By ROBERT F. WORTH 27 \ 2 \2010
The New York Times
ADEN, Yemen — Less than an hour’s drive outside this dilapidated port town, the Yemeni government’s authority is scarcely visible, and a different flag appears, that of the old independent state of South Yemen.
The flags are one sign of a rapidly spreading protest movement across the south that now threatens to turn into a violent insurgency if its demands are not met. That could further destabilize Yemen, already the poorest and one of the most troubled countries in the Arab world, and create a broader haven for Al Qaeda here.
The movement’s leaders say the Yemeni government — based in the north — has systematically discriminated against the south, expropriating land, expelling southerners from their jobs and starving them of public money. They speak with deep nostalgia of the 128-year British occupation in South Yemen, saying the British, who withdrew in 1967, fostered the rule of law, tolerance and prosperity. The north, they say, respects only the gun.
In recent months, calls for secession have grown louder after a harsh government crackdown on demonstrations and opposition newspapers. The movement’s leaders say that they believe in peaceful protest, but that their ability to control younger and more violent supporters is fraying.
“It is too late for half measures or reforms,” said Zahra Saleh Abdullah, one of the few Southern Movement leaders who agreed to be identified in print. “We demand an independent southern republic, and we have the right to defend ourselves if they continue to kill us and imprison us.”
Another movement leader, sitting across the room, held up a coin minted under the British in 1964 and pointed to the words engraved on it: South Arabia.
“This is our true identity, not Yemen,” he said. “A southern republic or death.”
Public outrage swelled last month after Yemeni security forces laid siege to the house of a prominent newspaper editor in Aden, setting off a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire as the editor and his young children cowered inside. (The government said he was stockpiling weapons.) They were not injured, but the clash left at least one of the family’s guards dead and others wounded, fueling more demonstrations. All told, more than 100 people have been killed in clashes with the police since the movement began in 2007, its leaders say, and about 1,500 supporters remain in prison.
In some rural areas of South Yemen, police officers refuse to wear their uniforms for fear of being shot, according to several accounts from local residents.
The Yemeni government has largely dismissed the movement as a small band of malcontents and has repeatedly accused its leaders of being affiliated with Al Qaeda.
The movement’s leaders call that an outrageous perversion of the truth: they say that they stand for law, tolerance and democracy, and that it is the north that has a history of using jihadists as proxy warriors. But some human rights workers say a shared hatred of the government could be creating a sense of unity between some members of the movement — which is broad and very loosely organized — and members of Al Qaeda.
Perhaps a greater danger, some say, is the spread of lawlessness across the south if the movement’s demands for greater equity are not addressed and it grows more violent. The movement’s own internal contradictions also pose a real threat.
“There is no clear leadership, everyone wants to be the boss,” said Afra Khaled Hariri, a lawyer here who has represented arrested members of the movement. The movement’s leaders include socialists and Islamists with wildly different goals and unresolved disputes dating to internal conflicts between socialist factions that left thousands of southerners dead during the 1980s.
“If the movement succeeds in making a separate state, I expect disaster because of our bloody past,” Ms. Hariri said. And Aden — the heart of the British protectorate and the base of the south’s intelligentsia — would be the chief victim, she added.
For that reason, some in the south say, the best solution is not secession, but a political accommodation in which the north agrees to address some of the movement’s main grievances about land expropriation and job discrimination. Many also say that moving away from Yemen’s highly centralized system of government and granting the provinces more power to govern themselves would ease tensions.
So far the government has shown little sign it intends to do that.
Behind the Southern Movement’s protests is an old belief that North and South Yemen are fundamentally different societies, and that their unification — achieved with great fanfare on both sides in 1990 — has been a failure.
The differences are apparent even to a first-time visitor. Aden has churches, parks, a smaller model of Big Ben and a stately garden where a statue of Queen Victoria presides. The roads, though a little faded, are generally better than those in the north. It is a commonplace that people respect red lights and driving lanes here, unlike in the north.
The people of the south are generally better educated, a legacy not only of the British but of the Socialist government that ruled here during the 1970s. Although they shattered the economy and suppressed their opponents brutally, the Socialists also put an end to harmful tribal practices like child marriage, championed women’s equality and achieved some of the highest literacy rates in the Arab world.
All those achievements have since collapsed: literacy and education have dropped precipitously across the south, child marriage has returned and lawlessness prevails.
Many here blame the north for all that. A brief civil war broke out in 1994, during which the north used jihadists who had fought in Afghanistan as proxy fighters.
“They want to push us into backwardness so we are like them,” said Ali Abdo, a professor of transportation engineering at Aden University and a member of a party that supports decentralization but not secession. “Aden was tolerant: there were Jews, Christians, Muslims all living together here. The North is not.”
The Southern Movement began in 2007 with protests led by former military officers who said they had been
mistreated and denied pensions after the 1994 civil war. Gradually, it has grown to encompass other groups. Last year, it received a large boost when Tareq al-Fadhli, a former Afghan jihadist and ally of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, defected to the movement.
The movement now includes a substantial body of powerful tribal figures as well as Aden-based intellectuals and political figures. There is a 42-member leadership committee, though it is not clear how many of the movement’s supporters it represents. Most supporters seem to acknowledge Ali Salim al-Bidh, the exiled former president of South Yemen, as their leader. Mr. Bidh emerged from years of silence recently and began actively advocating southern independence.
The movement has its own songs, which can be heard blasting from the open windows of cars in southern towns. “We swear to God, we will not put up with this corrupt dictator and his gang, even if the whole sky erupts in fire,” goes one song by Aboud Khawaja, a singer now based in Qatar.
This month, a 27-year-old man named Faris Tamah was arrested near Aden while playing that song from his car stereo, and he was later shot to death in prison after being tortured, said several movement supporters who know his family and say they saw a medical report. Yemen’s government-run newspapers later ran an article saying that Mr. Tamah was arrested for drunken driving and committed suicide in custody by grabbing an officer’s gun and shooting himself. “The movement began with demands, but they were refused and the pressure grew,” Professor Abdo said. “Now, the movement is in every house in the south.”