by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East
International, 7 October 1994
SOUTHERN Yemeni leaders, defeated and exiled by the civil war just
three months ago, made a surprise appearance in London on September 30 to announce the
formation of a National Opposition Front. The seven-man delegation, led by Abd al-Rahman
al-Jifri, who was vice-president in the short-lived "Democratic Republic of
Yemen" said their aim was to "confront the forces of hegemony, tyranny and
authoritarianism in Sana'a".
A 1,200-word statement made no mention of their attempt to
establish a separate state but said they would work for national unity based on the
Document of Pledge and Accord signed by northern and southern leaders before the war,
though never implemented. Mr Jifri added that while they would seek to achieve their aims
by dialogue, armed struggle could not be ruled out.
Prominent socialists in the group included Salim Salih
Mohammed, a former member of Yemen's presidential council, and Haydar Abu Bakr al-Attas,
who was prime minister until war broke out. Ali Salim al-Baid, the former president of the
breakaway state - though conspicuously absent - was said to be "supporting the
This latest move is partly the result of pressure from the
group's Saudi backers who felt that the Yemeni issue was losing momentum. But behind the
rhetoric there is evidence of considerable back-pedalling: a new ambivalence on the
question of separatism and a retreat from earlier threats of imminent guerrilla war.
The group (several of whom are wanted in Yemen on charges
of treason and war crimes) argue that a combination of political circumstances inside the
country and pressure from foreign governments will eventually force President Ali Abdullah
Salih to talk to them. At present, however, the chances of that seem slim. As for popular
support, the group's Saudi links mean that even those Yemenis who sympathise with their
arguments tend to perceive them as unpatriotic.
Meanwhile in Sana'a, parliament has approved a series of
constitutional changes. The five-man presidential council, whose existence heightened the
pre-war crisis, has been abolished and President Salih has been re-elected by parliament
for another five-year term. The idea of a collective presidency was, in any case, largely
a facade, since in practice Salih plainly had far more power than his four colleagues on
the council. However, the constitution now limits a presidency to two terms and henceforth
presidents will be elected directly, by the people.
There are also steps towards decentralisation of
government which may help to prevent local issues turning into national crises.
The price of securing these changes appears to have been a
one-word concession to the Islamists. In future, the shari'a (Islamic law) will be
"the source" of legislation rather than "the main source". The role of
shari'a has generated great controversy in recent years, though last week Yemeni officials
argued that the change would make little practical difference.
The president has also promised a "revolution against
corruption" - though with so many livelihoods depending on it, considerable
resistance is expected.