The fate of two revolutions

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Mirfat Sulaiman reports from south Yemen on how the growing movement for independence from the north has been fuelled by the dashed hopes of the 2011 popular revolution.

In January 2011 Yemen witnessed the start of the biggest anti-government protests in the country's history. Following decades of dictatorial rule, the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt gave ordinary Yemenis confidence to demand an end to the unemployment, corruption and injustice that marked the dictatorship of Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The barbaric response of Saleh's regime to the first stirrings of protest that gathered in Change Square, close to the university in the capital Sanaa, radicalised the movement into demanding the "fall of the regime". The mass protests, often drawing millions of people onto the streets, united people in the south and the north against Saleh - although from different perspectives. There is also a simmering rebellion among the Zaidi Shia Muslim minority in the north, as well as an insurgency linked to Al Qaida.
Before 1990 Yemen was divided into the north, allied to Saudi Arabia and the West, and the south, backed by the Soviet Union. Unification allowed the northern ruling class to dominate the unified country, but it also allowed many northerners greater freedom of movement. Intermarriage, new family ties and relocation flourished with the opening of the border.
In 2012 countries known as the Friends of Yemen Group (that include Britain, China, the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain) stepped in under the United Nations umbrella to formulate a transition agreement that granted Saleh and his affiliates immunity from prosecution in return for his abdication. In his place stepped Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who was Saleh's vice-president for 17 years.
It was a presidential election with Hadi as the only candidate, backed by promises of international funds and vague talk of a national dialogue to address "internal problems". The elections and dialogue were largely rejected in the south, but accepted in the north. The deal helped to divert and absorb the hopes raised by the revolution, while serving as the pretext to dismantle and suppress it.
Many of the established opposition parties, including the Communist Party and al-Islah, the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood (whose leaders were slow to back the revolution), joined the transition government. These short-term political gains have given legitimacy to the government at the expense of the revolution. Following the Western-sponsored deal the Change Square camp was dismantled, while many of the activists and students who formed the core of the revolution's grassroots leadership are now in prison.
Although Hadi issued decrees that removed many of the former dictator's relatives from leadership positions, his powerful military men remain in their posts. Among the sacked leaders was Saleh's son and would be successor, Ahmed Saleh, who once commanded the elite Republican Guard. But he has since been appointed as ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. These cosmetic changes mean that Saleh's party and family are still effectively in power.
In doing so, the new government has cut short the development of a genuine collective dialogue for change between the peoples of the south and north. Meanwhile the funds promised by the Gulf countries as part of the agreement have not filtered down to ordinary people. This failure is generating a new bout of intense bitterness and anger in the north, and fuelling a growing secessionist movement in the south. Hadi is generally despised in the south, and as he is of southern origins he has no tribal support or real roots in the north, leaving him vulnerable to a coup.
In December 2013 an armed assault on the defence ministry in Sanaa was initially portrayed as an attempted military coup, but has since been attributed to Al Qaida. For many ordinary people the Al Qaida story lacks any credibility. There is no explanation of how a supposedly outlawed and suppressed group like Al Qaida was able, according to video footage, to walk unchallenged and heavily armed into a government compound and engage in a shooting spree which left 52 dead and some 167 wounded.
Part of the transition deal is that Hadi has given the US a green light to launch drone attacks on Al Qaida. Ansar al-Sharia, the group linked to Al Qaida, is a shapeless entity with a shady past and murkey links to the regime. Saleh historically played on the threat of Al Qaida to secure US funding as part of the "war on terror". Now the regime is using the same threat to strengthen its hand.
On 31 December three bombs exploded in the southern capital Aden. It was an aimless attack early in the morning, leading many to conclude that the hand of the regime was behind the bombings. Meanwhile the government and media have played up the attacks to justify continuing drone strikes.
Since 2011 up to 423 people are believed to have been killed by the US drones. Abu Bakr al-Shamahi, a journalist who visited the targeted areas, reported that the attacks are fuelling growing militancy and resentment. He wrote, "The people are angry with both the United States and the government. People are afraid; they have lost breadwinners and are now worried for the future and how they will protect their families. The sound of drones is quite audible in these areas and hangs over them."
Meanwhile the war between the central government and long restive Zaidi minority in the far north of the country has intensified. The rebels, known as Huthis, recently gained more control over the northern border with Saudi Arabia, and have extended their influence into Saleh's tribal homeland, as well as areas surrounding the capital Sanaa.
The Zaidi, who in the 1960s were championed by the West as part of its campaign against the anti-colonial movement, fell foul of the dictatorship when it opposed Saleh's plan to pass the presidency to his son. Saleh responded with military attacks and harsh repression.
The war between the central government and the rebels continues, and is now increasingly taking the tone of religious sectarianism. Meanwhile the real economic marginalisation and discrimination that underpin Zaidi anger continue to be ignored.
The removal of Saleh by the revolution has, albeit unintentionally, created an environment in which the independence movement in the south could re-emerge. There are calls for an escalation of the popular uprising against the northern-dominated government. "Unity" in the south means "occupation" - Saleh famously declared that Yemen would have either "unity or death".
The trigger for the renewed drive for independence came in early December when security forces killed Saad Bin Habrish, a tribal leader in Hadhramaut, an oil-rich region in the south. This killing created a powerful alliance between southern tribes and the independence movement. Mass outdoor meetings took place across the region to discuss strategy and a united response to the killing.
The meetings gave the government three days to withdraw its forces from the cities and hand over control over security, and the oil companies, to local people. The government ignored the demands. By the early hours of 20 December people took over government buildings and police checkpoints, raising the southern independence flag. Activists have blocked strategically important supply roads, sabotaged oil pipelines and even seized oil tankers. This popular uprising drew oil company workers to strike in support of the demands.
On 27 December regime tanks from a base in the southern district of Daleh shelled a funeral for two people who were killed earlier that week. Some 15 people died in the shelling, among them two children. The massacre fuelled the rage in the south, with over a million people joining a protest in solidarity with the families of the slain. Daleh was the place where revolution against British colonial rule began in 1964. The city has a fierce tradition of resistance.
The commander of the Daleh base is a key supporter of the former dictator and has a track record of killing activists, including burning to death protesters at the protest camp in the northern city of Taiz during the 2011 revolution. Militants from the Restoring the Revolution Front and communist students in Taiz called for a protest to condemn the Daleh attacks. It was the first act of solidarity with the south since Saleh's departure.
Many people in the south believe independence is the only alternative to the stalled revolution. But there are tensions inside the movement. The traditional southern leaders have deep ties to the exiled former president of South Yemen and his one-time rival. This traditional leadership is now being challenged by a new generation of activists. Now the youth, students and trade unions are forming the grassroots leadership through hundreds of local committees, progressively winning the trust of the population.
The experience of ousting Saleh has shown people in the north, for the first time in their history, the possibilities of what a mass movement can achieve. The lack of progress, the general chaos, the internal division and fragmentation of the regime and its weakening overall control of the country are setting the stage for a second wave of revolutions.