National unity and democracy in Yemen: a marriage of inconvenience

National unity and democracy in Yemen: a marriage of inconvenience

by Brian Whitaker 

Conference paper delivered at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 25 November, 1995

WHEN NORTH and south Yemen united on 22 May 1990, they also democratised. To understand subsequent events we must examine the relationship between these two processes, and in particular the extent to which national unity and democracy have helped or hindered each other. As one Arab writer put it, “Unity brought democracy and democracy did not bring unity.”

This is also bound up with the question of power, because in a unified state there can be only one ultimate centre of power. Whoever has power controls the army, the security forces and the whole state apparatus. When two states are unified, there has to be a mechanism for determining where ultimate power lies, for turning two centres of power into one.

The idea of Yemeni unification had been around for a long time before 1990, and if we look at earlier attempts (such as the Cairo and Tripoli agreements of 1972) we find a proposal to resolve the question of power by creating what they called a “unified political organisation” (in other words, a merger of the two ruling regimes to form a one-party government). Those earlier efforts failed, partly because of differences in political approach - traditionalist and free market in the north, Marxist in the south - but also because neither leadership was willing to be subsumed by the other and neither was unquestionably dominant.

By 1990 both sides were still reluctant to cede power, but two other things had changed.

The first was that by then the leadership on both sides had compelling reasons for wanting a unified state. This was particularly important in the south, where the economy was in a terrible mess and the socialist leadership felt especially vulnerable as Marxist regimes collapsed in Europe.

The second change was that both parts of Yemen had begun moving towards democracy. In the south the ruling Yemen Socialist Party (the YSP) had actually announced a multi-party system in December 1989 - five months before unification. In the north, all parties were banned, at least in theory. The president’s political vehicle, the General People’s Congress (or GPC) was not considered to be a party but an umbrella organisation embracing all elements of society. However, during the 1988 parliamentary elections in the north this had begun to break down and there was vigorous campaigning by Ba’athists, Nasserists and Islamists, as well as the GPC.

In 1990, this movement towards democracy provided a convenient mechanism to deliver unification without having to address the question of ultimate power which had proved such a huge stumbling block in the past. Disagreements about the creation of a “unified political organisation” were put into abeyance by the multi-party system. Instead, there was to be a coalition government in which the northern and southern regimes shared power on an almost (but not quite) equal basis. This allowed them to retain their separate identities and - crucially, as it turned out - their own armies.

That was not the end of the plan for a "unified political organisation", though. Discussions about merging the GPC and YSP continued sporadically until a few days after the parliamentary election in 1993. President Salih’s view was that unification of the two ruling parties was a prerequisite for merging the two armies. The YSP, I think, was not really interested, but played along with the idea for reasons connected with the elections.

There’s a theory, which was put forward before unification, that the pursuit of unity by the northern and southern regimes served as a form of conflict management, reducing the likelihood of war between them - if not always successfully. By the same token, it could be argued that after unification democracy had the potential to perform the same function and perhaps did so for a while, though ultimately it failed to prevent a war.

Having allowed formal unification of the two states to take place, democracy then became a barrier to consolidating the union. This was not the fault of democracy itself, but mainly of the way it was applied. There is often a tendency in newly-democratic countries to assume that all you need for democracy to function is open debate, free elections and so on. But it’s also necessary to have effective ways for resolving disputes and translating them into decisions that can be implemented. That requires a certain level of trust, and a willingness on all sides to play by the rules, even when decisions go against you.

In Yemen after unification there was a distinct lack of trust. Typically, one side would be unwilling to compromise in a dispute without first testing the other side’s willingness to give way on a second issue. The other side would then demand assurances of compromise on a third issue, and so on. This meant that disputes, instead of being tackled one at a time, became compounded and ever more intractable, until eventually the decision-making process became paralysed.

Trust was further damaged by a long series of political shootings and bombings which probably came from a variety of sources but were directed mainly against the YSP.

The other major problem was that democracy placed the south and the YSP at an inherent disadvantage. The whole concept of democracy is based around the will of the majority but after unification the south became a minority - in fact, quite a small one. Although census figures aren’t particularly reliable, it is generally reckoned that the southern population accounts for around 20% of Yemen’s total.

That didn’t matter much at first because, in terms of the southern population, the YSP was generously over-represented in the transitional parliament and cabinet. But it became a problem as the first free elections drew nearer.

The new constitution specified that the 301 constituencies should have an equal number of electors, give or take 5%. This meant that in an elected parliament only 66 seats would be in the south. The YSP therefore seemed doomed to becoming a permanent minority party.

Initially it tried to prevent this by campaigning in the north, but it failed to make much headway. The 1993 elections saw the YSP relegated to third position behind the GPC and Islah. The results also confirmed that the Yemen’s political divide was along geographical rather than ideological lines. Forty-four of the 56 seats the YSP won were in the south, and seven of the others were in Ta’izz and Ibb - northern areas which have a traditional affinity with the south.

In that respect the election results were actually very damaging to national unity. The geographical concentration of the YSP’s support gave it leverage to demand more favourable treatment than its numerical strength warranted, using the threat of secession as a bargaining ploy.

This raises important questions about the YSP’s aims. Should we regard secession primarily as a threat which the YSP eventually had to carry out? Or was there a deliberate intention to secede? It’s tempting to suggest the latter because that’s what subsequent events made it look like. But in reality, it’s doubtful whether the YSP had a single, clear strategy - mainly because it couldn’t agree on one.

Back in 1990 there had been some scepticism about unification inside the YSP, with Salim Salih Mohammed (the deputy general secretary) and others preferring a more gradual, federalist approach, but this was over-ridden by the urgency of the situation. Soon after unification other doubts crept in, and by the summer of 1992 there were voices in the south suggesting that the union with the north had been over-hasty.

There were several reasons for this change of attitude:

One was economic. The south had survived its near-bankruptcy after the loss of Soviet support, and there was growing confidence, particularly in the light of oil discoveries, that it was capable of developing on its own. This view was encouraged by the fact that the south would have more oil per head of population as a separate entity than if it remained part of the unified state.

There were also complaints about creeping “northernisation” of the south. Many in Aden regarded their old system as essentially a good one, bringing nidham(order, discipline, etc) against what they characterised - or perhaps caricatured - as fawda (meaning chaos or anarchy) in the north.

In fact, it was the change to a market economy rather than unification that destroyed many of the better aspects of life in the south. Among other things, it ruined the free health service and long-term social planning went by the board. The spread of the northern qat-chewing habit to the south was due mainly to land privatisation, because cultivation of qat had previously been banned on state-owned farms.

There is also no doubt that the idea of separation was fostered by the Saudis and other Gulf states, for reasons of their own.

In general, though, there was little that could be considered specifically southern in the YSP’s grievances against the Sana’a regime: they were also shared by many in the north.

Furthermore, there was no real basis for a separatist struggle in the south on ethnic, religious or linguistic grounds, and very little specifically southern nationalist feeling. In fact, the boundaries of the old southern state were difficult to justify on nationalist grounds because the frontier with the north had been created by the external forces of British and Turkish imperialism.

I think a more accurate way to describe the YSP’s position shortly before the war would be to say that it reverted to what it had been before 1990 and, indeed, throughout most of the history of the PDRY: support for unity in principle, but not under the regime in Sana’a. The consequence of this was that YSP policy ran along two different tracks at the same time: one unionist, the other separatist. In other words, they were keeping their options open. On the one hand they were trying to bring down Salih but retaining secession as a fall-back if that failed. On the other, they were seeking secession as a platform from which to bring down Salih later.

Initially, in 1992 and early 1993, the YSP began to use the threat of separation in the hope of extracting concessions from Salih. In effect, it was seeking reform of the Sana’a regime, but still within a framework of unity. Some of the YSP’s opponents go further and suggest that even at that stage the YSP was attempting to topple Salih. Certainly the riots that hit five northern cities in December 1992 aroused deep suspicions in the GPC, whether justifiably or not.

Almost immediately after the 1993 elections, the YSP’s attitude hardened noticeably. It began issuing demands which, if accepted, would have weakened Salih (possibly to the extent of bringing him down eventually) and which, if rejected, would provide the pretext for a separation.

Long before the war, the YSP set about creating a de factoseparation. The start of this can be traced back to August 1993 when the party leader, Vice-President al-Baid, met his American counterpart in Washington. The meeting, arranged with some subterfuge and without Salih’s permission, marked the start of the south’s separate foreign policy. Afterwards, al-Baid never returned to Sana’a, and other YSP ministers joined him in the south. The YSP civil servants who were working in the north also returned to their old jobs in the south. The southern army started acquiring new weapons and recruiting, the old southern secret police started in business again and by early 1994 Yemen was, to all intents and purposes, two states.

But while all that was going on, the YSP was also pursuing a unionist track in the north. In the run-up to the war, for instance, it made strenuous efforts to get promises of military support from disaffected elements among the northern tribes. Several leading figures in the YSP have since confided that they expected the fighting, when it came, to take place mainly in the north.

This ambivalence about secession was maintained up to, and through, the war. Why, for instance, did al-Baid delay proclaiming the Democratic Republic of Yemen until almost three weeks into the war? I’d suggest two reasons.

The first was that he opted for secession reluctantly. He knew it would be unpopular with the Yemeni public, it would cost him what support he had among disaffected northerners, and it risked splitting his own party (as indeed happened).

The second was that he did it for external reasons, when it became clear that his forces were losing the war and he badly needed international support. The timing of the announcement was linked to diplomatic activity and was aimed at securing international recognition, so that sympathetic states could provide arms openly rather than secretly.

The text of the document proclaiming the DRY is interesting because of its deliberate ambiguity. Clause 2, for example, stated that “Yemeni unity remains a basic objective” and nowhere did it attempt to define the new state or specify its boundaries.

While there is no doubt that the document did proclaim a secession for the purposes of international recognition, it could also be interpreted - by those who wished to do so - not as announcing the partition of Yemen but as creating, in a less territorial way, an alternative state: “democratic” Yemen as opposed to “undemocratic” Yemen.

Al-Baid elaborated on this idea shortly afterwards at a press conference in Mukalla when he described the DRY as “a nucleus for a unified Yemen” and the act of secession as “the reconstruction of the state in part of Yemen’s territory”.

That, in essence brings me back to my starting point: that when the dust settles what we find is basically a struggle for power. Both sides wanted to control Yemen, but as far as the YSP was concerned, if it couldn’t control the whole it wanted to control part of it for the time being.

In a struggle like that it’s not really the business of non-Yemenis to take sides. But as a journalist who watched the conflict quite closely, I think much of the international press coverage has been over-sympathetic towards the YSP leaders. It makes a better story to portray them as heroes or innocent victims, but I don’t think they were either. That is not to excuse anything that was done on the northern side, but it’s important to adopt a questioning approach and try to sift the reality from the propaganda.

On the question of terrorism, for example, the YSP was certainly an aggrieved party, but not a totally innocent party. We should remember that not all the terrorist training camps were in the north, and that Carlos the Jackal carried a South Yemeni passport for many years.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that Ali Salim al-Baid and the other Hadramis who controlled the party were a faction within a faction within a party. They were on the winning side in the YSP schism of 1986, and many of those who were on the losing side in 1986 fought against them, alongside the northern forces in 1994.

We might also speculate about what would have happened if the YSP and its allies had not been defeated. My own view is that it would have been highly destabilising, not only for both parts of Yemen but for the region as a whole. It is unlikely that the Salih could have survived a defeat - which might have caused some short-lived rejoicing. But most of the scenarios beyond that are grim: an extreme Islamist regime in the north, perhaps, or a wholesale disintegration of Yemen along the lines of Somalia. I don’t think there was any perfect solution to the conflict, but we are probably fortunate in having got the least bad of all the possible outcomes.

Salih’s victory in the war consolidated unity but at a cost to democracy. Given that Yemenis in general value unity highly, and that democracy before the war had become a vehicle for co-existence rather than a means for resolving differences, the loss is perhaps not as great as people imagine.

Yemen’s political opposition is now hopelessly fragmented and the press more restrained than it was. Although the exiled opposition front, the Mawj, has some powerful friends abroad, I think it is unlikely to become a credible alternative because it is so closely identified with Saudi interests in the eyes of many Yemenis.

For the moment, Salih’s GPC is ruling in partnership with Islah, though that may not last. The south is also represented in the government, after a fashion, by former supporters of Ali Nasser’s faction of the Socialist Party. The more perceptive figures in Sana’a recognise that this is not enough, and that there is a leadership vacuum in the south. There is some evidence that old tribal sheikhs are moving in to fill it, which may or may not be a bad thing.

The post-war economic situation has brought a rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and the United States. That in turn has led to a tougher government line against Islamic extremists which seems to be putting the alliance between the GPC and Islah under strain. It is conceivable that the coalition might break up, but I think it’s more likely that Salih will try to drive a wedge between the traditionalist wing of Islah and the religious militants. In many ways the traditionalists are natural allies of the GPC. On the other hand, the militants played an important part in helping to win the war and some of them are still armed, so ditching them would be a serious business.

Balancing the various political elements and playing one off against the other is Salih’s area of great expertise. Following the old principle of never making too many enemies at the same time, he is unlikely to rid himself entirely of the religious militants without first gaining some new friends. So there are hints of a reconciliation with the YSP and perhaps even the exiled Mawj - which is what the Americans seem to want. There are reports of middle-ranking opposition figures being invited to return from exile, though not yet the people at the top.

The danger in a reconciliation with these recent enemies is that some powerful voices, especially in the army, oppose it, arguing that it would negate their efforts during the war.

All this appears full of risk, though in terms of Yemeni politics it’s actually quite familiar territory. The chances are that predictions of disaster will remain unfulfilled, and those of a new dawn likewise.

On a more positive note, the extension of democracy to regional government, much discussed before the war, now seems achievable without risking serious damage to national unity.

And despite the upheavals of the last five years, Yemen still has a constitution, and a democratic framework, which in many ways is more progressive than anything its neighbours possess, though its full potential is unlikely to be realised for some time.