Artillery and bombs rather than innocent fireworks marked the fourth anniversary of Yemeni unity and the first anniversary of free parliamentary elections of the Arabian Peninsula. The fight between the armed forces under President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih and those loyal to Vice President ‘Ali Salim al-Bayd was complicated by ideological, tribal and regional politics. In the end, though, it boiled down to both military leaderships’ rejection of pluralism and dialogue. Simply put, each side wanted its maximum domain: for the southerners, either a full half of the power in a unified government or an effectively independent administration of the south; and for the north’s Salih, control of the whole country, period. Not incidentally, given the acute state of economic collapse, both also had their eye on the Shabwa and Hadramawt oil fields.

When Salih and al-Bayd signed the unity pact in May 1990 on behalf of the Yemen Arab Republic and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, a number of critical issues — not least, now to merge the two separate militaries and security apparatuses — remained to be resolved “through the democratic process.” A year later, when the constitution was ratified in a public referendum, and three years later, when national parliamentary elections partially redistributed top posts, none of the these matter had been dealt with.

The results of the April 1993 elections exacerbated the stalemate over how power would be shared and exercised. If there were still essentially two camps, the north’s now included not just the president’s political machine but also his effective ally, Islah (reform), which is the party alliance of Islamists, tribal leaders and some prominent merchants, and headed by ‘Abdallah al-Ahmar, the paramount sheikh of the Hashid confederation. Although al-Bayd and al-Ahmar signed a series of reconciliation agreements, it appears in retrospect that neither camp really intended to give up its army and security forces. The competition between them opened up political space for four years of pluralist politics whose most remarkable feature was a vibrant free press and dissenting opinion, formal and informal. But this competition became polarized, and the leaderships with their respective military commands resolved to remain in power separately rather than make the compromises that unity and democracy demanded.

The tribal basis of both military commands, especially Salih’s, got much critical public attention during the crisis leading up to the civil war. Sawt al-‘Ummal, the Aden-based Labor Federation weekly, first published in the names of the 33 top officers in the northern army, who all happened to be from Sinhan. A pro-regime paper, 22 Mayu, ran a counter-list of 26 southern officers from Radfan and 29 from Dala‘. Al-Shura, a weekly published by a small opposition party, then printed the two lists side by side.

In a country of about 14 million people and (reputedly) 50 million guns, degeneration of the conflict along tribal lines was one gruesome potential scenario. But to date, this has not happened. Tribal divisions created rifts within each of the two camps, not between them. The north’s more populous Bakil tribes resented the stranglehold on military command positions by officers from Salih’s Rashid sub-tribe of Sinhan and the selection of ‘Abdallah al-Ahmar as speaker of the parliament. To press demands for government reform, local economic development, and the arrest of high-profile swindlers, the Bakil imposed a “quarantine” against Rashid-owned petrol and butagaz trucks entering Sanaa in April.

Tribal tensions also overlapped with other issues in the south, where ‘Ali Nasr Muhammad and his supporters in Abyan lost out to politicians from the Hadramawt and officers from Radfan and Dala‘ in 1986. In order to fan the embers of that dissension, Salih threatened in April to replace Prime Minister Abu Bakr al-‘Attas with ‘Ali Nasr, then still in exile. While most southerners closed ranks against the advance of Salih’s army, the tribes of Shawra offered no resistance when the northerners took Ataq.

Whereas the popular culture of Sanaa exudes religious conservatism, Aden has a more relaxed, secular atmosphere. But this is not what the fight was about either. Salih did set the religious right against both northern leftists and the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP), helping to propel Islah’s Islamist ideologue ‘Abd ai-Majid al-Zindani — opponent of unity, democracy and constitutionalism — into one of five seats on the ruling Presidential Council. In the lead-up to war, Salih addressed mosques while al-Zindani visited army camps. No amount of prayerful public posturing makes either Salih or Islah party head al-Ahmar into fundamentalists, however. Al-Zindani had actually reached a compromise with the YSP late last year on the wording of a constitutional amendment dealing with the place of shari‘a in laws and legislation. Outside Aden, the south was no less conservative than the north. Religion was part of the rhetoric of war, but Yemenis were not fighting over religion’s role in politics and public life.

Over the last several years the extraordinarily open political climate unfortunately also encouraged Salih and the YSP, each still in control of a broadcast station and a daily newspaper, to air their differences in an acrimonious “war of declarations.” Salih insisted on a presidency where he can appoint the vice president and all other influential positions. Al-Bayd wanted an independently elected, virtually co-equal president and vice-president. Salih’s cadre opposed independent local government; YSP Deputy Secretary-General Salim Salih Muhammad called for “confederation.” Salih was happy to merge the armies under his relatives’ command, and spoke with a straight face of the army as a “democratic” institution; the south invited “reorganization” and “appointment by merit.” The YSP, which lost over 100 cadre to assassination during the unity period, called for “law and order,” which it claimed to have provided in the former PDRY. [1]

The public often sympathized with al-Bayd’s positions but not his tactics. After a private visit to the US in August 1993, instead of returning to Sanaa he went to Aden and issued “18 points” summarizing his demands. These served as the basis for some bargaining, and negotiators for the president’s General People’s Congress (GPC) claimed they made significant concessions. One agreement concerned the composition of the five-man presidential council: two from each of the ruling parties, and one from Islah. But on October 29, as compromise seemed at hand, an attack on al-Bayd’s sons and nephew scuttled the whole deal. He subsequently refused to take the oath of office, effectively depriving the country of a constitutional executive.

It became clear that the elaborate electoral process to compose a new government that would in turn resolve constitutional, judicial and policy matters was unraveling. The presidential council, the cabinet and Parliament, were all composed of the three-party coalition, and were in deep constitutional and political crisis.

A lot of prominent Yemenis wanted unity and pluralism to succeed. Two leading northern figures took it upon themselves to bring together a group of personalities and then sell the feuding cliques on the idea. The most prominent was Mujahid Abu Shuwarib, who, for all his complicated past Baath, GPC and Rashid connections, was consistently considered as an “independent personality” and “acceptable to both sides.” The other was Sinan Abu Luhum, also a veteran of the 1960s struggle to establish the republic and subsequent political contests, who rose during the dialogue efforts from among many competing Bakil sheikhs to a much admired position of mediator. Backed by an impressive array of past Yemeni leaders, exiled figures and prominent nationalists, they proposed a National Dialogue Committee of Political Forces to discuss the YSP’s 18 points, the conditions of Salih’s camp, proposals from a recently formed Opposition Coalition, the resolutions of dozens of civic meetings, and the recommendations of lawyers and intellectuals. This new committee was to consist of five representatives each from the three ruling parties (who sent their most thoughtful and reasonable spokesmen), five from a recently formed Confederation of National Forces, leaders of the Opposition Coalition and smaller parties, and “independent social personalities.” All significant factions and regions were represented.

After meeting in virtually continuous session for three months, these 30 of the most respected men in the country produced in early 1994 a Document (wathiqa) of Contract and Agreement spelling out comprehensive reforms. Among the most important of these were delineation and limitation of presidential and vice presidential power; depoliticization, merger and redeployment of military and security forces, starting with the removal of checkpoints from cities and highways; administrative and financial decentralization to elected local governments, starting with development budgets; empowerment of an independent judiciary to enforce the letter of the law, starting with the arrest of assassins; election of an upper house of parliament modeled on the US Senate; stricter auditing procedures; abolition of the ministry of information; and a comprehensive list of other reforms.

Public response to this idealistic document was overwhelmingly positive. College professors called it a “social contract;” their students said the president would now be like the queen of England; a taxi driver in Sanaa chuckled that the Gulf monarchies would be furious. Small wonder that the two leaderships were loathe to sign a document that would, if implemented, force them to give up direct control of their armies, their purse-strings and their cronies. Within hours after Salih, al-Bayd and al-Ahmar signed the agreement in Amman, Jordan, on February 20, a skirmish broke out in Abyan, where northern and southern troops, forces loyal to ‘Ali Nasr, and a small cell of Islamic Jihad zealots were all camped in close proximity. More skirmishes erupted wherever units of the two armies were positioned near one another, more than once ending with the retreat of southern soldiers into Bakil territory. [2]

These low-intensity, low-casualty battles prompted a barrage of seminars, editorials and peace marches under the slogan “No to War, No to Separation, Yes to the Document.” Campus sit-ins in Sanaa and Aden, a new round of mass regional and tribal conferences from Hudayda to the Hadramawt, and smaller demonstrations in dozens of locations made a powerful statement. Perhaps even more remarkably, they were covered positively by the entire media. Everybody tried to identify with what was clearly the mood of the street.

Still the two sides stalled. Each leadership group contained both compromisers who talked to the other side and military diehards who insisted that the other side fulfill its part of the bargain first. By March, Abu Shuwarib and Abu Luhum left the country in disgust after publicly condemning what they called “preparation for separation.”

Along with the remainder of the Dialogue Committee, foreign embassies and regional leaders tried to avert a war. US and French military attaches on the Military Committee went around helping to “put out fires” until artillery broke up their luncheon in ‘Amran on April 27. US Ambassador Arthur Hughes, like the Yemeni cabinet and the Dialogue Committee, shuttled between Sanaa and Aden. Several Arab leaders met with or sent personal envoys to meet both sides. King Hussein had hosted the Document signing ceremony in Amman, physically pushing the two reluctant ‘Alis to embrace on television; at talks hosted by Sultan Qaboos in Oman in early April the cameras recorded a warmer hug. Egypt’s Mubarak had invited Salih and al-Bayd to Cairo the first week in May, and extended the invitation again and again during the fighting.

All to no avail. Public dissent, elite pressures and the other side’s taunts seemed to embolden elements in each camp favoring the bang of a military solution over the incessant din of debate. [3] Would-be outside mediators came away appalled, especially by Sanaa’s intransigence. As the wing of the YSP advocating secession over merger of the armed forces prevailed within the Central Committee, Salih’s commanders showed him a battle plan “to preserve unity.” The president effectively declared war from Sanaa’s Great Mosque on April 27. After skirmishes ignited into full-scale battle in early May, Salih dismissed the “separatists” from his government. The YSP and some smaller southern-based parties, including ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Jifri‘s Sons of Yemen League, which had opposed the PDRY from Saudi Arabia throughout its entire history, declared a breakaway Democratic Republic of Yemen on May 21, 1994.

On a popular level, the Yemenis saw the “war between the two ’Alis” as recklessly squandering lives, resources, infrastructure and standards of living on crass and seemingly unwinnable power plays. Outsiders, too, saw both sides as taking unequivocal, rash positions. Both sides tried to marshal the widest possible government coalition, simultaneously silencing critics of their new policies. Salih imposed martial law, detained some critics and suspended all non-GPC newspapers, lest the northern peace forces undermine the drive to conquer the whole country. During the war, scores of rank-and-file socialists were detained in Sanaa in each of three separate rounds of arrests. Aden, for its part, imprisoned hundreds of Islah members.

While the north quickly established military superiority and encircled Aden and Mukalla, the rump Democratic Republic showed that it had one key ally: the Saudis. While the Gulf monarchies had refused to meet Salih and only received his chief diplomat on the eve of full-scale war, King Fahd, a score of Saudi princes, and top-ranking Kuwaiti and Emirates officials granted audiences to al-Bayd and his colleagues during the immediate pre-war crisis. Once fighting began in earnest, the Saudi press reveled in the fulfillment of its predictions that democracy could only come to chaos. When the battle turned against the south, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar, pressed the Security Council to call for a ceasefire, a halt to arms shipments and a UN negotiator. The Gulf Cooperation Council condemned the north’s aggression, claiming it was backed by Iraq.

Saudi support for those it had for decades called “godless communists,” after having backed al-Zindani and al-Ahmar’s northern opposition to unity a few years earlier, accentuates Riyadh’s abhorrence of unity — not to speak of democratization — and its readiness to support whomever might break it up. It also helped that the new southern government included a number of former sultans, sheikhs and other anti-communist dissidents with connections to the Gulf royal families.

While UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi brokered a series of stillborn ceasefires, and the Military Committee reassembled, the independent half of the Dialogue Committee groped for a “national salvation” government, or at least a committee to sit down with the two sides again. But the northern command showed no readiness to compromise. After the “legitimate forces” — the northern army, Ali Nasr loyalists, and some irregular militias — entered Aden on July 7, virtually all government offices and public sector enterprises were sacked and looted. The southern leadership, having fled Aden for Mukalla in advance of Salih’s army, abandoned the fight a week later to seek asylum in the Gulf countries.

On July 14, a group of journalists and intellectuals held a well publicized, well attended seminar in Sanaa, reminiscent of many similar sessions over the past couple of years, to discuss the country’s future. Three days later, at least a dozen participants were thrown into dungeons of the political security prison for two to six days.

One can already hear the apologists of authoritarian regimes in the Arab world crowing, along with the Saudi princes, that an unusual political opening has failed because even fundamental political liberties and civic participation are incompatible with Arab culture. But it is the regimes, not the cultures, that have proven to be incompatible with these goals, at great cost to society’s human, material and cultural foundations.


[1] There are plenty of theories about who attacked 150 socialists and their allies and relatives during the four-year unity period — northern security, religious reactionaries, southern political or tribal enemies — but there is no consensus and no hard evidence has been presented to the public.
[2] This was the case in Harf Sufyan, ‘Amran, and possibly Dhamar-Yarim. Other skirmishes occurred near Shabwa.
[3] Including, in Sanaa, Salih’s brothers and cousin and, in Aden, the heads of state security.

How to cite this article:

Sheila Carapico "From Ballot Box to Battlefield," Middle East Report 190 (September/October 1994).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This