"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

South Words*

As we all know, and as I feel I have said about 1100 times in the last two and a half months, Yemen has just recently been thrust into to global limelight.  It is slipping a bit, but will be a number 3 or 4 story for the near future, and probably beyond that.  Something is going to explode somewhere, and there will be a rash of stories again. I hope that isn't the case, but were I a gambling man- and I am- I would bet on it.

So, for people new to Yemen, I think the sudden uptick of news about a southern rebellion is strange and even mystifying- why now?  Is this new?   How important is this?

The answer to the last question the hypothetical reader asked is: very.  Greg and I have argued for a long time that the Southern Movement represents the most critical of the "three rebellions", and the one with the most potential to split Yemen apart.  This would be a disaster, because I agree with President Salih that you wouldn't have a new and unified state in the south- I think it would be chaotic and largely uncontrollable.  What Salih doesn't mention is that the same thing would happen to the north, suddenly deprived of the income of the south.  Meager as that may be, the oil, gas and shipping revenue is basically the bulk of the economy.

But is this a new development?  Yes and no.  The movement has been brewing for years- really since the civil war of 1994, in which the north and their jihadi shock troopers were victorious and ran roughshod, taking property and force-feeding their ideology.  Military pensions were withheld, and it became incredibly difficult for southern soldiers to advance in rank (one of the few channels Yemen has for social mobility).  The north essentially colonized the south, and while they were "one people", the bitterness of the colonized festered.  While the socialism of the 70s and 80s brought economic troubles and political violence, it also put a lid on dangerous tribalism and ushered in high literacy and women's rights.  These have been replaced by Islamism. 

The movement coalesced in 2007, and its calls for equal rights and an end to economic oppression changed, in the face of an intransigent Salih, into a call for secession.  I don't feel that the cat can be put back into the bag on this. 

Salih is not helping.  I fear that he is trying to replicate his recent military victory in the north.  It isn't a long-term victory, but his goal was to destroy the Huthis militarily so he could deal with his other issues.  And now that they are broken, attention is turning to the south, and there is more and more violence in both his crackdowns and his rhetoric.  My guess is that Salih thinks he can break the movement, and then deal with al-Qaeda and the structural issues, as well as groom his son to secede him.

That would be wrong, though.  The Huthis are small potatoes compared to the Southern Movement.  One of the biggest problems is that Salih is dependent on the west for aid.  We were ok letting him finish up Scorched Earth as long as he promised to make things better in the future.  But there is no way the west would allow him to pummel the Southern movement.  The contradictions would be hideous: we support Salih because he is helping defeat our enemies (radical Muslims), but we will let him kill those who are trying to shake off the shackles of radical Islam and institute democracy and women's rights (according to their rhetoric).

I am not naive- US foreign policy has always involved duplicity, a disconnect between rhetoric and reality.  But I really don't think that the population has the stomach for giving aid to a "dictator" who is using it to break a democratic revolution.   To end this thing relatively peacefully, Salih needs to be willing to grant incredible amounts of autonomy to the South, and they have to agree to still pay tribute to the capital (so that the state doesn't fall apart).  There are no easy solutions- it will take nuance and a subtle hand to pull this off.   Unfortunately, it will also take speed.  Things are moving quickly, unraveling as we watch.  

It is easy to wonder if it only seems like events are speeding out of control because we just started watching.  That isn't the case.  But I do think, with a sickening feeling, that US involvement might be affecting this- the watchers changing the subject.  We can't give Salih the impression of a free hand.  Stopping Nasir al-Wuhayshi now won't mean anything if in doing so we hasten Yemen's dissolution.

*If anyone happened to go to Maine South High School, and remembers the school paper, this title is golden.  Trust me.

1 comment:

  1. I was wondering if that was what the * was for! Such humble beginnings....