In the summer of 2007, a lively and non-violent movement sprang up in the southern provinces of Yemen to protest the south’s marginalization by the north. The movement was sparked by demonstrations held that spring by forcibly retired members of the army, soon to be accompanied by retired state officials and unemployed youth. The deeper roots of the uprising lie in grievances dating to the 1994 civil war that consolidated the north’s grip over the state and, southerners would say, the resources of the country. [1] Southerners soon took to calling their protests al-Harak, a coordinated campaign against a northern “occupation.”

What is happening in southern Yemen should be understood as a broad-based popular movement demanding sounder and more just governance. As such, the southern cause commands widespread support (including from some outside the south). The movement encompasses elements that want to secede and, in a country long forecast to become a “failing state,” if not the “next Afghanistan,” these are the actors who are featured in the international media. To the extent that the southern movement has been noticed amidst Yemen’s multiple problems, it has mostly been dismissed as secessionist or, following the preference of the government, cast as a potential ally of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and a threat to Yemeni stability.

The southern uprising is a completely new type of social movement in this part of the world and, even inside Yemen, old-guard activists often fail to understand it. In a country where about 60 percent of the population is under 25 years of age, the movement reflects the aspirations of youth for opportunity and openness to the outside world. It also advocates peaceful resistance rather than armed struggle. As the protests proliferated, however, Yemeni President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih vowed to crush them. His security forces and the army obliged with blockades of entire provinces — such as Radfan, where the 1963 revolution that brought independence for the former South Yemen was launched — use of live ammunition against unarmed demonstrators, air raids upon entire cities, assassinations and arbitrary detentions. Still, the southerners have persisted in attempts to foster a new political culture in the poorest Arab country.

Salih and his regime propagate a narrative whereby the southerners, about one sixth of the Yemeni population, suffer in equal measure with residents of the more populous north. Because of Yemen’s pre-1990 history, however, the southern cause is unique. The southerners yearn for reestablishment of the rule of law they recall from the days before unification with the north. Some hope to remain united with their northern brothers under better rule; others would just as soon split the country once more.

Unified and Divided

From 1967 to 1990, the southern provinces of Yemen — Aden, Lahij, Abyan, Shabwa, Hadramawt and Mahra — comprised a self-declared socialist state known for most of its existence as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. The new republic was governed by the Yemen Socialist Party (YSP), which became increasingly divided along lines of ideology and tribal affiliation. In the north, Salih emerged as leader of the Yemen Arab Republic and its ruling General Party Congress (GPC), a nonideological party-like structure similar to those led by Nasser and Sadat in Egypt. Both Yemens were poor, undeveloped and dependent on foreign assistance. Both were best described as mixed economies; the north had a large public sector, while the south (its socialist label notwithstanding) welcomed foreign private investment and in 1988 employed only 25 percent of the work force in state-owned enterprises. In the late 1980s, there were several joint companies and oil was discovered on the north-south border. [2] After 1988, the border was opened so that Yemenis on either side could visit the “other part of the homeland.” It was not so strange, therefore, when the south entered enthusiastically into unity with the north in 1990.

But southerners’ contentment soon turned to worry about the failing economy, rising poverty and abuse of power by Salih and his loyalists. The YSP figure ‘Ali Salim al-Bid was made vice president of unified Yemen, junior partner to Salih in an arrangement southerners felt was mirrored all down the ranks of state. Salih had majority control of the presidential council and the Ministry of Finance. Southerners complained as well of clientelism, corruption and centralization of power around personality rather than political institutions in the unified state. The northern and southern army commands, for example, did not merge, but remained loyal to Salih and al-Bid’s faction of the YSP, respectively. Negotiations over the mechanics of unification began to break down amidst a “war of declarations” from both sides in Yemen’s newly rambunctious press. Meanwhile, “Arab Afghans” returning from the anti-Soviet jihad, among them the Abyan tribal figure Tariq al-Fadli, were used to assassinate more than 100 of the YSP’s cadre — apparently with the northerners’ blessing. [3] Southern cries for bolstering the rule of law date from the assassination campaign. Many notables on both sides genuinely desired unity, as did the bulk of the population, but hardliners in Sanaa and secessionists within the YSP prevailed in the internal struggles. [4] A secession front emerged behind al-Bid and his party colleague Haydar al-‘Attas, significantly including two former enemies of the YSP, ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Jifri of the Sons of Yemen League and ‘Abdallah al-Asnag of the Front for the Liberation of South Yemen. [5] The result was the 1994 civil war, which ended in a decisive victory for Salih’s forces.

On July 7, 1994, northern forces took Aden, trashing and looting government offices and public-sector companies. The leaders of the secession front, having retreated before the advancing northern army, escaped abroad. To add to the humiliation of defeat, southerners were made to celebrate July 7 as a day of national unity. Today’s southern activists have renamed it the “day of rage.”

Over the past decade, the rifts in the southern political establishment began to heal as the population soured on the policies of Salih’s government. Southerners have protested with special vehemence against what they view as large-scale land theft and reallocation of southern wealth and resources to the northern elite. During the 1994 fighting, ‘Ali Nasir, a former president of South Yemen ousted in a 1986 intra-regime bloodbath, had directed his partisans to fight on the side of the north. In 2006, speaking from Syrian exile, he declared that Yemeni politicians had been overly hasty in pursuing the original unification. Two years later, on January 13, 2008, his loyalists and their allies in a tiny communist party joined YSP rank-and-filers and al-Harak supporters in a reconciliation rally held in the Aden district of Shaykh ‘Uthman. The following spring, al-Bid acknowledged and apologized to the southern people for his role in unification. Al-Bid, who remains in exile, now heads the Supreme Southern Movement Council, one of the many groups that form al-Harak.

A third personage to rally behind the southern cause was Tariq al-Fadli, son of the sultan who ruled the Fadli sultanate in part of what is today the Abyan province during the British era. As a former jihadi in Afghanistan, Tariq al-Fadli had advocated the establishment of an Islamic state in the Arabian Peninsula, and violently opposed the YSP, but he says his old mission is in the past. All these forces stand united in opposition to Salih’s government though not all are in favor of secession. While al-Bid, al-Asnag and al-Fadli support separation, ‘Ali Nasir, al-Jifri and al-‘Attas are either non-committal or favor a federation. The coming together of bitter foes, across the ideological spectrum, speaks both to the urgency with which the southern cause is felt and to the absurdity of conflating al-Harak with al-Qaeda.

The Southern Movement

In any case, the popular movement in the south is much larger and more diffuse than the councils of politicos. It is built on the idea of fairly autonomous local units, each of whose leaders arises organically. As one Adeni man with roots in Abyan said, “It is a snake with a thousand heads. The authorities cannot stop it, as when local leaders are detained or go undercover, new ones replace them. It is the strength of the movement that it does not have a national leadership that can be liquidated.” Many of the local cadres are youth, and the signature tools of al-Harak are new communication technologies and social media such as text messaging, Facebook and independent websites that the government has not been able to close down. To keep up weekly demonstrations amidst the army sieges and road closures, activists are flexible about the location of rallies, which they schedule by text message on short notice. This “just-in-time” production of protest is possible because the rallies are local and the demonstrators all live in the vicinity. To obtain information on airstrikes in blocked-off areas, some of which the government claims are home to “al-Qaeda camps,” young Internet wizards devise means of circumventing state-censored servers and gaining access to foreign-based websites.

The situation in the southern provinces has started to resemble the independence struggle of the 1950s and 1960s. As the British did then, the Yemeni regime faces its fiercest resistance in Radfan and al-Yafa‘. As an old-guard women’s activist says she told a dismissive northern official, “Do not think we cannot throw you out of our country. We did that to the British, who had a much bigger army than you do.”

Most al-Harak activists want to establish an independent state and cancel the unification accord. After independence is reclaimed, it will be up to the political forces to agree on what kind of state the south will be. In January the Yemeni Center for Civil Rights found in a poll that 70 percent of southern Yemenis are in favor of secession. However precise this number is, the proportion of southerners who back secession has certainly grown rapidly, as state violence and suppression of press freedom have escalated.

Yet there are two vital social strata that prefer federation with the north with regional autonomy, even as they support the rallying cries of al-Harak — the rule of law, transparency and respect for human rights. These two groups are, first, Yemenis of northern origin and, second, old-guard urban intellectuals and activists, the men and women who fought for independence from British colonial power. Even without the opposition of the mighty northern tribes, who would never countenance the loss of the south and its natural resources, secession will be hard to achieve as long as these groups of southerners back a federal solution. As for the surviving cadre of the YSP, they voice vague support for al-Harak’s goals while continuing to play politics in the capital, through the dialogue between the ruling GPC and the opposition Joint Meeting Parties coalition, which encompasses the southern socialists as well as the religious conservative Islah party.

It is easy to understand why people with roots in the north oppose secession. To them, the vision of a border that would once again separate families is anathema. But they also fear that northerners would be persecuted in a rejuvenated southern state. In modern Yemeni history, roots and origins have been sources of social division in times of crisis and instability. Today’s divisions take colloquial form in the suggestion by northerners that all southerners are “Somalis and Indians,” a reference to the centuries of migration and commerce between Aden and those countries. Southerners, meanwhile, are apt to deride northerners as mutakhallifin (country bumpkins) or dahbashin, a pejorative taken from a popular TV series. Amidst southerners’ anger over property issues, northern shop owners have been harassed and urged to leave the south while they can.

Why do the old-guard freedom fighters support federation with the north rather than a sovereign state? One reason is that al-Harak lacks a manifesto or a central committee, elements that have characterized political movements in this part of the world. As an Adeni male intellectual stated, al-Harak cannot be trusted to bring change since it has no single political program and its leaders are self-nominated. Local al-Harak leaders, particularly Tariq al-Fadli, arouse suspicions among the secular-minded urban elite, who consider him, at the least, a turncoat. Some al-Harak figures have built nationwide support by penning columns in opposition newspapers; one was the Aden-born Ahmad ‘Umar, but he was jailed and then forced to leave the country for Germany. In addition, reports of violence have been coming from areas blocked off by the army and from rallies that security forces disrupt, casting doubt upon the movement’s peaceful nature. But non-violent actions, like road blockages and strikes, are viewed with equal disdain by the old guard, who search in vain for the hierarchical, tightly organized cells of 1960s revolutionary movements.

Women’s rights activists are also suspicious of al-Harak, particularly of those elements that endorse the idea of secession. Over the last 20 years in unified Yemen, women’s issues have been pushed to the margins, and activists are able to raise them only with the aid of a handful of sympathetic male politicians. In both the north and the south, these male politicians happen to be skeptical of secession. Still, women’s groups are following events closely and could switch horses. Al-Harak has a small women’s section unaffiliated with the mainline movement, the Yemeni Women’s Union, which has its roots in the late colonial period.

Three years into the southern uprising, the regime in Sanaa has learned its lessons about how to disseminate its version of the truth. The offices of al-Ayyam, the premier press outlet for movement sympathizers, have been shuttered. Army blockades ensure that little detailed reporting of any sort leaaks out of the south. Government officials in southern provinces are regularly briefed in mass meetings to keep them on message, which the state also propagates via “independent” newspapers with more or less open links to the security apparatus. Foreign reporters, meanwhile, are gulled by seemingly firsthand information about al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which since the failed underwear bombing in Detroit on December 25, 2009, has been easy to sell as the “number one threat in Yemen.” Part of regime propaganda tactics is to hint that al-Bid and other southern leaders are in cahoots with al-Qaeda or — through the Houthi rebels in Yemen’s northern highlands — Hizballah and Iran. These insinuations find a ready audience in the United States, in particular, and military aid continues to flow to Sanaa. The regime’s manipulation of Western fears of al-Qaeda angers southerners, who know the US-made weaponry is deployed against them, as well as the Houthis.

Privatization Gone Bad

While all of Yemen is rife with poverty and unemployment, the south is its own case. To start with, southerners are less inured to the corruption and nepotism of the Salih regime than their northern brethren, who have endured it for an additional two decades. During the long years of colonial rule — the British kept Aden for 130 years — there were many crises of governance, but official corruption was not one of them. When the south was an independent state, there was likewise no pocketing of public funds. Though the state was cash-strapped, the political elite did not live upon state funds and so the budget more or less corresponded to the real national accounts.

After unification, and more intensively after the 1994 civil war, the Salih regime introduced a patronage system whereby political loyalty was bought with deeds to lucrative land, concessions to start businesses, houses, jeeps and expensive consumer goods. Such largesse was bestowed upon state functionaries who were willing to join the GPC. While in the north these privileges have been enshrined by dint of practice as an entitlement of government service, however much ordinary northerners may object, in the south there is a stronger taboo against using the state treasury as a milking cow. In meetings with foreign donors, Yemeni officials rebuff criticism by saying that what outsiders (and southerners) view as corruption is needed to unify the country and incorporate southerners into the system prevalent in the north.

In the 1990s, like developing countries around the world, Yemen embarked upon the privatization of its public-sector industries and agricultural ventures, as recommended by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. While neither the north nor the south was a worker’s paradise before unification, privatization was more haphazard in the south and social dislocation was more severe. Aggressive privatization started after 1994 civil war. Machinery and raw materials were looted in the chaos that followed the arrival of northern troops in Aden and other cities. In Aden, most industrial enterprises were closed down because looting had left them unable to function and the employees, most of them women, were sent home with a state pension. The factories were then put up for sale. Some of them were simply turned into real estate, affording investors access to huge tracts of land. In actual terms, therefore, privatization meant idling Adeni industries and freeing up market share for producers located in the northern industrial zones of Ta‘izz, Hudayda and Sanaa. After a few years, former factory workers in the south lost their pensions and joined the swelling ranks of the unemployed.

There were also several well-connected northerners who showed up in the south after 1994 bearing forged deeds to property. In rural areas, privatization of state farms and cooperatives meant that lands were simply given to members of the northern elite. The workers were left entirely without income. These desperate people and their teenaged children form the backbone of the southern movement in the countryside.

Too Much, Too Soon

The southerners’ grievances are mostly political and economic in nature, but cultural and religious concerns have also come to the fore. According to common sentiments in the south, northern ways of life have been imposed upon the south by the government, pushing the south 100 years back in time. Tribal customs like child marriages and summary executions are two examples that southerners cite; the official patronage system is another. The idea that the Salih regime is tribal and “backward” is one that many northerners share. As one human rights activist from the northern town of Ta‘izz explained his support for al-Harak, “First the tribal-based rulers of Sanaa destroyed all initiative and marginalized Ta‘izz; now they are doing the same in the south.”

These alleged cultural differences have increasingly been linked in the popular consciousness to religion. After the 1994 war, the conservative Islah party took over the reins of southern governorates and launched a “re-Islamization” campaign. [6] The campaign has mostly been unsuccessful. When Islamists headed by the ill-reputed Islah leader ‘Abd al-Majid al-Zindani proposed a Saudi-type morality police for Yemeni streets, for example, the government was quick to refuse it any authority. Still, the mere attempt at establishing such a religious watchdog stirred Yemeni Women’s Union leaders to say it “undermined women and the fundamental role they play in building Yemeni society.” [7] The era of unification has coincided with the tide of religious conservatism that has swept over every country in the Middle East. Almost all Yemeni women, for example, have donned cloaks and headscarves, and an increasing number wear the niqab, the full-face veil that leaves only the eyes visible. Hardline religious schools have proliferated. In earlier times, these phenomena were certainly present, but they were not criticized in the same terms. Today many men say the niqab is too much. As one male government official explained, “If this is religion, I don’t want it.” Southerners often claim that northerners have a shallow, materialistic view of modernity, rushing to buy the latest model of sports utility vehicle but failing to send their daughters to university.

Modernity, in general, is something that southerners associate with themselves and their region’s history of European colonization, nationalist rebellion and Marxist-inspired governance. Many southerners would agree with the view of a YSP official in 1982: that unity with the “backward” north will be possible only when the latter develops to the level of the south. Today the YSP’s official stance is much softer, of course. In March, the party endorsed the Vision for National Salvation, the opposition’s program for a democratic system of federal autonomy, drafted by the Preparatory Committee for National Dialogue on which the YSP sits. This document has not won widespread support in the south, as many perceive that full unification is premature.

Today more and more families in the south tune in to Aden TV, the satellite channel that broadcasts live from London. Aden TV shows footage of present-day demonstrations, as well as newsreels from the good old days of southern independence, inviting viewers to sing along with the popular entertainer ‘Abboud Khawaja’s ode to al-Harak. “People of the south, be ready — this is the revolution of the old and the young.” [8] While the opposition parties quarrel with the regime over elections and Salih threatens to make southerners “drink from the sea,” the younger generation longs for a fair political system and a sound economy. They will not, it seems, be patient forever. As in the 1960s, when there was no going back to kinder and gentler colonial rule, and hasty attempts to allow locals entry into administration came too late, the time for restructuring unified Yemen into a more equitable system has passed in the minds of these young people. They are eager to take their lands into their own hands.


[1] For background, see Franck Mermier, “Yémen: la menace du séparatisme au Sud,” EchoGéo, June 15, 2008; and Susanne Dahlgren, “The Southern Movement in Yemen,” ISIM Review 22 (Autumn 2008), pp. 50–51.
[2] See Sheila Carapico, “The Economic Dimension of Yemeni Unity,” Middle East Report 184 (September-October 1993).
[3] Abdul Rahman al-Jifri, “Yemeni Unification: Crisis and Solutions,” in E. G. H. Joffé, M. J. Hachemi and E. W. Watkins, eds., Yemen Today: Crisis and Solutions (London: Caravel Press, 1997), p. 186.
[4] See Sheila Carapico, “From Ballot Box to Battlefield: The War of the Two ‘Alis,” Middle East Report 190 (September-October 1994).
[5] For background on the various southern factions, see Fred Halliday, Arabia Without Sultans (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974); Fred Halliday, “Yemen’s Unfinished Revolution: Socialism in the South,” MERIP Reports 81 (October 1979); and Joe Stork, “Socialist Revolution in Arabia: A Report from the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen,” MERIP Reports 15 (March 1973).
[6] See Susanne Dahlgren, Contesting Realities: Morality and the Public Sphere in Southern Yemen (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, forthcoming).
[7] Adnkronos International, July 18, 2008.
[8] The video for the song is available online at:

How to cite this article:

Susanne Dahlgren "The Snake with a Thousand Heads," Middle East Report 256 (Fall 2010).

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