(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Protests threaten stability

Protesters raising separatist flags in the southern Dhalea governorate
Adel Yahya/IRIN

A wave of protests in cities throughout Yemen earlier this month is prompting concerns that if the government does not react appropriately, the country’s stability and unity could be at risk.

 

Demonstrations by the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), an opposition alliance of six major parties, in several cities in the south and north, including the capital Sanaa and Taiz, were held on 15 April to pressure the government to release hundreds of detained activists of the Southern Movement (SM), which among other things is demanding independence for the regions of former South Yemen.



Tens of thousands of people, including senior SM leaders, participated in the protests, which also affected hitherto relatively quiet eastern provinces like Hadhramaut.



"These opposition parties resorted to fuelling violence after they failed to gain power by legal means [elections]," said President Ali Abdullah Saleh on 16 April.



According to an official report submitted to parliament on 17 April, some 18 people were killed and another 120 injured in violent protests in the first three months of 2010.



Deputy Interior Minister Saleh al-Zawari said the southern governorates had seen 245 protests (many of which had turned violent), 87 bomb blasts and 124 acts of looting and robbery in March 2010 alone.



“Ten policemen were killed and another 48 injured in the same period,” he said. “In Dhalea Governorate, there were 35 protests and 47 blasts, killing four people and injuring another 37.”



Aidarous al-Naqeeb, a member of parliament from the opposition Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP), told IRIN up to 150 protesters had been killed and more than 500 injured since the SM emerged in 2006.



“The government responds violently to protesters’ demands. It tars with the same brush peaceful protesters and al-Qaeda members in the south in order to justify attacks on the former,” al-Naqeeb said.



Depicting SM as an al-Qaeda ally would be counter-productive, he said, adding: “The authorities are ignoring the fact that SM activists are among hundreds of thousands of citizens protesting against poor living standards and marginalization."



Carnegie Endowment report



A March 2010 report by the Carnegie Endowment entitled The Political Challenge of Yemen’s Southern Movement said the SM was undergoing a radical transformation threatening the country’s stability, but that a military campaign against it would only further inflame its supporters and increase support for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.



What was needed was a political solution addressing unresolved problems dating from unification in the early 1990s, the report said.



The primary problem in the south is not links between al-Qaeda and the SM, but unrest fuelled by widespread opposition to the government and the perception of economic exploitation by the military and security forces, according to the report.



Grievances



People in the south, home to most of Yemen's oil, have long complained that northerners abused a 1990 agreement to grab resources and discriminate against them.



“We are treated by the Sanaa-based government as second-class citizens,” said Ahmad Harmal, a citizen from the southern governorate of Lahj. “The authorities took everything, including our land, jobs and natural resources.”



South Yemen became an independent state after the end of British rule in 1967. It was united with the north in 1990, but southerners tried to secede in 1994, sparking a short-lived civil war that the north won.



SM leaders say the central government has deliberately starved southern governorates of public funds for schools, hospitals and roads.



“Revenues from natural resources in the south go mainly to powerful tribal leaders in the north, and to development projects in their area,” Tariq al-Fadhli, a senior SM leader in the southern governorate of Abyan, told IRIN.



Armed insurgency?




Some local analysts say SM is gaining momentum fast. As the protests mount, the government response becomes more violent, forcing separatist leaders to think about armed insurgency, they say.



“What is happening in the southern governorates is an effect not a cause, and the government’s fault is that it doesn’t attempt to diagnose the real causes of the phenomenon,” Saleh Sumai, a law professor at Sanaa University, told IRIN.



Subai said the government should adopt fair policies, promote justice and equality, and reform its judicial system to avoid “disastrous consequences for the country”.



Intermittent fighting between Houthi-led Shia rebels and government forces in the north of the country since 2004, which has led to the deaths of hundreds and the displacement of tens of thousands, ended with a ceasefire deal on 13 February 2010.



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