Popular revolution advances towards state building in southern Yemen

Susanne Dahlgren, University of Tampere/National University of Singapore                                                               

This memo was drafted for POMEPS Studies 29,Politics, Governance, and Reconstruction in Yemen.” 

In the shadow of the war, a popular revolution flourishes in southern Yemen that de facto has separated the area from the capital of Sana’a. As the Yemeni state is incapacitated by war and two separate claims for rule, one in Sana’a (the Houthi movement) and the other in Aden (with the internationally recognized president Hadi, actually sitting in Riyadh), an independent state is in the making in the lands that once formed the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). The re-establishment of the PDRY state is part of the demands that the Southern Movement, locally called hirak, has raised for a decade. This structurally loose civil society initiative has managed to gather the entire nation to support the call for independence. Still, it is not clear yet how the re-establishment of the independent southern state will take place.

Locally called a revolution, thawra, the southern uprising comes from southern sentiment of marginality following unification of the two Yemens in 1990. The years of unity with North Yemen have proved difficult for southerners who have seen the country they built ruined by incompetent rule and discrimination. Among the most lamented issues is quality education that southerners consider was recognizable in the schools during the PDRY. After unification, schools were run with a curriculum from Sana’a that provides weak qualifications and misrepresents the history of the south. During the 1990s, most of the qualified teachers left schools in protest. While the PDRY called upon women to build the society alongside men, after unity, women’s agenda was marginalized and activists were sidelined and replaced by female technocrats with family ties to men in power.

Enthusiasm on regained sovereignty takes place in the middle of power cuts, hunger and ubiquitous violence. While fighting in the southern capital Aden ended in July 2015 after the local Popular Resistance and army loyal to Hadi pushed the Houthi-Saleh advance out of the city, many feel that the war is not over. The presence of the Hadi regime in the city has brought mismanagement, insecurity and corruption.[1] It is not only with Sana’a that people here want to separate, but with the Hadi regime. According to many southerners, the bloodshed caused by the Hadi regime since the start of the popular uprising in 2007 cannot be easily washed away or forgotten. In Aden, the 2013 to 2014 civil disobedience campaign showed how widely spread anger was across the former capital. Schools, shops, and most government offices kept closed to show support to the southern demands. This was met by tanks and snipers that Hadi regime sent to the streets to face unarmed young boys.[2] Throughout the South, pictures of “martyrs,” people killed in peaceful demonstrations, have long since replaced commercial billboards and pictures of the despised president. Hadi’s sacking of the popular governor of Aden Aidrus al-Zubaydi in April 2017 launched a political process that actually separated the south from Hadi’s control.

Following his dismissal, Al-Zubaydi and a cabinet member fired by Hadi at the same time, Hani Bin Burayk established the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a de facto government of the southern governorates. Thus the southern call for independence took a major step forward. According to the “Aden Historical Declaration” of May 4, 2017, the council is endowed to represent the eight southern governorates in issues of national concern and to lead the area towards establishment of a “democratic, federal state.”[3] Clearly STC is not just a new hirak branch, but a regime with its own “ministries.” This move served as a catalyst that provided a long-sought leadership to “South Arabia,” as the state-to-be is called, and managed for the first time since 2007, to unify all the southern governorates under one body. Building a regional administration followed, starting from the eastern governorates of al-Mahra and Hadramaut.

n the street and in social media the establishment has been widely celebrated. During my almost four decades of scholarly involvement, first with PDRY and then with unified Yemen, this is the first time I have witnessed people truly enthusiastic about future. Among southern intellectuals, though, disbelief is the common mode of existence. Southerners tried to secede already in 1994 following an inter-Yemeni war that ended the honeymoon of 1990 unification. Avoiding a similar mistake is on the agenda now as the STC approaches full sovereignty.

Traditional elites, professionals and activists

The 24-member steering committee of the Southern Transitional Council consists of new and old political forces, familiar from southern modern era politics since the late colonial times. Present are men who come from the traditional elites, namely, the sada, or descendants of pre-independence rulers. [4] While some members are referred to as “activists,” they might share similar roots. New elites are present as five of Hadi’s cabinet ministers and a number of acting governors have taken positions. The three women are professionals by their own merit, reflecting the PDRY era ethos of women’s empowerment. All the three women have prominent positions in the “ministries” (called departments) that work under the steering committee, such as the Culture and Information Department led by Muna Bashraheel, an activist member of the family who have published the leading opposition newspaper, al-Ayyam. Here we see another old-transformed-new elite family. Young people, the driving force of civil society activism, form a minority, making the steering committee more closely resemble modern era southern political history than current civil society activism.

What does it mean that pre-colonial traditional elites are so strongly present in STC? I find it useful to compare STC to the coalition that emerged during the previous north-south war in 1994. That war was fought by armies loyal to the two state leaders that formed unified Yemen, namely Ali Abdullah Saleh and Ali Salim al-Bidh of the ruling southern Yemen Socialist Party. The latter sought alliance with pre-independence forces largely excluded during the PDRY but which became disillusioned with unity the same way as YSP. One of the most prominent leaders of the “Democratic Republic of Yemen” the state that was announced during the war, was Abd al-Rahman al-Jifri, the longtime leader of the League of the Sons of Yemen party, a small opposition party during the PDRY operating from Sana’a, which tried to gather support in particular in Hadramaut after unity.[5] During the war, al-Bidh sought support for secession from the political elites of that governorate.

Involving Hadramaut to join the other southern areas in the independence project has been a key problem for the movement. Therefore, it should be no surprise that Hadramis clearly dominate the STC leading bodies. Some of the traditional Hadrami families are present as representatives of Aden, too. Hadramis who take pride in their oil wealth and prominence in Gulf economies have been looking for separate political solutions from other southern areas.[6] Saudi Arabian economy is largely run by Hadrami business families, making the Saudi lobby influential among Hadramis, too. A Hadrami independence or annexation to Saudi Arabia has gained some momentum fueled by Saudi Arabia’s longtime aspiration to build two pipelines through the governorate to the sea. However, most Yemenis remain opposed to Saudi influence coming on politics. Furthermore, many southerners, specifically Maharis in the far east, who have long sought equality, abhor the prospect of Hadrami hegemony. In STC, this problem is not yet solved, even though, superficially, the council works harmoniously. The recent lengthy visit by al-Zubaydi, the leader of STC to Hadramaut tells the same story. Still, this is not the first time a ruler of southern part of Arabia has had problems with Hadramaut. During British colonial times, the two Hadrami sultanates, Kathiri State and Qu’aiti State refused to join the Federation of South Arabia that the British formed with the mission to unify its colony Aden with the two protectorates.

The STC reflects the kind of political spectrum that I have come to know throughout my decades of scholarly engagement with the south. Today, this tolerant, cosmopolitan openness is discussed under the label civil state (al-dawla al-madaniyya), but has long been a trademark of southern intellectual life, which includes politically oriented Salafists and women . The legacy of tahrir al-mar’a (women’s emancipation) policies was a hallmark of the PDRY era set aside after unity, until its revival by the southern uprising after 2007. Politically, the unification of old and new southern elites in the STC means that not only Sana’ati elites (current and past) but also the party that ruled the south during the PDRY, the Yemen Socialist Party, have been largely excluded. YSP has isolated itself by being divided over the southern question, with the Aden-based section supporting hirak and STC and the Sana’a-based segment joining Hadi regime to promote the unity agenda. However, in the National Assembly that STC formed in November 30, 2017 to reflect all regions of the south, socialist party activists are involved.[7] These include people who until recently embraced the unity agenda but who now have severed all ties with the Hadi regime.

Revolution on the ground

Hirak was established in the summer of 2007 by army officers sacked from the national army following the 1994 war, who were then joined by unemployed youth. The movement spread rapidly in western parts of the south and started to gather people in mass rallies, later called milliyuniyya, at its best with hundreds of thousands of people gathering in the official parade square in Aden. Prominent men in western governorates of the south established a number of groups affiliated with hirak. Similar to most NGOs in Yemen, these organizations were often nothing more than small groupings with no membership outside the founding patrimonial family. Simultaneously, different community based activities started to mushroom, often one-person initiatives aimed at mending the problems the inadequate and corrupt administration left unsolved. All these reflected a political awakening among young people as well as women’s re-entry into politics after years of self-imposed seclusion in the privacy of the home to protest to the unfavorable atmosphere for women in society. Activities affiliated with hirak also include intellectuals forming clubs for political discussion and to safeguard historical buildings.[8] Hirak became a loose network of activities unified under the demands of ending marginalization of the south, compensation for those whose property had been looted, and re-establishment of southern independence. These grievances are commonly called Southern Cause, al-qadhiyya al-janubiyya. The Southern Cause is all about criticizing corruption, bad rule and the exclusion of southerners from the army and, largely, from public office. The cause objects to the idea that one must join the ruling People’s General Congress party to get things done.

Starting in 2011, local residents in all quarters of Aden have established “revolution squares” in neighborhoods for public meetings and demonstrations. During the height of such activities, before the current war started, all districts of Aden had such a square, some even had two, gathering residents to what I have called “street corner universities.”[9] The usual pattern was to call upon residents – including men and women from all fields of life – to a weekly political meeting before the sunset with speakers. For young people, these were moments when they could hear, some for the first time, about history of their city and about life before the power cuts came and running water became a rarity. In the square, sunset marked a joint moment of prayer to be followed by a demonstration along the neighborhood roads. Religious men joined as well, not only as speakers but also by establishing a council of fuqaha (Islamic legal scholars) in 2013 to review all present laws from the perspective of southern understanding of Islamic law shari’a. This and the joint prayer in the squares tells about the tactic that hirak has adopted to avoid being labelled as “un-Islamic” the way PDRY was attacked from neighboring countries. The new independent trade union movement is active in shop floor, and the teachers’ union is one of the most militant. It unifies voluntarily retired teachers (as protest to Sana’a’s education policies) with those currently in office and among other tasks, prepares an education reform for the new state. While the flag of “South Arabia” is the same as PDRY flag, a musician and a poet from Hadramaut have composed a new southern national anthem.[10]

Functioning as a “new social movement,” meaning a movement without a hierarchical structure, leadership or a manifesto, hirak has been extremely successful as a source of inspiration among people united behind the Southern Cause. Within only ten years, it has managed to inspire a truly popular revolution. I see southern activism as a similar grassroots initiative as Gustavo Esteva and Madhu Suri Prakash (1998) describe the Mexican Zapatista movement. In declining to take part in the “transition process” following the deposing of Ali Abdullah Saleh and carried out in Sana’a in the National Dialogue Conference during 2013 to 2014, the Southern Movement, similar to the Zapatista movement, refused to “come to power,” that is, join the disappointing participatory realities of the country. Like the Zapatistas, it builds people’s power and local governance in the remotest countryside (see Esteva 1999: 153–4).[11] Southern activism makes use of both virtual and physical space in rewriting local spaces of living and meaning-making. STC is a step towards the traditional social movement, with its political statements and structure that largely resembles a state leadership. While hirak has inspired local governance on the ground, STC aims at taking over state functions.

A referendum among southern governorates has long been discussed among hiraki activists, and the STC has embraced the idea on its agenda. Throughout the years as the re-establishment of independence has been discussed, participants have tried to recognize and avoid past mistakes, including when sections of society were excluded in 1967 and when a hasty attempt to secede failed in 1994. In the light of recent independence referendums in Catalonia and Kurdistan, referendum is a sensitive issue here too. The “international community” generally discourages any attempts to split nation states, and Yemen is no exception. However, one should remember that these other two independence movements never had an independent state, while the South had one 27 years ago. Southerners have compared the current Republic of Yemen to the United Arab Republic that Egypt and Syria formed in 1958, and which was dissolved in 1961 after Syria left. Al-Zubaydi has commented on the referendum issue, indicating that institution building comes first before a referendum can be held.

Still, many southerners disappointed in Hadi regime’s inability to provide electricity and running water remain waiting for the STC to prove its capacity to function as an administration. Critical hirakis point out al-Zubaydi’s close ties with United Arab Emirates and ask if the entire STC is set up by the foreign country to serve its own purposes and not southerners’ concerns. Such people insist in continuing the revolution that challenges corrupt politicians, incapable administrators, and political leaders. The southern uprising is not only hirak or STC; it is a popular revolution. The war, called the latest “North-South war,” has only strengthened the will to leave Sana’a. The southern uprising is the real success story among the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions in that, despite being violently suppressed, it has gained strength and today poses a real political challenge to the state power.

United Arab Emirates and the South

Saudi Arabia entered the Yemeni civil war with a coalition, in which the United Arab Emirates has played the biggest role on the ground. While publicly both stand behind Hadi, Emiratis have trained a “national” army of southerners and invested in large development projects throughout the south. Disagreement between the coalition partners has been visible and occasionally erupted in fighting such as over the control of Aden airport.[12] It is clear that the Emirati role in the south is remarkable, and even the Saudis have accused it for acting as an occupation force. In addition to training the army, Emiratis have established detention centers strongly criticized by human rights organizations.[13] STC leader al-Zubaydi became famous after the war for participating with UAE forces in clearing Aden of jihadists. Since the establishment of STC, al-Zubaydi has regularly visited Abu Dhabi, and speculation has emerged that the Emirati royal house supports southern independence.

While the Emirati agenda in the Yemeni war has occasionally differed from the Saudi one, it would be too optimistic for southern separatists to believe that the UAE actually endorses southern independence. Instead, the UAE has its own agenda, which the stability that STC promotes in the south suits well. What is the Emirati agenda then? Some link the Yemen campaign to Emirati attempts to control maritime trade and its recent emergence as port operator in key oil route seaports in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.[14] While its interest is partly commercial, it is also the question of safeguarding oil routes from a possible Iranian blockage or global terrorism. This is in line with the ten-year-old Saudi campaign to diversify its maritime oil routes that, with the pipeline demand, includes a claim to Yemeni territory, too. The United States has since long pressured GCC countries to prepare for a possible Iranian closure of Hormuz.

Another key element of Emirati policies is its joint campaign with Saudi Arabia against the Muslim Brotherhood, of which the Qatar boycott forms a part. Still, one more perspective could be added here. The GCC countries have recently experienced reforms aimed at preparing for the after-oil period against a background of declining Gulf economies. But the economy is not the only prerogative that sparks changed strategies. UAE has been active in the fight over leadership of the Sunni world, too, that the rise of the Islamic state and the re-empowerment of al-Qaeda resurfaced. In Islamic scholarly terms, the campaign is sometimes referred to as madhabiyya. The word comes from the book al-lã Madhabiyya written by the famous late Syrian scholar Shaykh Muhammad Sa’id Ramadhan al-Buti, translated into English as. “Abandoning the madhhabs is the most dangerous bid’ah threatening the Islamic shari’a”(Damascus 2009) where the scholar criticizes Salafis and other “non-madhabis.” The point anyhow is that one should follow an established scholarship and not a self-declared cyber-mufti. Interestingly, KSA fits in as a “Hanbali state.” In Yemen, the Emirati targets are iihadi groups and Salafists as well as the Islah party, home of Yemeni Brotherhood, which they, together with STC leaders, accuse of standing behind al-Qaeda. The Qatar boycott was also connected to the campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood for leadership of the Sunni world. STC leaders were among the first to join the Qatar boycott. Out of the main political forces in Yemen, STC is clearly on the Emirati side in its mission to fight the Brotherhood, while Hadi has the burden of the key Islah politician, vice president Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar. While the accusations on who stands behind Al-Qaeda varies in time, the point here is to suggest one more perspective (and not to question the others) in looking at the Emirati agenda in Yemen and to show that it has different goals both from the Saudi ones in supporting STC, and from the latter, in having a regional mission.

Spoiling the unique natural heritage of Soqotra Island?

While Emirati investment on reconstruction in the South has been largely celebrated among local populations, in the isolated island of Soqotra in the Indian Ocean, it clearly has crossed a line, raising popular anger. Iranian backed news sites (i.e. yemenpress.org) claim that Hadi leased Soqotra to the UAE for 99 years, which both deny. Still, today only Emirati airplanes fly to the island and telecommunications are run from Abu Dhabi. An Emirati military camp is operative, the “Zayed Residential City” is under construction,[15] and plans for “tourist revival” are underway. Emirati-based hotels have reserved large areas on the beaches and erected fences for future hotel development.[16] Soqotra has a unique natural habitat and since 2008 has been a UNESCO world heritage site. This Galapagos-of-the-east is the only place in the world to find certain rare species, such as the dragon blood tree. Soqotra is not the only island where the coalition has taken a foothold. In the mouth of Bab al-Mandab, the strait that connects Indian Ocean to Red Sea, Perim island has been made a coalition military base. However, the Emirati interest in Soqotra seems to go beyond the need to secure the sea route from enemy operations. Land property has been offered to any Emirati or expatriate national who has participated in “investment tours” flown directly from Abu Dhabi to the island.[17] As al-Zubaydi denies the allegations of Emirati occupation of Soqotra, and the local authorities cooperate with the UAE they are faced with a dilemma. While they are grateful to hospitals, schools, and other developments in their island following the devastating 2015 storm, the GCC-style development of erasing the past has raised popular anger, too.[18]

State-building from the periphery

In the chaos of war and absence of a state power, the South already has seceded. While the STC has chosen its “president,” “cabinet” and “parliament,” all ready to embrace national functions, it is the people in neighborhoods and villages who have taken over power. Among these people, the flag to be raised is the “South Arabian” flag, not the Yemeni flag. Popular Committees have been set up to take care of local safety, activists work to resolve power cuts, and teachers without a salary keep running the schools. In a similar manner, this has happened in the northern cities of Marib and Taiz, which have built their own institutions, again separate from the capital. What is happening in the shadow of war is state-building from the periphery that fully disregards the power struggle in Sana’a.

[1] The Aden governor who Hadi appointed after sacking STC leader al-Zubaydi resigned less than six months in office in November 2017 accusing in a letter to Hadi, prime minister Bin Daghr of being the source of top level corruption, see https://www.adennews.net/yemen/aden/19719/عاجل-محافظ-عدن-المفلحي-يقدم-استقالته-ر (Urgent: Governor of Aden Abd al-Aziz Al-Muflahi formally resigns from his post and accuses Ben Daghr to lead a corruption gang (text of resignation, November 16, 2017, accessed on November 20, 2017).

[2] See Dahlgren, Susanne 2015, A Poor People’s Revolution. The Southern Movement Heads towards Independence from Yemen, Middle East Report 273, http://www.merip.org/mer/mer273/poor-peoples-revolution

[3] http://en.southerntransitionalcouncil.net/news/7815 (accessed on November 22, 2017).

[4] Sada, plural of sayyid, means a descendant of the Propher Muhammad’s family who in Yemen traditionally have claimed a special elite position.

[5] On the 1994 war, see The Yemeni War of 1994. Causes and Consequences. Ed. Jamal S. Al-Suwaidi. The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research 2014.

[6] The Saudi-influenced news site al-araby immediately rejected the STC and brought forward voices of those Hadramis who support an independent Hadramaut, see https://www.alaraby.co.uk/politics/2017/5/16/المجلس-الانتقالي-الجنوبي-في-اليمن-عقبة-وجودية-في-حضرموت

المجلس الانتقالي الجنوبي في اليمن… عقبة وجودية في حضرموت (The Southern Transitional Council: Existential obstacles in Hadramaut), accessed on November 15, 2017).

[7] See http://www.almashhadalaraby.com/news/14920 for a list of names of the 303-member National Assembly, (accessed on December 1, 2017).

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bCXY1wsROkc

[9] Dahlgren, Susanne 2016, Making Intimate “Civilpolitics” in Southern Revolution Squares, in Freedom without Permission. Bodies and Space in the Arab Revolutions. Eds. Frances S. Hasso and Zakia Salime. Duke University Press.

[10] See, https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=qYokbIdAINA

[11] Esteva, Gustavo, ‘The Zapatistas and people’s power’, Capital & Class 68 (1999), pp. 153–82.

Esteva, Gustavo and Madhu Suri Prakash, ‘Beyond development, what?’, Development in Practice 8/3 (1998), pp. 280–96.

[12] http://arabi21.com/story/1002181/ 27.4.2017 (UAE security protecting Aden Airport arrest a commander of Hadi’s guards, accessed on September 3, 2017).

[13] https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/06/22/yemen-uae-backs-abusive-local-forces, accessed on September 2, 2017.

[14] https://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21720319-driven-energetic-crown-price-uae-building-bases-far-beyond-its (The Gulf’s ”little Sparta.” The Ambigious United Arab Emirates, accessed on December 12, 2017).

[15] https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/society/2017/1/9/emiratis-build-zayed-residential-city-in-yemens-socotra-island, accessed on December 12, 2017.

[16] Claims of Emirati occupation of Soqotra have been demented in UAE media, see https://www.thenational.ae/opinion/uae-offers-a-helping-hand-to-the-island-of-socotra-1.6185

[17] Personal communication with a person who participated in one such trip.

[18] https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/indepth/2017/5/17/has-the-uae-colonised-yemens-socotra-island-paradise, accessed on December 12, 2017.