A Poor People's Revolution

The Southern Movement Heads Toward Independence from Yemen

by Susanne Dahlgren
published in MER273

“This is no longer a movement,” said the young man whose Facebook name is Khaled Aden. “This is a revolution.”

Khaled, whose real name is Khalid al-Junaydi, is a leading activist in the hirak, or Southern Movement, which aims to restore independence to southern Yemen. I met him on a Saturday morning in April 2013 at a street corner in Crater, the old part of Aden, located inside an ancient volcano. Here the liberation front fought some of their fiercest battles against the British colonial forces in the mid-1960s, and here the hirak often confronts the security forces of the government in Sanaa. The parallels between the two struggles are so striking that Aden Live, a hiraki satellite channel based in Beirut, regularly airs a clip splicing images from the 1960s together with footage from today’s confrontations.

The hirak has declared Saturdays and Wednesdays the days of civil disobedience. Shops, schools and most government offices are closed. This Saturday was one of those days -- the security forces had entered Crater and young boys were mounting a challenge, unarmed but approaching the troops nonetheless. I came down to the street when I heard shots and smelled tear gas from my balcony facing the slopes of Mount Shamsan. Khaled Aden and his comrades were patrolling the streets in Crater in search of activists needing medical assistance. While taking photographs, I was tear-gassed; Khaled suggested taking me to a clinic to inhale oxygen.

Established in 2007 by southern army officers who were illegally dismissed after the 1994 civil war, the hirak has since been joined by unemployed youth and many others. Though suffering from problems of leadership, it has come to represent the “southern cause” (al-qadiya al-janubiyya) or the grievances of the southern people. [1] A Yemeni Center for Civil Rights poll in early 2010 found that the “southern cause” could boast the support of 70 percent of the southern population. According to academics at Aden University, that number is now more like 90 percent. It is impossible to verify these figures, but it is clear that disillusionment with Sanaa’s rule is widespread. Even those who do not wish for independence are highly critical of the corruption and misrule that southerners feel came with the 1990 unification with the north. The 90 percent number has deep historical resonance: When the British left Aden in 1967, they acknowledged that the people supported the anti-colonial struggle by such a margin. [2] The hirak is most visible in Aden, whose residents now call it the capital of South Arabia.

The aims of the hirak have developed both independently of and in reaction to the crises in Yemeni national politics. Government troops were shooting boys and young men dead from the outset of the demonstrations in the south. The state violence intensified when the uprising in Sanaa and other northern cities started in early February 2011. At first, southern youth activists were eager to make connections with their northern brothers and sisters trying to unseat President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih, but by the end of the spring the youth protests were overshadowed by elite infighting in the capital. Southerners were alienated by what they saw as mere power struggles between northerners. The turning point for Adeni activists came after a solidarity visit to the square where protests were taking place in the northern lowland city of Ta‘izz. According to one youth who went to Ta‘izz, northern activists were not interested in reciprocating with support for the struggle in the south. Khaled Aden and his comrades came to believe that they could get rid of structural discrimination only by breaking the link with Sanaa.

In late 2011 Salih was removed. Yemen entered a “transitional period” outlined in a plan sponsored by the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council. [3] One step in the transition was the National Dialogue Conference, which opened with a $24 million budget on March 18, 2013 at Sanaa’s five-star Mövenpick Hotel and concluded its work nine months later. The conference was tasked with negotiating solutions to problems of national relevance, and had considerable southern participation, including from segments of the hirak. In Aden, however, it is difficult to find anyone who believed in the National Dialogue. The conference’s recommendation that Qatari money be used to compensate southerners who were illegally fired or whose land was confiscated was too modest to turn the tide of skepticism.

And then in the later summer of 2014 the fighters of the Houthi movement based in Yemen’s northern highlands took Sanaa. The hirak is racing to respond to this major new development, but its basic alienation from the north has been a long time in the making.

Khaled Aden is one of the few in the area where I lived wealthy enough to have a car. He is an engineer and runs his own small business, the only way for graduates here to get a job, as public-sector positions are distributed from Sanaa. While driving through the narrow streets of colonial-era neighborhoods, Khaled told me that the gas I inhaled is meant for exterminating animals and not for crowd control. It causes rashes and severe breathing problems. But the gas was not the only reason why he was there every Saturday and Wednesday morning. Demonstrators were being hit by live ammunition every week, and his car was needed to take the injured to the clinic.

When we arrived at the clinic, the owner was himself receiving medical attention -- he had been attacked by government troops in a nearby street. Clinics and hospitals in southern Yemen were once functioning parts of the World Health Organization system, but no longer. This private clinic is one of many in town that provides decent care -- to those who can afford it. The owner is a supporter of the hirak; the activists said he has guaranteed free treatment to demonstrators who have been hurt.

On one occasion, the activists brought an injured plainclothes member of the security forces to the clinic. People in the street had set upon the security man with fists and handbags after he was identified as the killer of an unarmed activist, based on a video clip. Young boys call him the Blue Ghost, for his blue eyes, a rarity in Yemen. He has a reputation for utter mercilessness, and Khaled told of being criticized by comrades for staging the rescue. Government troops recovered the Blue Ghost from the clinic, and the authorities never investigated the allegations against him.

The following Wednesday morning, the situation was even more serious near my house. There were more gunshots as troops ran into Crater. They had come to trash one of the squares where the hirak holds its gatherings. Older men shouted at the troops as one of their number was struck by a soldier’s rifle butt. The troops returned later to finish the job. Two middle-aged women yelled at them, but the confused soldiers left them alone. After the troops left Crater, I heard that two teenaged boys had been shot, one of them fatally. In the square, the photos of previous martyrs were torn down and the modest platform that activists had built totally destroyed.

The next day some 60 residents gathered in the square, men and women, of all ages, mostly very poor. Overnight someone had printed photos of the dead boy, Ahmad Darwish, 17, on posters and distributed them. Ahmad’s mother and grandmother were there to vent their anger amidst their grief. The grandmother, dressed in a worn-out overcoat, asked the emotionally charged questions on everyone’s lips: “Where is the United Nations? Where are our human rights?”

On the Saturday following these dramatic events, older people came into the streets to protect the young boys. Troops arrived in tanks and fired tear gas. But this time there were no casualties -- perhaps because of the presence of women in the streets. While women have lost their lives, too, their challenges to the “the occupying forces,” as government troops are called here, are somewhat protected by the culture of men showing respect for women.

For all the similarities to the mid-1960s, there is one clear difference -- today’s “anti-colonial” movement insists on unarmed resistance. In the birthplace of the struggle against the British, the Lahij governorate, the fighting has been bloody for years. But in Aden, once the cosmopolitan hub of the Arabian Peninsula, resistance means civil disobedience, strikes, meetings to educate the younger generation in history and the strong presence of women.

The more well-to-do activists say they aim to restore a civil state -- one free of domination by the tribal, religious and military elites who rule in Sanaa. They want a multi-party system and a strong focus on services for the poor. For the less well-off, though, the hirak is a revolution for a decent life. Women’s rights is also a key political goal. As a young woman explained, women want to reemerge from the shadows where they have been since the 1990 unification. At the various gatherings, however crowded, the only seats available are reserved for women and there is no harassment. Men lament the increased prominence of the niqab, the full face veil. There is a general will to restore women to their place “alongside men in building society,” as per the rhetoric of the Yemeni Socialist Party that governed the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) from 1967 to 1990. Intellectuals and schoolteachers complain about the distortion of southern history by the regime in Sanaa. According to the regime narrative, before unification the south was barely developed and Aden was merely a village. Southerners are now more or less unanimous that they will not regain their dignity as long as they are together with the north. Still, while men in the street use harsh words about northerners, the hirak leadership tries to downplay the idea that the movement is against northerners as people. Such an idea would be racist, one hirak leader told me.

The political luminaries of the southern past have an ambiguous relationship with the present movement. Some former PDRY leaders, such as ‘Ali Nasir Muhammad and Haydar Abu Bakr al-‘Attas, are outside the hirak advocating for a federation. Tariq al-Fadli, the controversial “Arab Afghan” fighter who emerged in 2009 to gain a prominent position in the hirak, has withdrawn from the scene. It is rumored that his son joined the jihadis who took over southern towns in 2011. Some old-guard activists want to see ‘Ali Salim al-Bid, the last Socialist general secretary and Salih’s vice president after unification, at the helm of the hirak, while their younger counterparts tend to deplore such figures. Al-Bid seems to be popular among the urban poor who long for the steady prices, jobs and access to education of the Socialist era. The one constant theme is to heal the internal divides of the past, as shown at the reconciliation demonstrations held every January 13 since 2008 to remember the victims of intra-party fighting in 1986. [4]

Though the entirety of southern society supports the cause, it is the poor who confront the troops sent by Sanaa. The revolutionaries who brave the bullets are primarily young boys with no shoes. In many squares, meanwhile, it is poor women of all ages who play the most vocal part with their demands for a normal, decent life. It is the poor who organize the demonstrations and attend the lectures in the squares. These places of street-level organizing can be found in almost every district of Aden. The uneducated learn about the city’s history, and the young learn about life before unification, when there were no water and power cuts and every graduate got a job. Occasionally, a preacher is invited, and numerous men of religion have joined the movement, but overall the movement is clear that southerners will not be subordinated with appeals to faith. One of the key demands of the hirak is an apology for the fatwas that reactionary northern clerics have issued against “unbelievers” in the south. [5]

On October 14 the hirak convened in Aden to commemorate the fifty-first anniversary of the uprising against the British. At the march the movement issued a hasty plan: The Yemeni administration and army is to withdraw from the entirety of southern territory by November 30, date of southern independence in 1967. [6] While the streets are ready for independence, Adeni intellectuals fear that the movement is not. The intellectuals fear a repeat of 1967 when the sudden British exit left behind a new country with almost no resources. Amidst the frenzy the Houthi takeover of Sanaa has created in the south, an Adeni activist commented wisely on his Facebook wall: Southerners did not realize it until weeks later, but the date of separation of north and south was actually September 21, the day the Houthis rolled into the Yemeni capital.

And Khaled Aden, the engineer who ferries the wounded in clashes with government troops to the clinic? According to Amnesty International, he was arrested and held without charge in Aden’s al-Sulban prison, twice in 2011 and again in November 2013. He was kept in a small cell without ventilation, lights or a toilet. On August 31, 2014, Khaled Aden disappeared again. He was held incommunicado for nearly three months. Upon his November 14 release, he received a hero’s welcome in Aden’s protest square.

Endnotes

[1] See Susanne Dahlgren, “The Snake with a Thousand Heads: The Southern Cause in Yemen,” Middle East Report 256 (Fall 2010).
[2] Tom Little, South Arabia: Arena of Conflict (London: Pall Mall Press, 1968).
[3] The transition plan can be found online here. For background, see Sheila Carapico, “No Exit: Yemen’s Existential Crisis,” in David McMurray and Amanda Ufheil-Somers, eds., The Arab Revolts: Dispatches on Militant Democracy in the Middle East (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013).
[4] See Fred Halliday, Revolution and Foreign Policy: The Case of South Yemen, 1967-1987 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 41-53; and Yemen Times, January 14, 2008.
[5] Aden al-Ghad, October 14, 2014.
[6] Aden al-Ghad, October 14, 2014.

Image: Hirak event in Aden, 2013. (Susanne Dahlgren)

Filed under: