"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Sunday, February 28, 2010

In the South

Robert Worth continues his work on Yemen in a Times article about the Southern Movement. (h/t: Wilken C) I think this is an important article, because as I've argued here and other places, I think the Southern Movement is potentially the most dangerous of all the three rebellions, with the best chance of tearing Yemen apart.  But the relatively minimal amounts of violence heretofore associated with it have relegated the Movement to a sidestage, mentioned with an off-handed shrug after al-Qaeda and the Huthi rebellion.

(A note: I am going to be saying "the south" and "the movement" here, but it is far more diverse and less unified than this might imply.  Also, geographically, "the south" is also the east, but I will use the political shorthand.)

I think Worth does an excellent job of painting the mood of the south, of how the movement went from a call for more economic rights and less oppression to an open secession movement.  I don't think that this was inevitable, but the ham-fisted reaction of the government, treating the south and is leaders with the same violent disregard as they did to the Huthi movement, reinforced their own loose caricature and helped to unify the opposition.

The article also does a good job of presenting the perhaps-misleading nostalgia for all things pre-unification, both British and socialist rule.  I think given the degradations and depredations of life after 1994, this is understandable, but also a bit dangerous.  I think President Salih has a point when he says that there won't be one southern state is secession succeeds, but a million little ones.  This is hyperbole, but it also might be accurate.  The Southern Movement is not terribly centralized, and is relying more on emotion right now.  I wonder if can actually coalesce around the opportunistic Tareq al-Fahdli.

But even if it does manage to centralize around him, or any other leader, it isn't as if South Arabia was a perfect place.  I have enormous sympathy for the movement, and even weirdly share in their nostalgia.  I am not a fan of socialism, but in other things that I do care about, like literacy and women's rights, the south was light-years ahead of the north, which has sense imposed both aesthetically and morally a kind of gray northern realism.    It is exciting to think that they might be able to be freed from that.

I fear, though, that it wouldn't work.  A new state would be difficult to manage, and given the north's clumsy and capricious rule, I don't know if the south could revive its economic engines.  The birth of a new state is always met with some chaos, and oil companies would be leery (though also cautiously excited).  The biggest danger of course is that while a state is forming its police and army, terrorist groups would have much more space, which would make the valuable port of Aden an insurers nightmare again.  Any of this can deliver a state stillborn.

As a solution, and one with which I agree (and have an article coming out about), Worth offers this paragraph.

For that reason, some in the south say, the best solution is not secession, but a political accommodation in which the north agrees to address some of the movement’s main grievances about land expropriation and job discrimination. Many also say that moving away from Yemen’s highly centralized system of government and granting the provinces more power to govern themselves would ease tensions.

That isn't easy, but it is the best solution.  San'a cannot afford the south to go.  Aden and the oil-and-gas fields provide far too much money.  Any secession movement will be met with violence.  It will take subtle pressuring from the Friends of Yemen to get it to work, but leaning too far on either side will be a disaster.  There is zero trust between the sides right now, and a loose autonomy might be the only chance to rebuild that, even slightly.

 So, then, a brief anecdote to finish.  I don't like Aden simply because it was much, much easier to get a drink there than San'a, but I would be lying if I said that had nothing to do with it.  Beside the primal fact of "whiskey- awesome!" it implied a freedom that wasn't up north.  I know- different culture, etc, and it isn't impossible in San'a.  But there were bars in Aden, on the port, that seemed a haven from grim theologians.  Anyway, sitting on the port, sipping whiskey, huge rusty ships idling in the harbor, one seemed to be in a different world altogether, distant emotionally from San'a.   Then several girls walked in, full burqa, off the street.  Once inside, they proceeded to remove their Islamic coverings, and were wearing outfits that would be skimpy and flashy over here.  I believe my eyes popped out of my head like in a cartoon, and were I wearing a bowtie, it would have been spinning.  This is going to be insanely Friedman-esque, but there was something deeply symbolic there, something prefiguring the southern movement, which shocked with how quickly it spread.  I don't know if reconciliation is possible, but I don't think the burqa can ever fully be put back on.

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