Jane Novak looks at the internal problems in Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula. Recent unrest may signal a renewed round of fighting and perhaps civil war.
Demonstrators gather in Radfan, Yemen October 14, 2007, the day after four protest organizers were killed. Click to view.
Yemen is facing instability unseen since its 1994 civil war. A war with Shiite rebels in the northern Sa’ada province left over 50,000 internal refugees. The rebellion ended in June but threatens to re-ignite as neither side has fully implemented the cease-fire conditions. The political and economic marginalization of vast segments of society contributed to the rebellion as did endemic governmental corruption, lack of basic services and draconian security measures. These factors are also the catalyst for widespread protests in southern Yemen, some of which attracted over 100,000 protesters. Ten protesters were killed, allegedly by security forces, and many were beaten and arrested.
Hegemony not integration
Unrest in southern Yemen has its roots in northern hegemony following the 1990 unification of North and South Yemen. The Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP), which formerly ruled the south, was marginalized following Yemen’s 1994 civil war. Dr. Aidroos Naser al Naqeeb, head of the YSP’s Parliamentary block, said, “The YSP Central Committee indicated that the South was treated as the spoils of war including land, people, companies and wealth. The YSP also noted the violence against the current protesters reflects the type of politics which has dominated after the outcome of the war.”
Post-war reconciliation between North and South was thwarted by the corruption among the northern oligarchy and by the installation of President Saleh’s relatives in many top military and security posts. Successive constitutional amendments centralized power in the executive, leading to a de facto merger between the ruling party and the state, both headed by Saleh.
Since May, protests spread across Aden, Dhalie, Lahj, Abyan, Shabwa, and Hadramout, organized by former southern military officers. They claim they were punitively discharged following the civil war at stipends well below sustenance level. Civil and military southern pensioners number over 100,000. Broader southern grievances include the appropriation and theft of commercial, residential, and public land by powerful northerners. State employment is an area of perceived systematic discrimination. Ubiquitous military camps and checkpoints are another sore spot.
Broad discontent finds its voice
Civil unrest in the south triggered a national outpouring of discontent. Thousands of protesters in Taiz held aloft water bottles and bread. In the oil producing Marib governorate, demonstrators demanded a share of oil revenue, jobs and development funding. In Amran, north of the capital, ten thousand tribesmen demanded governmental reform. Teachers, students, doctors, pharmacists, trade unions, unemployed youth, journalists and kidney patients have held individual and sometimes joint protests in the capital, Sana’a.
One common complaint among the various interest groups is rising prices. Inflation in the poverty stricken nation was over 20 percent in 2006. Hoarding by the domestic wheat monopoly exacerbated international price increases on wheat in 2007, and higher priced loaves of bread shrank in size. Cooking gas cylinders increased in price from YR400 to YR1000.
Discontent also stems from the failure to fully implement the 2005 Wages Strategy, intended to buffer a reduction in oil subsidies. The reform dose was to be accompanied by corruption control and a reduction in governmental spending. However, an YR278 billion supplemental 2007 budget appropriation was pegged to the costs of the northern rebellion, continued oil subsidies and the extra month salary promised to government workers during President Saleh’s presidential campaign. The regime reinstated the draft to counter unemployment, although many citizens complain of being excluded from military service by domicile. Few top officials were prosecuted for misconduct although corruption takes 23 percent of the national budget.
Despite the high tenor of demands for relief and reform, Saleh’s regime is responding with the same tactics that spurred the unrest. Riot police fired live rounds and deployed tear gas and water cannons against protesters. Dozens of oppositionists were arrested including the YSP’s Hassan Ba-oom and head of the military pensioners association, General Nasser Al-Nawbah. Both were charged with treason and faced the death penalty, launching another round of protests. The pair was later released; however twenty other political leaders arrested. Hundreds remain in prison following the Sa’ada War, including children.
The non-governmental media is under assault. Journalist Abdulkarim al Khaiwani faces the death penalty for publishing war news that “demoralized the military”. Security forces prevented Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya reporters from covering the southern protests. The YSP’s news website was blocked. Conversely, the regime uses the broadcast media to stir public sentiment, airing an Eid sermon that declared the protesting retirees no longer Muslims.
President Saleh is also attempting to manage public sentiment by promising reform and restitution; however public trust is extremely low. Eight thousand southern officers were reinstated. Colonel Naser Saleh Abdul Qawi reported that one condition of reinstatement was a pledge to foreswear peaceful political activity. Saleh proposed constitutional amendments to enhance local rule, but a recent electoral “reform” stacked the electoral commission in favor of the president’s omnipotent ruling party. In a Ramadan speech, Saleh downplayed the “fabricated crisis”. However, presidential advisor and former Prime Minister, Abdel Bajammal threatened to revoke a weapons ban and re-arm the northern citizenry to face the southern protesters.
Despite regional polarization, northern monopolization of military assets makes civil war unlikely. If oil production drops sharply, as predicted, nationwide discontent will increase. However, a disorganized, splintered citizenry decreases the risk of revolution. Yemen’s opposition parties have yet to establish internal process of representation. Yemen’s 2009 parliamentary elections may unify the citizenry in rejectionism if the process is as unfair as the last presidential election. If instability increases, military commanders may move to protect their interests through a coup.
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