September 12, 2007

Yemeni unity questioned

The government should be more forcefully encouraged to combat poverty, fight corruption and push through reforms to secure an environment in which jihadi and secessionist tendencies are less likely to flourish.

Commentary by Dominic Moran in Tel Aviv for ISN Security Watch (12/09/07)

Beset by tribal and sectarian violence and deep-seated economic woes, the government of Yemeni President Abdullah Ali Saleh is facing a new challenge as thousands of protesters take to the streets in southern cities, with some calling openly for secession.

Two protesters were killed and at least 21 others wounded in violent clashes with riot police in three southern cities on Sunday. The pair died when security forces fired on rioters burning tires and throwing stones at police in the southern city of Ad Dali.

Violent protests over spiraling fuel and essential foodstuff prices and the detention of 200 South Yemeni veterans and their supporters also occurred in Aden. Several hundred demonstrators also held a separate sit-in outside the opposition Socialist Party headquarters in the southern port city to protest the government's decision to strictly regulate public demonstrations.

Several rights workers and opposition members were arrested during the protests, during which open calls were heard for the secession of southern Yemen from the north.

The Associated Press reports that veterans of the former South Yemen army have been holding almost daily demonstrations since August demanding positions in the reconstituted national security forces. The veterans have rejected a government offer to allow 7,000 former servicemen to be recruited, claiming that 60,000 lost their jobs when southern forces were disbanded.

The protests have exacerbated pre-existing tensions that have festered since the fusing of North and South Yemen in 1990, when Saleh, previously president of the north, became the leader of the newly united country. A southern secessionist uprising in 1994 was soundly defeated after two months of fierce fighting.

Southern Yemenis complain that government and security positions in their regions are dominated by northerners who have allegedly benefited from northern-dominated patronage networks in moving south for work, the AP reports.

These pre-existing tensions are fed by the deepening economic crisis. Yemeni oil exports are the country's primary export earner, with Reuters reporting a recent fall in production to 380,000 barrels per day (bpd) from 300,00bpd earlier this year.

A coterminous drastic rise in the cost of fuel and basic foodstuffs has forced many Yemenis deeper into poverty, with many working long hours at multiple jobs in order to make ends meet, a source in Sana'a told ISN Security Watch.

The building economic crisis is such that the government has now ordered state bodies to assume control of the import of basic commodities and to ensure they are sold at reasonable prices, Reuters reports.

The relationship between the Saleh government and close ally the US is under constant pressure.

Government officials were reportedly unhappy with a recent enjoinder by US State Department deputy spokesperson Tom Casey that they do more to protect journalists. As ISN Security Watch reported in August, some journalists say that their work is impeded by intimidation and violence.

"Yemen still has no freedom of the press [...] We are restricted from criticizing the president directly, from addressing religion, from making any argument against capital punishment, and from covering major stories,"Yemen Observer editor Jennifer Steil told ISN Security Watch.

Yemeni officials responded to Casey by stating that they did not need advice, arguing that press freedoms were guaranteed under Yemeni law and the constitution.

New US Ambassador to Yemen Stephen Seche sought to raise the pressure this week in comments carried by the Yemen Observer, backing "the right of journalists to be able to inform the public regarding the government's performance."

Acting under US pressure, the Saleh government has instituted limited measures to extend press freedoms, including the August licensing of 25 new publications. These reforms have encouraged an efflorescence of critical journalistic commentary on state policies, but outspoken journalists remain subject to security force violence, arbitrary arrests and incarceration.

In comments prior to his confirmation, Seche told reporters that, as ambassador, he would be looking to "make Yemen a stronger partner." This was an apparent reference to US concerns that the Saleh government has been schizophrenic in its relationship with al-Qaida-inspired or linked groups, actively pursuing some elements of the jihadi movement while allegedly building relationships with others.

Some reports allege that Saleh has allowed the establishment and operation of al-Qaida camps in the country in return for pledges not to attack Yemeni targets.

The government is engaged in a delicate balancing act, seeking to dampen regular outbreaks of tribal fighting while suppressing a Shia rebellion in the far north. It appears to have little stomach for a full-scale confrontation with al-Qaida-linked groups, so long as they do not threaten the maintenance of the existing political system.

With pressure building, the Saleh administration has a clear interest in playing up the perceived risk of a renewed secessionist struggle in the south; a threat that would galvanize US support for the Saleh administration while easing pressure for much needed reform.

Yemen is the poorest Arab state with four out of 10 citizens living on less than US$2 a day, according to a Department for International Development study.

It is this pre-existing deprivation and the corruption it fosters that are motivating forces impelling the current Yemeni protest movements.

The US and other Gulf and western partners should therefore move more forcefully to encourage Sana'a to combat poverty, fight corruption and push through reforms crucial to securing an environment in which jihadi and secessionist tendencies are less likely to flourish.

Dr Dominic Moran, based in Tel Aviv, is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in the Middle East and the Director of Operations of ISA Consulting.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author only, not the International Relations and Security Network (ISN).

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