Yemen reunited by force

Yemen reunited by force

by Brian Whitaker 

Originally published in Middle East International, 22 July 1994

THE VICTORY of pro-unity forces in Yemen's two-month civil war has closed a definitive chapter in the country's history. It has finally erased the old north-south line created by British and Turkish imperialism and cemented the unification process which began, with a series of false starts, as long ago as 1972. Although unity was formally achieved in 1990, the possibility of a fresh separation remained while North and South each had armies. With the defeat of the Southern forces that has now gone: in future, there will be one national army.

The collapse of the Southern breakaway state entered its terminal stage on 4 July when residents of Mukalla, the capital of Hadramawt province, persuaded the separatists to abandon their eastern power base without a fight. Almost simultaneously, government forces entered northern districts of the separatists' western stronghold, Aden. At that point, separatist leaders accepted the inevitable and fled Aden by boat to Djibouti.

Having reimposed unity militarily (against most expectations), President Ali Abdullah Salih must now unite Yemen politically. As a demonstration of intent, the first post-war cabinet meeting was held last week in Aden rather than the capital, Sana'a - though efforts to return to normality were frustrated by several days of serious looting.

Meanwhile attempts at reconciliation with the southern-based Socialist party are under way. It is not just a matter of being magnanimous in victory; the president needs the Socialists to maintain the political balance and stop the Islamist-traditionalist Islah becoming too powerful.

Rehabilitation has been made easier by the departure into exile of the Socialist leader, Ali Salim al-Bid, who was latterly president of the breakaway state. It was Bid's personality as much as anything which provoked the political crisis that led to war. Apart from 15 other "untouchables" whom Sana'a holds personally responsible for the war, the Socialists will be invited to rejoin the president's General People's Congress (GPC) and Islah in a coalition government.

Dr Abd al-Karim al-Iryani of the GPC is widely tipped to become prime minister. He is a former prime minister of North Yemen and, as planning minister during the war, played a key role in talks at the United Nations. The process of forming a new government may take some time, however, not least because the war has left the Socialist party in disarray: fragmented, leaderless and talking of reforming under a new name.

Another problem will be apportioning ministerial posts between the Socialists and Islah. In terms of votes at the general election last year, the Socialists were over-represented in the pre-war coalition, but to reduce their share now might look too uncharitable. On the other hand Islah, which was under-represented in the previous government but supported the president enthusiastically during the war, hopes to be rewarded with an increase.

The Document of Pledge and Accord, a radical programme of reforms agreed last February in an effort to avert war, is unlikely to be implemented - although a few of its proposals may be. Among these, some form of devolution is likely, if only for the practical reason that it would prevent disputes about regional differences from turning into national crises.

Shock for the Saudis

Internationally, Yemen owes a huge debt to the Americans who, after some initial dithering, swung decisively in favour of unity and told the Saudis to stop interfering. This may be reflected partly in closer US-Yemeni relations, though the Americans will also expect a conciliatory gesture from Yemen towards the Saudis, probably through a settlement of the 60-year old border dispute between the two countries.

The Saudis invested hugely in the war on behalf of the South, and the outcome is a defeat for them as much as anyone. The regional implications of this will take a while to emerge, but for the moment the Saudis are in deep shock. The shock is all the greater because their media reported the conflict so dishonestly that the reality is now almost impossible to accept. At a bizarre cabinet meeting chaired by King Fahd, for instance, the Saudi government called for an immediate cease-fire - after the war had actually ended.

Last week several of the separatist leaders, including Abd al-Rahman al-Jifri, the Saudi citizen who was "vice-president" of the breakaway state, met in Jeddah to plan their "continuing struggle". Significantly, perhaps, "President" Bid did not attend.

Since the separatists are now perceived as little more than a tool of Saudi foreign policy, it is doubtful whether a guerrilla movement would find much popular support in Yemen at present. Their menacing stance may simply be part of the Saudis' face-saving process, or perhaps a bargaining counter, to be traded in any future border talks.