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Dialogue and divisions in Yemen

Members of the southern movement (Hirak) raise the separatist flag of South Yemen Adel Yahya/IRIN

Nearly a year after a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-brokered deal set Yemen on a theoretical path towards political transition, the country remains deeply divided amid increasing poverty.

A Technical Committee, formed in July and charged with organizing the transition, includes all major groups, except Hirak (the Southern Movement), and is seen by many as neutral and legitimate. It has released a 20-point action plan, but so far not a single recommendation has been implemented.

The GCC deal stipulated national dialogue as the main way of moving forward. Delayed by two months, it is due to begin on 15 November.

Many are frustrated with the slow pace of reform. “The new Yemen is the same as the old Yemen. The same leaders who were in [Ali Abdullah] Saleh’s regime are still there, the only one who is gone is Saleh,” said journalist Nasser Arrabyee.

Nevertheless, the GCC agreement has helped to avoid civil war, Tim Petschulat, country director of German NGO the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Yemen, told IRIN - a fact that is often overlooked by many Yemenis who feel the revolution has been hijacked by elites.

Others feel the dialogue process is too opaque for ordinary Yeminis.

“It is perceived as being elitist,” Colette Fearon, country director of Oxfam Yemen, told IRIN. “The challenge is: How do you enable dialogue on all levels of society?”

Young people also feel marginalized. The transitional government only includes members of the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) and the General People’s Congress (GPC). Young people who started the revolution and who occupied squares with their protest camps, have been largely sidelined, which has led to resentment.

According to a September 2011 report by local think tank Domains Centre for Research and Studies, some 2,195 people were killed between February and August 2011 (the peak of the protests). Of these, 238 were young revolutionaries/protesters, 600 soldiers of pro- and anti-revolution units, and the remainder civilians/tribesmen supporting the youth uprising or opposing it.

Elections in February 2014?

A second stage of the transition process covering the next six months envisages agreements on nine topics such as public service reforms and protection of minorities; and a new constitution is supposed to be created ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections in February 2014 - a time-frame that might be unrealistic.

“I can’t see how this could be implemented till February 2014. The dialogue needs to deal with many fundamental topics,” said Petschulat. “If we want to see a genuine process led by Yemenis themselves, this timeframe will not work.”

It boils down to two possibilities: a real federal state or civil war

Another obstacle to dialogue is that many ordinary Yemenis are preoccupied with survival. With the economic situation worsening, many have exhausted their coping mechanisms.

According to the World Bank, poverty levels rose from 42 percent of the population in 2009 to 54.4 percent in 2012, with those in rural areas, women and 507,970 internally displaced persons, worst affected.

“People are struggling to survive and do not see the government responding to their basic needs. If they do not see the reforms trickling through, they are not going to feel that they are affected positively,” Fearon said.

Hadi’s fight with the army

Meanwhile, President Hadi is struggling to restructure the army and trust in his ability to implement the GCC agreement is waning.

He lacks a power base and is caught between two rival commanders - Ahmad Ali Saleh, son of the ex-president, and Gen Ali Mohsen. The former controls the Republican Guards and the latter the First Armoured Division.

Both commanders had hoped the GCC agreement would help reduce their rival’s military power. So far only the influence of the ex-president’s family has been reduced, something their supporters say proves that the revolution was nothing more than a plot led by Mohsen, writes the influential International Crisis Group.

“Either commander may trigger chaos if the dialogue doesn’t help him retain his post and influence,” said Rajeh al-Hasani, a military analyst from Abyan Governorate.

The relatively balanced composition of the 25-member Technical Committee shifted when Hadi appointed to it six more men (widely seen as supporters of al-Ahmar and Mohsen).

Furthermore, a recent government reshuffle saw Hadi appoint to leading positions people from his home district of Abyan, an ominous sign, say some.

Ex-president still pulling the strings?

Many analysts believe the ex-president is still very active in Yemeni politics, not least through his son.

JMP member parties are calling for the exclusion of the ex-president from politics (he is still president of the GPC), and the removal of his followers from key posts in the army. “Saleh was given immunity from prosecution to quit politics,” Sadiq al-Ahmar told IRIN.

One goal of the GCC agreement - the demilitarization of major cities - has only partly been achieved. Houses of influential leaders are still guarded by well-armed militias.

“Members of HTC [the pro-JMC Hashid Tribal Confederation] claim they are seeking a civil state, but their actions don’t imply this. Their houses in Sana’a are filled with weapons,” senior GPC member Ali Senan al-Gholi told IRIN.

Key players

General People’s Congress (GPC) - A political party led by the ex-president and backed by powerful tribal and military figures who served under him, as well as those who still hold key military and security posts.

Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) - A coalition of six major parties, backed by wealthy sheikh Hamid al-Ahmar; his senior brother Sadiq, who leads the Hashid Tribal Confederation (HTC); and Gen Ali Mohsen.

The Southern Movement (Hirak) - Hirak has been demanding separation since 2007 and a return to the pre-1990 independent state in the south.

Houthis - A Zaidi-Shiite rebel movement in the north which is fighting to reinstate the pre-1962 rule of a Zaidi Imam. Allegations have been made that the group is supported by Iran and lately by ex-president Saleh.

Two rival army commanders - Ahmad Ali Saleh, son of the ex-president, and Gen Ali Mohsen Saleh. The former controls the Republican Guards and the latter the First Armoured Division.


While the Shia Houthi rebels in the north might criticize what they see as US and Saudi meddling, they say they are willing to take part in the national dialogue.

The Houthi insurgency, which began in earnest in 2004, rumbles on in the north of the country. While some see the Houthis as part of a proxy war for regional influence between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Houthis themselves say they are merely fighting for a greater say in running their own affairs.

Sporadic clashes with Salafis (who view the Houthis as infidels) have taken place in the northern Amran, Hajjah and al-Jawf governorates.

The fighting has also led to huge displacement. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), as of September 2012 the conflict in the north has led to 323,992 people being displaced.

Houthi leaders criticize Hadi for allowing the US to interfere in Yemen’s domestic affairs. “How can we engage in a dialogue with the US ambassador present at the table? We will not participate in a dialogue supervised by America that kills Yemenis with their drones,” Dhaifullah al-Shami, a senior Houthi leader, told IRIN.

One analyst believes all groups in Yemen are primarily concerned about their own personal interests. “Their personal interests are the be-all and end-all,” said Abdurrahman al-Marwani chairman of local NGO Dar al-Salam Organization.

The Southern question

The Southern Movement (Hirak) is not taking part in the national dialogue.

With more than 70 percent of the country’s oil and gas resources in the south, many southerners feel the decision to merge the southern People's Democratic Republic of Yemen and the northern Yemen Arab Republic in 1991 was a mistake. There was a two-month civil war in 1994.

Activists and analysts in the south say increasing tensions in the south are due to intransigence on the part of leaders from the north. “How can we have dialogue with those who are still illegally grabbing our property?” Najla Abdulwasea, an activist in Aden, asked.

“Not everybody wants separation in the south. But people want an open dialogue without red lines. Hirak rejects the GCC agreement because of the preservation of `a united Yemen’ as the goal of national dialogue,” the Friedrich Ebert Foundation’s Petschulat told IRIN. “There is no trust that any government in Sana’a will ever do anything for the south.”

“These [northern] sheikhs haven’t changed their ways yet and are dragging the country into further division and fragmentation,” said Tareq al-Harwi, another activist in Aden.

Mohammed Bel-Ghaith, a professor of Law at Aden University, feels Hirak does not have a choice: “How can the southerners accept dialogue given this unfair treatment? People of the south have to boycott the dialogue and escalate their struggle until their rights are restored.”

Petschulat thinks that it would be rational, if Houthis, Hirak, Socialists and others built an alliance to push for a federal state with a strong parliament, to counter those who want to maintain central control: the GPC, which sees its most important political achievement - unity - in jeopardy; the Salafis who fear that it would be harder to lobby for a more powerful role of religion; and the Al-Ahmars whose influence would be restricted to their resource-poor homeland Amran.

“But so far, the leading narrative within Hirak is for separation,” Petschulat said. “Between insistence on a central state and the call for separation - a federal option seems to be the natural compromise, since the north is not likely to let the resource-rich south go, and since the international community has no love at all for southern independence. It boils down to two possibilities: a real federal state or civil war.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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