Middle East

Divisions threaten Yemen integrity

Follower of separatist Southern Movement holds a flag of former South Yemen in Aden. 26 Feb 2013
Image caption Separatism and Islamist militancy have fuelled unrest in the south

A recent crackdown in Yemen against protesters calling for southern independence has inflamed tensions in the country, and divisions look set to deepen, says the BBC's Leana Hosea.

Of all the revolutions in the Arab world, the UN Security Council regards Yemen as a rare success story.

The Gulf Co-operation Council negotiated for President Ali Abdallah Saleh - who had ruled Yemen for 33 years - to step down from power.

Elections were held this time last year and President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi was voted in. But now the flaws of that deal are becoming more apparent.

Some Yemenis, especially those in the south, feel as if little has changed and are critical that President Hadi was the sole candidate on the ballot.

Former President Saleh is still in the country leading his own political party and members of his close family are still in key positions.

Many southern Yemenis feel particularly aggrieved that the uprising did little for them and that they are still being ignored by central government.

Last Thursday, thousands of southern Yemenis converged on the port city of Aden, waving the flag of their previously independent state of Southern Yemen.

As they tried to make their way to the square, security forces opened fire, killing six people and wounding dozens.

The governor of southern Shabwah province, Ahmed Ba Hajj, said: "Security forces averted a bigger disaster as they were preventing those protesters from reaching a rally of thousands celebrating the one year anniversary of the elections."

Dozens more were wounded two weeks ago when rival rallies clashed and security forces opened fire on them.

The pro-government unity rallies are thought to be organised by a dominant party in the governing coalition, the Islamist Islah party.


The killings and arrests of two leaders of the Southern Movement, known as Herak, has only inflamed tensions.

Protests have broken out in several towns over the weekend and clashes with security forces have claimed at least three lives, including that of a policeman.

Image caption President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi's election last year was uncontested

Islah party offices have also been attacked as protesters hold the party responsible for the crackdown.

They point to the fact that the governor of Aden is an Islah party member and say that during the recent demonstrations only Southern Movement supporters were fired on.

Shabwah province governor Ba Hajj, of the Islah party, said the shooting was "not from the party but from state security trying to prevent violence".

But this is rejected by Herak spokesman Hossam Babad.

"Islah is the de facto ruler of Yemen. The former President Saleh and Islah are two sides of the same coin and they have joint forces against us," he said.

"We want to liberate South Yemen from Yemeni occupation."

South Yemen was formerly a British colony and later a socialist secular state and was not united with the north until 1990.

Many in the south feel they have been disenfranchised for decades and after the pro-democracy uprising they have had more opportunity to protest.

Yemeni journalist Bashraheel Bashraheel says the growing rallies held by Herak began to worry politicians in the capital Sanaa.

'Backs to the wall'

"Islah wants to consolidate their grip on power as they are under the impression they will win the 2014 elections and will be the new rulers in Yemen. So they want to maintain the south of Yemen, which holds most of the country's natural wealth."

Experts in the region only see further escalation and violence.

"As long as the political option is open to them they will continue to pursue it," says political analyst and pro-democracy activist Abdel Ghani al Iryani.

"But if their back is to the wall they will resort to violence and I'm afraid they are feeling very close to the wall at this time."

British journalist Peter Salisbury interviewed Herak leader Qassem Askar a day before Mr Askar's arrest in Aden.

Mr Salisbury says he does not know how long things can remain peaceful for.

Image caption Thousands in Aden celebrated President Hadi's first year in office

"Many Herak leaders say their intentions are for a peaceful revolution, but they feel increasingly targeted and they say they are prepared to defend themselves," he said.

What will be worrying to the Americans and Saudis is that some young people - in anger and desperation - are turning to al-Qaeda in the region. The group's numbers have grown in the south since 2011.

Experts say radicalisation is taking place in the south because of long-term neglect. They say a little bit of investment in basic services and security by al-Qaeda and other extremist groups is believed to have paid off very handsomely.

That is not to say that all Southern Movement protesters are supporters of al-Qaeda.

Herak is an umbrella group for different groups, including those who want more autonomy under a federal system, those who want independence and also some parts of Ansar al-Sharia, which wants a religious emirate.

They are very disorganised and all that unites them is a shared animosity to the central government.

Abdel Ghani al Iryani believes Herak is close to declaring armed resistance.

"When that happens the unified country will be fractured, but not between south and north. What we will have is division along smaller tribal and regional affiliations and there will be several political entities."

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