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 idea".
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.