"Let nothing human be alien to me"- Terence

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

We Now Return To Semi-Regular, Haphazardly-Scheduled Blogging

Nervous times in Yemen.  This Saturday, the 22nd, is the 20th anniversary of unity, a difficult, shambling, often-bloody and perhaps terminally-failed experiment.  As anyone following Yemen knows, the south (a political term which also encapsulates much of the eastern portion of the country) has been in a steadily-rising revolt against what they see as essentially a military, cultural and economic occupation by the north.   The revolt has increasingly gotten more and more violent, concurrent with but not proportional to the crackdown by President Salih.  Of the "three revolutions" in Yemen- the south, the Huthi rebellion, and the threat of al-Qaeda- the secession movement is probably the least-covered but most important.   The bulk of oil and gas reserves are in the south, and as we've seen with nearly every separation or divorce in history, the rump countries left over rarely manage to be stable or peaceful.  The loss of revenue would be a death-blow to the Salih regime (not to mention the final nail in the coffin of his credibility).  And, my guess anyway, the fervor which unites revolutionaries is generally just a mask for internal divisions which bubble bloodily to the surface once power is gained and has to be divided.   I doubt the south could make it for very long.  I realize that such a statement is in line with Salih's propaganda, but a statement is not false simply for coming from a distasteful mouth.   

Anyway, this Saturday is Unity Day, and not just any Unity Day, but the 20th Anniversary.  In theory, of course, this is no more significant than the 19th or the 23rd, and unity is no more or less certain on Saturday than it would be on Friday or Sunday.  But symbolism is important in politics, especially the immediate life-and-death politics that Yemen is facing.   It seems a near-certainty that both sides will be using the date to push their storyline- for Salih, the tenuous but undeniable success of a unified Yemen; for the southerners it will be a story of irreconcilable differences and failure. 

In light of that, this is an interesting story: Salih has predictably released 19 separatists from jail.  This is a normal move in a quasi-authoritarian state, especially one in which power is personified.  The move is to show reconciliation and brotherhood, a patching-over of differences.   This is something which usually has some success- even if no one believes in the purity of motive, it shows a willingness to step back from the breach.  This obviously isn't the first time Salih has released Southerners, or anyone- imprisonment and release is a normal part of Yemeni politics- but it will be interesting to see the level of symbolic gestures we see in the next five days, and how they will be received or reciprocated.  While not a flawless augur, they might help us see the outlines of the near-future.

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