Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Huda al-‘Attas (b. 1973) is an activist for women’s rights, an author of short stories and a teacher of sociology at the University of Aden. Aden was the capital of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), which existed from 1970 to 1990 under the governance of the Yemeni Socialist Party. Al-‘Attas is deeply engaged in today’s peaceful fight for the independence of southern Yemen and the movement (or hirak) around the “southern cause.”The “southern cause” refers to resistance to the marginalization of southern Yemenis after the PDRY’s unification with North Yemen in 1990. Both the marginalization and the resistance intensified after the war between north and south in 1994, when southern factories were looted, land was stolen and southerners were forcibly retired from the civil service and the army. Al-‘Attas is from a well-known family in Hadhramawt, an eastern province, but has lived in Aden since the 1980s. Anne-Linda Amira Augustin met her in Aden and translated their interview from Arabic.

What was life like under the PDRY?

I lived a quarter of my life in the south before unification. Life was different indeed. We lived a normal life like the rest of the world.

In school we had gymnastics and sports — I was more skilled at table tennis than the boys. The schools were mixed, with boys and girls sitting in the same classes all the way through. Gender mingling was not an issue. There was no haram (prohibited) or ‘ayb (dishonor). We also had “cinema weeks” when the school took us to see films. [1]

Citizens could count on the state to provide education and training. There was order and we had our rights. Of course, there were also negative things such as limits on freedom of expression. Ideological and economic openness were missing. There were controversies concerning socialism, but citizens lived a stable, secure life. The regime provided welfare and the law was the same for everyone.

What changed after unification?

First, Islamists came from the north. Before anything was changed in the economic, security or military sectors, the northern regime changed our progressive family law. Then Islamists grabbed the Ministry of Education, resulting in the prohibition of gender mingling in schools and the abolition of subjects such as music and sports.

The first question for them was how to change the culture and the open-minded mentality in the south. The Yemeni Socialist Party was not the only reason for that mentality. It is a heritage going back to the 129 years of British colonial rule.

I believe that the cultural attack on the south was aggravated after 1994, when legions of Islamists came to the south. That was the first time that we saw men with full beards. Women involuntarily donned the veil and covered their faces. It was also the first time that we saw homeless people.

What are the main concerns of the “southern cause”?

The problem is that unification was a mistake. Unification did not emerge on an honest basis. From the first day on, the south was ruled by the north. Southerners understood from the beginning that unification was a mistake. There were many bad signs, such as the assassination of Socialist cadres, regressive amendments to laws, and enforcement of the northern mentality and culture. The war in 1994 cemented all these developments.

Some people believe that the “southern cause” could be resolved if enough jobs were created.

That should have happened right after unification or during the four years after the 1994 war. If the regime in Sanaa had done something about jobs then, maybe the situation would be better now.

More than 20 years later, however, we feel occupied and we feel that the south is being destroyed. The regime in Sanaa is demonstrating that it is unable to change in its tribal, military and religious mentality. Even the 2011 revolution of Change Square in Sanaa restored the same powers within the regime.

The problem now is not unity with the north. The problem is the power center in Sanaa, which will not be able to build a civil state (dawla madaniyya) in Yemen, not even in a hundred years. [2]

The hirak is the face of the South Arabian revolution, the liberatory and peaceful South Arabian revolution. We want the reestablishment of our territory and our state. The hirak demands independence. That is what revolution means. The hirak is also the work in revolutionary squares — marches, demonstrations and protests.

Is it possible that the hirak will become a political party?

The hirak is now a revolutionary element, which is why it is not possible to transform it into a party. It is a revolutionary element of the people. It is possible, when the southern state is reestablished, that various elements will become parties. But now we have one objective and that is the reestablishment of our state.

The hirak seems to be split in two. The first group wants immediate independence; the second would accept a federalism of two regions (north and south) with self-determination for the south as preparation for independence.

The hirak is the people’s revolution in the squares and streets. At all the protests, demonstrations and milyuniyyas the demand is liberation, independence and the reestablishment of the southern state with sovereignty in its territory. The Revolutionary Council and all the individual groups of the hirak have that objective. There is not a single milyuniyya that has called for federation!

What percentage of southerners would you estimate are for independence today?

90 percent.

What is position of the youth in the hirak?

Youth are the base of the South Arabian revolution, in the squares and in the streets. But there are also young people who are capable leaders and have political visions.

I often see pictures at demonstrations of ‘Ali Salim al-Bayd, the last PDRY president who served as vice president of unified Yemen until 1994. How much influence does he have in the hirak?

The people are not with ‘Ali Salim al-Bayd — that is for sure. The hirak emerged in 2007, two years before he joined it. People flash his picture at demonstrations because he shares their point of view as regards the liberation and independence of the south. He is the only politician of his prominence who is for liberation and independence.

The south needs new leaders. We are planning a conference of which I am the spokesperson. The conference will bring together all the major southern personalities, not only the revolutionary elements, but also tribal leaders, businesspeople, scholars from universities, women and youth. The result of this conference should be twofold: first, to unite the leadership, and second, to unify the southern vision.

When I speak to people from older generations, they refer to bringing back the old state, the PDRY. When I speak to young people, they speak more about a “new south.” What does this mean?

The old and the young mean the same thing. The older generation looks back with nostalgia at the old state, but not the old regime. Not al-Bayd or ‘Ali Nasir Muhammad or Haydar Abu Bakr al-‘Attas, and not the Yemeni Socialist Party those men once led. The elders in our society aspire to reestablish the old state in the sense of rule of law, honest administration and industrial development. The old state had value for them, because civil rights, education, health care and housing were guaranteed. There was a system and strict laws. The older generation, like the younger generation, wants a new state that pursues the same objectives with regard to human dignity, rights, safety, and economic and political stability.

The younger generation uses the Internet. They want a state that is open to the world and not closed off like the PDRY.

But in the end the old and the young call for the same thing and that is a sovereign southern state.

Since December 20, 2013, the satellite network Aden Live has spoken of a “people’s uprising.” Could you tell me more about it?

In Hadhramawt there is a people’s uprising under the leadership of the Hadhrami tribal confederacy. It is impossible to envision that Hadhramawt will ever return to the fold of the Yemeni state. Hadhramawt knows its way now.

In al-Dhali‘, a province north of Aden, there was a brutal attack, a criminal assault by the occupation regime, a war by the state against its citizens. Southerners began to defend themselves. But the weapons of ordinary citizens cannot compete with the warplanes and tanks of the regime.

The Yemeni regime is waging systematic war against the south, and not only in Hadhramawt or in al-Dhali‘. The fighting in Abyan is part of it as well. Parts of the army acquiesce to the presence of al-Qaeda. Cells of al-Qaeda exist inside the army itself. High-ranking officers, like ‘Ali Muhsin, have ties to al-Qaeda. But this so-called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is artificial; it works with the Yemeni regime to construct the image that the south is full of terrorists and Islamists.

What about the quest in Hadhramawt to secede from the south?

These voices that call for Hadhramawt’s independence are few and are supported by certain groups in Sanaa. All elements of the southern revolution are united that the southern state will be a federal one. Hadhramawt is a part of South Arabia. And South Arabia is a part of Hadhramawt. It is impossible to separate Hadhramawt from the south or the south from Hadhramawt. Culturally, Hadhramawt is represented in the entire south. In all southern provinces you can find Hadhramis, but not in the north. There are no Hadhramis in Dhamar, but there are Hadhramis in Abyan, in Yafa, in Shabwa. Hence, the unity of the southern territory is the unity of identity.

The National Dialogue Conference is over. The government is working to implement the outcome, which stipulates that Yemen be divided into six federal regions, four in the north and two in the south. Will federalism be implemented in the south?

The National Dialogue failed. The south rejects the federalism that the conference called for. We believe that it will lead to a cul-de-sac.

Is the north stable and safe? Is the north able to build a state, of any structure, whether a simple centralized state or a complex state with federal regions? The north is not able to do that.

It is a big problem for the south. We have to deal with the outcome of the Dialogue, although we did not participate in it. But we reject that someone should dictate anything to us. We will resist the forced implementation of the Dialogue’s federalism, which does not serve the south and has no popular base here.

As for the international community, it is not contributing to a solution to the “southern cause,” but to attempts to dislodge it.

What is the solution?

The international community has to understand that our region here has strategic significance. They should not look at the south in a superficial way. The region will not be stable if demands for liberation and independence of the southern people are not fulfilled. The outcome of the Dialogue is a solution for those who want to return to unity, but not to the fundamental problems. The international community views the “southern cause” as an internal Yemeni affair, like the Houthi issue. The international community does not pay attention to us.

It seems that the level of repression of the hirak is now higher.

The brutal, criminal crackdown on southerners is itself an outcome of the National Dialogue. The Yemeni regime thinks it now has a license to kill southerners, to attack and imprison them without repercussions.

They have the support of the international community, in fact. Since the end of the National Dialogue and the passage of UN Security Council 2140, the resolution that welcomed its conclusion, the attacks on southerners have increased in frequency and brutality. The regime has started to attack women, like hirak activist Zahra Salih. [3] Every day we hear about a new explosion, an attack on an activist or a targeted killing. It is all part of an attempt to suppress the demands of the southern people.

Will the hirak espouse violence?

Our revolution will remain a peaceful revolution. But it is impossible for us to accept the daily killings by the Sanaa regime without a response.

Endnotes

[1] “Cinema weeks” took place quarterly. In towns, the students went to theaters; in villages, the films were shown in schoolhouses.
[2] Yemenis, in both north and south, use the term “civil state” to refer to a state based on transparency and the rule of law.
[3] Traveling in a bus in Aden on April 3, 2014, Zahra Salih ‘Abdallah was attacked by masked men with grenades. Zahra suffered severe injuries to her legs.

Image: Huda al-‘Attas (Anne-Linda Amira Augustin).

How to cite this article:

Anne-Linda Amira Augustin "An Interview with Huda al-‘Attas," Middle East Report Online, May 15, 2014.
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