employed peaceful non-violent tactics with increasing effect. In simultaneous street demonstrations during October and November 2007, tens of thousands of protesters gathered daily in several Yemeni cities denouncing the government of 'Ali 'Abdullah Salih and calling for an end to corruption and regional discrimination inside the country.2 On the day of Yemen's largest outpouring of opposition in December 2007, during the funeral procession of four residents from Lahej province killed by state security forces in Radfan district 60 miles north of Aden, the Arab satellite network al-Jazeera had a camera crew on the ground prepared to film the demonstrators. Lines of cars and masses of people (estimates were in the hundreds of thousands) stretched as far as the eye could see across Radfan's hills. However, President Salih ordered al-Jazeera to withdraw the crew from the site and threatened to confiscate its equipment if the network refused to comply.3 The possible broadcast of such images worried the President because of their potential to inspire and motivate his opposition.4

By all appearances, Yemen's growing protest movement presents a genuine popular challenge to Salih's regime, something that deserves acknowledgment by the English-speaking media. President Salih likes to portray his local opposition as a foreign-inspired threat to national security. This is the regime's standard playing card, one it has wielded since the country's brief civil war in 1994. Since that time, political opponents often have been labeled traitors, who are allegedly planning to break apart the 1990 union of North and South Yemen. In recent years Salih also has placed his confrontation with domestic opponents in the same category as the US-sponsored "war on terrorism."5 In this way he looks for convenient excuses to arrest and otherwise harass members of a domestic opposition who find legitimate cause for protest. Recently, however, President Salih's standing as a partner in America's "war on terrorism" has been called into question, due to the release of an al-Qa'ida member previously convicted of the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole. …

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