decade of unity
by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 19 May, 2000
celebrates 10 years of unification on May 22 and - barring
last-minute mishaps - the star guest at the party will be Crown
Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Saddam Hussein was also invited
(purely as a matter of protocol, the Yemenis say) but he declined.
This itself is a remarkable
about-turn from the situation a decade ago, when Yemen was
perceived as siding with Iraq over Kuwait and the Saudis
retaliated by dumping more than 700,000 expatriate guest-workers
on Yemen’s doorstep.
Back in 1990, the unification of
north and south Yemen was greeted with a mixture of surprise and
consternation: here were two regimes which, apart from shared
nationality, had wildly differing outlooks. The south was Marxist
and relatively secular; the north a traditional Arab society with
strong elements of tribalism. Alarmingly for some of its royalist
neighbours, Yemen not only unified but announced the birth of a
Unification brought a political
spring of the kind seen in eastern Europe after the collapse of
communism, but rarely in the Arab world. Dozens of new parties
were formed and newspapers sprang up, largely unrestrained by
The two rival regimes formed a
coalition government and for three years the faces of President
Ali Abdullah Salih and Ali Salim al-Baid, the southern leader who
became his deputy, appeared side by side on street posters.
But unity did not mean harmony:
there was little real integration of the two former states. In
some government offices northerners sat in one room and
southerners in another, spending much of their time trying to
undermine each other.
Mutual distrust was such that both
sides retained their armies and this - almost inevitably - led in
1994 to armed conflict. The southern leaders proclaimed a separate
state in the south which lasted just six weeks, despite receiving
diplomatic and other support from several countries in the region
- most notably Saudi Arabia.
Given that the northern population
outnumbered that of the south by more than four to one, it is
scarcely surprising that the north won the war - though if it had
failed to do so the result could have been very messy:
fragmentation into more than two states or a descent into
Somali-style anarchy were two scenarios postulated at the time.
Today, despite lingering
resentment over northern "hegemony" in the south, Yemen’s
unity looks secure. Since the war, low-level violence has
continued in the form of shootings, kidnappings and small-scale
bombings - variously attributed to Islamists, separatists or the
machinations of the Saudis. However, none of this has proved a
serious threat to the status quo.
In terms of democracy, Yemen has
held two reasonably successful parliamentary elections and one
presidential election in which Salih - to nobody’s surprise -
defeated a nonentity from his own party.
Although the democratic framework
is more advanced than anything Yemen’s neighbours can offer, the
practice has left many Yemenis disappointed and frustrated.
President Salih’s party, the General People’s Congress, enjoys
a massively dominant position - with no prospect of this changing
in the foreseeable future.
The only other party with sizeable
representation in parliament is Islah, which combines religious
and traditional tribal elements and would almost certainly prove
too divisive as an alternative government. The Yemen Socialist
Party, which once ruled the south and later shared power with
Salih, is now a shrinking blip on the radar screen. This is due
partly to government harassment but mainly to its own tendency to
boycott anything it disapproves of.
The extraordinary press freedom of
the early 1990s has also faded into what, for Arab countries, is a
normal pattern of prosecutions and harassment. Almost certainly,
the authorities had not intended to allow such freedom in the
first place but, paralysed by internal rivalries at the time, they
were powerless to restrain it.
With hindsight, a similar argument
can be made about the origins of pluralism. The multi-party system
established in 1990 was not democracy for its own sake. Initially
it was a way of acknowledging unresolved differences between the
political leaders of north and south.
Amid all the unfulfilled
aspirations and unsolved problems - poverty, corruption, and
non-enforcement of laws, to name just a few - it’s easy to
forget how many narrow escapes from catastrophe Yemen has survived
in the last 10 years. Even some of Salih’s opponents grudgingly
concede that he may be the only driver capable of keeping the
truck on the road.
Looking ahead, Crown Prince
Abdullah’s attendance at the unity celebrations is seen as
signalling a thaw in relations with Saudi Arabia. If so, it could
mean an end to the long-running border dispute - and one problem
less for the next 10 years.