Two points distinguish recent U.S. news coverage of events in Yemen, where a population of twenty-four million struggles through the worst humanitarian crisis in three generations. First, the media has largely ignored the dire social and economic problems facing Yemen’s population. As a result, the oppressive living conditions endured by the people of the Arab world’s poorest nation are barely recognized by average Americans. Second, on occasions when Yemen receives media coverage, the reports have always begun or ended with al-Qaeda, and the threat posed to U.S. citizens by this international terrorist organization. In other words, what little news coverage exists about Yemen has reinforced strong stereotypes about Yemenis, and Arab Muslims more broadly, within American society.
During the past few months, news stories about Yemen have primarily focused on President Obama’s efforts to assist the new Yemeni government formed in early 2012 under the leadership of President Abdurrabo Mansour Hadi. This assistance has mainly focused on driving out “members of al-Qaeda,” who allegedly established pockets of control in the southern parts of the country last year. The strengthening of “al-Qaeda’s grip” on these territories happened, so we are told, because of the “Arab Spring,” a youth uprising that overthrew former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh not to mention the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.
Between April and June 2011, when the former Yemeni president came under intense pressure to resign and was subsequently injured in a bombing near his residence, Saleh and his closest associates withdrew the armed forces from the country’s outlying regions and stationed them closer to the capital, Sanaa, to protect the beleaguered regime. This was Saleh’s final, desperate attempt to save a regime that had been in power for more than three decades. The resulting political vacuum in the southern provinces, including the areas of Shabwa, Abyan, and Lahij, allowed different elements of the political opposition to step forward and claim local authority.
There are, however, several reasons to question whether these events were a result of the “Arab Spring.” First, while individuals who seized control of areas in Shabwa, Abyan, and Lahij did so under the banner of “Ansar al-Sharia” (“Supporters of Islamic Law”), it is not clear that they all served al-Qaeda’s agenda. While in some cases they mixed with foreign fighters, these local groups, which opposed the regime, came in different political shades. Political ideologies and loyalties varied from one region to another such that, for instance, al-Qaeda fighters who controlled areas of Abyan may not have necessarily held sway over parts of Shabwa and Lahij as well.
Second, there is considerable evidence that some groups that seized power in the southern regions did so with the consent, if not outright support of, President Saleh’s military and security commanders. This was particularly true of the Ansar al-Sharia group that took power in Abyan’s capital, near the port city Aden. Many Yemenis in the south speculated that Saleh wanted al-Qaeda or its allies to seize power as the specter of a “terrorist” resurgence would help the government obtain military support from the United States and other Western powers.
After Saleh stepped down as President in late November 2011 and Hadi was affirmed as president via public referendum in February 2012, the Obama administration began working closely with the Yemeni government to help the new regime regain control of the southern region. The operations primarily began in mid-May with Obama-approved drone missile strikes, which killed a half dozen or more “high-value al-Qaeda figures” in the south. The specific goal of joint Yemeni and American military operations between mid-May and mid-June was to retake three towns in Abyan.
With a U.S. presidential election looming on the horizon, coverage of the joint American-Yemeni offensive in southern regions has unsurprisingly focused on the drone attacks against al-Qaeda operatives, with little attention given to civilian causalities or the impact on Yemeni towns such as Lawdar, Ja’ar, and Zinjibar. Indeed, U.S. media stories about al-Qaeda’s role in south Yemen always register higher with American audiences than with Yemenis. In part, this has much to do with the media’s failure to understand or provide historical context on Yemen’s southern region, which existed as a separate state until the 1990 unification with the north.
Yemen’s South in Historical Context
One of the best examples of this deficiency in providing historical context is the lack of reporting about an important story that unfolded at the end of June 2012 in the former southern capital, Aden. The saga began immediately after a military campaign in neighboring Abyan, when Yemeni armed forces shot and killed more than two dozen people, while injuring scores of others, in a crowded Adeni district called al-Mansoura.
The al-Mansoura story belies the standard media narrative about al-Qaeda in Yemen. Yet, events in al-Mansoura will likely have greater significance for Yemen’s future than anything related to the notorious terrorist group. In order to understand this reality, it is essential to place recent events in their broader historical context, and to understand the connections between events across time.
To begin with, while the recent offensive in Abyan was successful in removing al-Qaeda’s base of operations, this occurred only after local tribes aligned with the Yemeni army, which is under President Hadi’s control, to help destroy the group’s presence in the province. Previously, these same tribes had refused to cooperate with the army not because they supported al-Qaeda, but because they opposed former President Saleh.
One individual credited with rallying local tribes to assist the Hadi government is Muhammad Ali Ahmed, a popular former governor of Abyan in the mid-1980s. Historical events from this earlier decade, when South Yemen was under the Yemeni Socialist Party’s (YSP) Marxist rule, are an essential reference point for anyone seeking to comprehend events in Yemen today.
During the mid-1980s, Muhammad Ali Ahmed and President Hadi worked under the administration of former South Yemeni president Ali Nasser Muhammad. The story of the “Ali Nasser partisans” is a story that has nearly come full circle from the time when South Yemen was governed by the YSP.
Southern Marxists ruled for more than twenty years between 1969 and 1990. During this late Cold War period, South Yemen was closely aligned with the former Soviet Union while North Yemen remained within the American sphere of influence. Towards the end of the Cold War, a deadly power struggle occurred in South Yemen. In January 1986, Ali Nasser’s partisans attempted to consolidate their hold on power by murdering a rival group of YSP leaders. Over the course of two weeks of fighting, Ali Nasser and his partisans lost control in Aden and were forced to flee to North Yemen.
Four years later in 1990, as the Cold War wound down and the Soviet Union began its rapid disintegration, Ali Nasser’s YSP rivals in Aden unexpectedly agreed to unite with North Yemen. This was a fateful decision as these YSP members found themselves vulnerable to political pressures and murderous attacks soon after relocating to the unified political capital of Sanaa in the north. In 1991 and 1992, there were roughly one hundred assassination attempts against the YSP and its southern supporters living in the north.
President Saleh and his associates blamed Ali Nasser partisans, accusing them of carrying out attacks against their YSP enemies in retribution for the 1986 power struggle. The targeted YSP officials blamed Saleh’s own associates, some of whom had connections with former mujahideen linked to Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan. During the late Cold War, many of President Saleh’s closest associates undoubtedly supported the anti-communist Islamic agenda financed and directed by Saudi Arabia and the United States. Former allies of Bin Laden have since acknowledged receiving support in the early 1990s, from both the emerging al-Qaeda organization and top military officers in Saleh’s regime, to assassinate YSP officials as part of the continuing jihad that began in Afghanistan.
The turmoil that resulted from the attacks on YSP leaders ultimately resulted in a full-scale civil war in Yemen between April and July 1994, when members of Ali Nasser’s rival YSP were defeated and forced into exile. Meanwhile, Saleh formed a partnership with Ali Nasser’s partisans, choosing Hadi as his vice president for the next seventeen years.
Understanding the Importance of the al-Mansoura Incident
When Hadi entered the president’s office in February 2012, the government was in a dismal state and there was no shortage of “top priorities” to tackle. Saleh’s nepotistic practices made it necessary for Hadi to restructure many military and civilian commands. Rampant corruption had also consumed vital national funds drawn from the sale of rapidly depleting oil resources. At the same time, rebel groups had started bombing oil pipelines, as well as the country’s electric grid, making it difficult to restart the economy. A growing food crisis and long-term problems with water supplies in major cities, including the capital, meant that emergency relief efforts coordinated with international bodies were necessary. Last but not least, there was the matter of rebuilding national solidarity among the population, which had fragmented into multiple regional opposition groups.
Hadi soon announced plans for a “national dialogue” conference, scheduled for later in 2012, to include all opposition figures willing to attend without preconditions. His government also initiated a “transitional justice” program intended to compensate victims of human rights abuses under the old regime.
It was against this backdrop that recent military operations to recover territory in Abyan were launched. The success of these operations has hardly created a clear path for Hadi because Islamic militants possibly linked to al-Qaeda were never Yemen’s greatest challenge. Both Hadi and Saleh understood this reality. In fact, during his final years in office, Saleh’s greatest challenge came not from al-Qaeda, but from a religiously inspired rebellion north of Sanaa, known as the Huthi rebellion, as well as a mass uprising across the southern and eastern regions called “al-Hirak,” or “the movement.”
While Saleh’s armed confrontation with the Huthi rebels was more violent, al-Hirak presented the greater threat as it raised the possibility of re-dividing Yemen. Since early 2009, hundreds of thousands of al-Hirak supporters had been waving the former flag of south Yemen, while demanding secession from the north. When the Arab Spring started in 2011, both al-Hirak and the Huthis were submerged within wider efforts to overthrow Saleh. Once this was achieved, it was unclear whether the two groups would support Hadi. Huthi leaders were slow to agree to participate in Hadi’s “national dialogue,” while various leaders of al-Hirak refused. Al-Hirak has always been more divided than the Huthis, which partly explains the difficulties President Hadi faces in trying to engage the group in “dialogue.”
These facts are critical to understanding deadly events late last month in al-Mansoura, a very crowded and poor part of Aden. On June 19, 2012, Hadi’s government arranged an extraordinary cabinet meeting in Aden to respond to the many public service needs in the historic port city. The government held a similar meeting the previous month in Taiz, a large midland city halfway between Aden and Sanaa, which was severely impacted by the Saleh regime’s crackdown on protests. In this sense, the meeting in Aden was part of a wider effort to connect government ministers with citizens in different areas. But the choice to meet in Aden was also an attempt to dissuade al-Hirak from boycotting the national dialogue, partly by building upon momentum from successful military operations in neighboring Abyan, where Islamist militias had been routed by June 12, 2012.
The previous week Yemen’s Interior Minister emphasized the importance of restoring law and order across the South. On June 15, just three days after making this statement, the Minister’s state security forces carried out a show of force inside Aden by removing a group of al-Hirak activists from a public square, where supporters of al-Hirak had kept vigil at a site in al-Mansoura renamed “Martyrs Square” in memory of those who died struggling against the old regime. The next day al-Hirak activists staged angry protests against the remaining occupying forces, which had received reinforcements, including a few armored cars and sharpshooters placed on nearby buildings.
The initial action by security forces in al-Mansoura took place four days before the cabinet came to town. On Wednesday, June 20, one day after the cabinet sat in session in Aden, a government sharpshooter fired a deadly shot into the head of a protester named Ahmed Jamal Haidar. Two days later, following Friday noon prayers on the 22nd at al-Nasr mosque where the young man’s funeral took place, thousands of local citizens marched to attend the burial at al-Rahman cemetery. After the end of these ceremonies, hundreds of youth marched back towards al-Mansoura’s Martyrs Square, chanting al-Hirak slogans about southern national independence and angrily vowing to retake the square.
Before the crowd reached its destination, security forces opened fire again. Two more people were killed, including a sixteen-year-old boy, while eight others were injured, among them two children. Late on June 22, members of al-Mansoura’s elected local council held an emergency session, where they voted for security forces to leave the public square within forty-eight hours. Nevertheless, the violence spiraled out of control as the most militant supporters of al-Hirak took up arms to engage in dangerous street fighting. Approximately ten people were killed during the first week. On July 7, the anniversary of the end of the 1994 civil war, there was a renewed spike in violence. In Aden and the eastern province of Hadramaut, four people were killed, and more than twenty people injured.
Throughout the past four weeks, rising public alarm and civic concerns have been expressed throughout the country. Many Yemenis demand to know how Hadi’s security forces could use lethal force in a crowded urban area, much like the hated Saleh regime. Hadi’s defenders have suggested that security forces under the command of Saleh’s son and nephews took these actions, hinting that the former leader has sought to undermine the new president’s authority.
Hadi’s appointed governor in Aden, Wahid Ali Rashid, has, however, tried to justify the state security forces’ actions, charging al-Hirak with vigilantism and failure to respond to earlier offers of dialogue from local and national authorities. Other voices inside the country, including supporters of President Hadi, wonder why the regime even bothered to remove peaceful demonstrators from a public square. This is indeed puzzling as similar action was not taken in Sanaa, where protesters continue to control public spaces. In Taiz, there are occasional armed clashes with street protesters, but peace prevails in this western midland city, which was once a center of revolutionary activities in 2011.
In truth, many parts of Yemen remain beyond the state’s control, whether relatively small public squares held by young protesters or large swaths of territory held by Huthi rebels. In the provincial capital of Hajja, northwest of Sanaa, members of the city’s elected council have occupied local government buildings since mid-April, after they expelled the governor appointed by Hadi and vowed to govern on their own. Despite this situation, the Interior Minister has yet to send armed forces into Hajja to “reestablish law and order.”
For years, it has been clear that there are regional disparities in Yemen when it comes to state-sanctioned armed force. Since at least 1994, this lesson has been clearest to people in Aden and its neighboring provinces, Abyan, Lahij, and al-Dali, where al-Hirak remains strong.
This presents a major dilemma for President Hadi, whose legitimacy as a national leader hangs in the balance. Hadi’s oldest friends among Ali Nasser’s partisans, including the popular former governor of Abyan, Muhammad Ali Ahmed, and Ali Nasser himself who still lives in exile, support al-Hirak. Although they have stopped short of demanding secession from the north, as the most militant supporters of al-Hirak, Ali Nasser and his partisans are likely to place increasing pressure on Hadi. When the cabinet met in Aden in mid-June, Ali Nasser and other exiled southerners held a simultaneous meeting in Cairo, Egypt with heads of a committee tasked by Hadi to prepare for Yemen’s “national dialogue.” This group of influential southerners, including a former prime minister from Hadramaut province, Haider al-Attas, refers to itself as the “southern transitional leadership,” potentially assuming authority for a split between the north and south in the years ahead.
By failing to understand the history of Yemen’s southern region while continually emphasizing the threat of al-Qaeda, U.S. media coverage has focused on the least significant element of the story at the expense of far more important issues. The recent violence inside the southern city of Aden should be of grave concern for anyone interested in the future of Yemen and the wider region. These events are particularly dangerous for President Hadi as they could easily destroy his legitimacy. On the one hand, if security forces under his command continue to use lethal force against al-Hirak in crowded areas of Aden, it could easily spread unrest across southern and eastern parts of the country. This will feed regional divisions, which have proven difficult to mend since 1994, while undermining the foundations of Hadi’s most important work.
On the other hand, Hadi is a southerner who can sympathize with the grievances of Yemen’s southern citizens, so he is well placed to forge a compromise with al-Hirak. Yet, if Hadi reins in the country’s security forces and al-Hirak gains momentum, this may cause north Yemenis to question the president’s loyalties, precisely because of his southern origins. In other words, a solution may be problematic no matter how Hadi chooses to act.
This situation is unlike the confrontation with Islamic militants in Abyan, who may have had ties to al-Qaeda but never had widespread public support in any part of the country. The real governing challenges inside Yemen relate to regionally based opposition movements like al-Hirak and the Huthis, as well as a few smaller movements in the country’s central interior. Each of these challenges must be effectively dealt with through the upcoming “national dialogue.” This should include, if necessary, reforming the structure of the national unity government by decentralizing power away from the capital Sanaa, and allowing greater expression of the democratic will at local and regional levels. Perhaps suggestions from some supporters of al-Hirak, concerning a new federal model of government, are worth careful consideration.
In the end, if Hadi’s “national dialogue” fails to deliver or never begins, then the conflict and violence of the recent past may only be a brief prelude of what remains to come.
* For a more detailed understanding of recent political developments in Yemen, Dr. Day’s new book “Regionalism and Rebellion in Yemen: A Troubled National Union” (Cambridge, 2012) is a useful resource.