“Our revolution is the South Arabian revolution,” shouted five or six men at a march in Crater, a district of Aden, on March 20, 2014. The mass of demonstrators answered in unison: “Get out, get out, o colonial power!” The call-and-response pattern continued: “Our revolution is the South Arabian revolution.” “Against the power of the tyrants.” The stanza concluded with the chant leaders prompting, “No unity, no federalism,” and the crowd again thundering, “Get out, get out, o colonial power!”
It was a protest mounted by the Southern Movement, or hirak, whose activists hail from the full spectrum of southern Yemeni society. In 2007, former soldiers, students, state employees and unemployed youth took to the streets of Aden and other towns to demand an end to the marginalization of the south at the hands of the central government in Sanaa since unification of the north and south in 1990. The “southern cause” (al-qadiya al-janubiyya), as southerners call their collective grievances, came to be felt keenly 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. After the government’s security forces beat back the first protests, the hirak began to sharpen and harden its objectives. It now calls for the complete independence of the territory of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) from Sanaa. The “southern cause” has become the “South Arabian revolution.”
Slogans are mirrors of a movement’s values and claims. In the Southern Movement’s rhetoric, the territory of the former PDRY is “occupied” by (northern) Yemenis. The term “colonial power” (isti‘mar) refers to southerners’ perception of northern domination, compares Sanaa’s control to British rule and evokes the independence struggle of the 1960s.
Moreover, the denunciations of “colonial power” reflect southerners’ rejection of the shape of the political transition in Yemen that began at the close of 2011. Facing popular uprisings and armed rebellions, former long-term president ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih was compelled to resign from office as a result of an initiative by the Gulf Cooperation Council, made up of Saudi Arabia and the other monarchies in the Arabian Peninsula. One key outcome of the National Dialogue Conference that followed Salih’s resignation was the decision to reorganize Yemen into six federal regions, two of which are to divide the south. The hiraki leadership refused to participate in the conference because the Sanaa elites and their international partners did not recognize the right to self-determination for the south.
On the afternoon of May 21, two months after rally in Crater, the Adeni quarter of Mu‘alla was the scene of a mass demonstration (milyuniyya) whose discourse was also revealing of the hirak’s determination to achieve independence. Mass demonstrations in the south normally take place on two consecutive days and bring together groups from inside and outside Aden. The occasion this time was the twentieth anniversary of the announcement of southern disengagement from the north before the 1994 war by ‘Ali Salim al-Bid, the Socialist party head under the PDRY who briefly served as vice president of unified Yemen. An intrinsic part of every rally is the fa‘aliyya, a celebration during which everyone in attendance has the opportunity to perform a song, recite a poem or deliver a speech from the stage. Demonstrators fill the short breaks between the different acts with chants.
Journalist Radfan al-Dabis of the Aden Live satellite channel headlined the May 21 event. “We swore by God,” he incanted into his microphone, “we swore.” The crowd of thousands of southerners gathered in Madram Street roared in response, “Sanaa cannot govern us!” The slogan makes explicit that the hirak considers Aden, the former capital of the PDRY, to be the center of legitimate power.
Next came a song whose refrain the protesters repeated over and over: “My country, my country is South Arabia / And the capital of the republic is Aden.” It was an old Yemeni anthem composed by Ayyoub Tarish but with a hiraki twist. The original chorus goes: “My country, my country is Yemen / I greet you, my homeland, in the course of time.” The rephrasing ties today’s movement to the southern Yemeni past. Before 1967, date of the PDRY’s independence, the territory was governed as the Federation of South Arabia (Aden and its hinterland) and the Protectorate of South Arabia (eastern part of southern Yemen) by the British and local sultans and sheikhs, respectively. The revised refrain refers simply to “the south” (al-janub), the popular abbreviation for al-janub al-‘arabi, or South Arabia. Any reference to Yemen is pointedly omitted.
After a woman gave a speech, the May 21 protesters launched into another set of rhyming slogans: “State of South Arabia / Free it, o struggler / I want our territory / And nothing nugatory (dawlat al-janub / harrarha ya munadil / bafani ardna / ma bafani shay’ batil).” “Territory” or “land” is a central theme in the Southern Movement’s rhetoric and in local newspapers. After unification in 1990, the command economy of the avowedly Marxist PDRY was liberalized. An investment law opened the country to foreign capital, and the September Directive of 1991 enabled the sale of land had been nationalized in the PDRY’s early days. In the ensuing decade, there was a rush on the former state land. Functionaries in the state bureaucracy and army officers took immense kickbacks from the sales and expropriated some of the estates themselves.  Southern feelings about the land grab are still raw.
The protesters on May 21 went on to applaud a pro-independence pop song, and then a brass band in PDRY marine uniform provided the soundtrack for a march of women up and down Madram Street. Again, the women sang, “My country, my country is South Arabia / And the capital of the republic is Aden.” After several repetitions, the crowd chanted in rhythm, “Get out (irhal), get out, get out of Aden, get out of Aden.” The target of their ire was clear — northern Yemenis who work in trade or study at the university. Many southerners see it as an affront that they have to compete with northerners for places at the institution of higher education or in the civil service — a competition in which they often lose out.
To the accompaniment of the brass band, young men cried out, “With spirit and blood, we devote ourselves to you, o South Arabia.” It was another resonance with the past — or, more precisely, today’s reinterpretation of the past. In the days of the PDRY, southern children chanted this classic Arab political slogan in school, but to dedicate themselves to Yemen, not the south. The refashioned slogan draws a clear distinction between southerners and northern Yemenis. The “South Arabian identity” is constructed from remembered experiences of life under the PDRY. In the memories of the older generations, and the nostalgia they pass down to the young, southern identity stands for modernity and cosmopolitanism, whereas “Yemeni identity” is seen as backward, tribal and corrupt. Many southerners think of the PDRY as a secure, well-functioning civil state that supplied jobs, education and health care to all. They believe that northerners, by contrast, are unable to build a civil state — hence the failure of the National Dialogue.
At first, the women who had been marching urged on the male youths: “Advance, o men, advance, advance, advance.” After a while, though, the women joined in the men’s devotion of themselves “to you, o South Arabia.”
The next chant on the agenda again rebuked the government in Sanaa. “O South Arabian, raise your voice! Independence or death!” The protesters here expressed the depth of southern distaste for northern rule. They also played on a saying of ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih, “Unity or death,” which he had inserted in speeches and emblazoned on placards in Aden’s streets to convey to southerners that any attempt at independence would fail. As this chant resounded, the marching women returned to their seats.
The May 21 milyuniyya finished with another sequence of call and response. “Raise your head,” television anchor al-Dabis exhorted the throngs of southerners, who answered him, “You are a free South Arabian.” This hiraki adaptation of an iconic holler from the Egyptian uprising of 2011 — “Raise your head, you are Egyptian”—can also be found scrawled on walls all over Aden.
The rallies of the hirak have the dual function of displaying the breadth of dissent to the regime in Sanaa and informing the outside world about the “southern cause.” The anti-northern stance is obvious. But the protests also have a large impact internal to the Southern Movement, particularly via the PDRY slogans that have been reinterpreted for the exigencies of today. The slogans contribute to the formation of identity and collective memory among hirak activists — and can even constitute instruments of collective power.
The protesters in Aden’s streets are mostly underprivileged — aging southerners who lost their jobs after 1994 or youths who have never been able to find a job at all. Many of the activists lead individual lives of quiet frustration, even desperation, but chanting and marching to music they turn their airing of grievances into a loud, whooping celebration. Together, they can be heard from afar.
Image: Umm al-Hirak at an Aden fa‘aliyya on April 26, 2014 held to commemorate the beginning of the 1994 war. (Anne-Linda Amira Augustin)