WHAT IT MEANSThe importance of Aden’s Jan. 13, 2008 protest [Archives:2008/1120/Local News]

January 14 2008

Dr. Abdullah Al-Faqih
For the Yemen Times

What it means is an analytical feature of Yemen Times, in which Yemeni topics are discussed and analyzed by Yemeni and international experts. Contributions and comments are welcomed, they could be sent to the feature's coordinator: Dr. Abdullah Al-Faqih ([email protected]).

On January 13, 2008, Aden was the destination for thousands of southern Yemenis who showed up for a historic sit-in in the city. Neither sit-ins nor protests are new to the city, once considered one of the world's most important coastal cities. The novelty of the event stemmed from the timing and the message sent by the organizers of the gathering. Aden's Jan 13 protest was seemingly the most blatant attempt by southern Yemenis to face the dark side of their recent past.

A black day

On January 13, 1986, a brief but lethal civil war broke out in what used to be known as the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), or south Yemen. The war was between two factions within the ruling Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP). The first faction was led by Ali Nasser Mohammad, who became President of the PDRY in 1981, with the second led by many senior YSP leaders, including the famous progressive)of northern origins)Abdul Fattah Ismail.

The war, which lasted about two weeks, started when President Mohammed, during a YSP Permanent Committee meeting, ordered his bodyguards to open fire on his political rivals. The massacre left around seventy senior party officials dead, including Ismail himself, and led to the ensuing war. According to some estimates, the war left around 10 thousand casualties and ruined PDRY army equipment and weapons. President Mohammed and hundreds of his followers fled to the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), or north Yemen.

The most significant result of the war, however, was the weakening of the PDRY's army, ruling elite, and state, subsequently paving the road for the unification of the PDRY and the YAR in May 1990 and the creation of the present Republic of Yemen (RoY). Once again, and immediately before unification, President Mohammed sought asylum)this time heading for Syria, where he still resides.

Another war

The merger of the two Yemeni states did not put an end to conflict as was expected. On the contrary, the unification intensified the conflict by combining conflict within and between the two states. Political and ideological differences between southerners and northerners, which led to war between them in 1972 and in 1979, led them to war for the third time in 1994.

Those who fled to the north with president Mohammed after the 1986 civil war in the south ended up allying themselves politically with Ali Abdullah Saleh)President of the YAR from 1978 to 1990 and of the current republic. They did so following the simple rule: “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” And when the 1994 civil war broke out, President Mohammed's followers sided with President Saleh and his northern forces. For some observers, including the writer of this article, President Mohammed's followers support of Saleh was very critical in determining the war's length and outcome.

After the war, Mohammed's followers were rewarded in various ways for their role during the war. For example, Abdu Rabuh Mansur Hadi, who served as Minister of Defense during the war, was appointed vice-president of the RoY, replacing YSP Secretary General Ali Salim Al-Bied, who fled the country at the end of the war. Many other members of the faction were appointed as ministers or in senior military positions.

The honeymoon between Saleh's regime and President Mohammed's southern faction did not last long, however. While causes of the rift between the two sides are unclear, the division itself is self-evident. Hadi has served as vice president since 1999 without having his appointment renewed. The president was supposed to reappoint or replace him after the 1999 presidential elections and again after the September 2006 elections, but never did. In addition, Ahmed Al-Hassani)a relative of Hadi)was serving as Yemen's ambassador to Syria, and when his term ended in 2005 and the government refused to extend his term, he sought political asylum in Britain. Likewise, and for ambiguous reasons, Saleh's relation with President Mohammed went from bad to worse.

A unifying enemy

The horrific events of January 13, 1986 served, from a southern viewpoint, as a factor determining the outcomes of many subsequent events, including the decision of southern leaders to join the north, and the northerners' victory over the south. For southerners, their 1994 defeat and the ensuing political, economic, and social marginalization within the unified state is a direct result of their internal differences and conflict. For them, as a minority in a unified Yemen, historical internal divisions not only put limits on what they can do or achieve, but also cast doubts on the legitimacy of whatever demands they place on the regime.

The perennial sign of southern “discontent” has been frequently referred to by various southern sub-groups at reconciliation and forgiveness meetings. The process started about three years ago, and the recent sit-in in Aden is just one of a long series of meetings, demonstrations, and sit-ins. And the events have been snowballing; as they rolled, they got bigger and bigger.

The implicit message sent by the Aden gathering to the northerner-dominated political regime, and to Yemenis in general, is quite clear. It is a strong assertion that the southerners can overcome their deep wounds and turn their days of mourning, self-defeat, and humiliation into days of celebration and continuous struggle against a common enemy. For southerners in particular, the protest was an attempt to face their past shortcomings and to close the largest window from which the common enemy usually enters. The success of the attempt, however, remains to be seen.

The author is an activist, analyst, and professor of politics at Sana'a University. Please send comments to: [email protected]