Protest movement threatens divided Yemen
Unrest in the south could turn into a violent insurgency and further destabilize the country.
Less than an hour’s drive outside this dilapidated port city, 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 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-Qaida.
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 brutal government crackdown on demonstrations and opposition newspapers. The movement’s leaders say they believe in peaceful protest, but 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.”
The Yemeni government has largely dismissed the movement as a small band of malcontents and has repeatedly accused its leaders of being affil- iated with al-Qaida.
Movement leaders call that an outrageous perversion of the truth. They say they stand for law, tolerance and democracy, and 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 mem- bers of the movement — which is broad and loosely organized — and members of al-Qaida.
Perhaps a greater danger, some say, is the spread of law- lessness across the south if the movement’s demands for greater equity are not addressed and it grows more violent.