Abubakr al-Shamahi
Last updated: 26 March, 2013

The impossible (?) challenge to unite Yemen

A face, stencilled in black and white paint, stares out from one of the walls of the University of Sana’a’s old campus, in the centre of the Yemeni capital. Alongside it is the legend ‘Ali Khan, forced disappearance’ in Arabic and English.

More and more faces, all of men who have been missing for years, and sometimes decades, emblazon the walls of Sana’a. The murals are part of a campaign by a group of Yemeni youths designed to raise awareness of alleged human rights crimes committed under former Yemeni President Saleh’s regime over the last 30 years.

The majority of those involved took to the streets in 2011, calling for an end to Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule in protests inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Saleh eventually signed the GCC agreement that led to him stepping down from power, after months of mass protests that left the country teetering on the edge of civil war.

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Murad Subei’ was one of the first people to pitch a tent outside of Sana’a University in February 2011, a site that later formed the centre of the mass sit-in known as Taghyir, or Change, Square. Now, every Thursday, he joins fellow activists and heads down to the streets of Sana’a, but this time to paint the faces of those long forgotten onto the walls.

“I started this campaign on December 8, 2012. Since then, we have spread it to three other governorates outside Sana’a, and have even met a former detainee who had disappeared for many years.”

Murad believes that this kind of activism is now the real revolution.

“The revolution is in our hearts and in our work, it is not in the squares anymore. The same old elites have co-opted our revolution.”

Yemeni politicians, along with the international community, are attempting to address youth concerns, along with a plethora of other issues, with the National Dialogue Conference (NDC). The aim of the conference is to bring the disparate sides in Yemen together. 

The NDC faces numerous challenges. It was initially scheduled for late 2011, but has been delayed numerous times thanks to infighting amongst the different groups in Yemen, and eventually started on the March 18.

The very breakdown of the seats for the various groups has been subject to controversy. The General People’s Congress, the former ruling party, have been given more seats than any other party, a move that has riled activists who see the party as tainted by its association with Saleh.

Half of the delegates at the conference are southerners, despite the southern population being much smaller than the northern. This discrepancy is an attempt at handing the southerners, and especially the separatists, an olive branch, and really demonstrates what many see as the real aim of the National Dialogue – to convince southerners that secession is not the solution.

South Yemen was an independent state until 1990, and the aftermath of a 1994 attempt by the South to secede has led to increasing resentment amongst southerners.

Jamal Ben Omar, the United Nations’ Envoy to Yemen, is optimistic, and has said that this is the “best plan” for a national dialogue that he has seen in any country.

“I am very hopeful about the future of Yemen … The country is going through a peaceful transition,” he told an audience at Chatham House recently.  

How likely is this? Well, based on the numbers coming out for secession in southern cities such as Aden and Mukalla, it will be difficult. The ‘Reconciliation and Tolerance’ festival on January 13 was a massive demonstration of strength on the part of Herak; the flag of the former South Yemen, and pictures of the final leader of the defunct state, Ali Salem al-Beidh, featuring prominently. Recent clashes between the military and protesters calling for secession have resulted in a number of the protesters being killed.

Alaa al-Aghbari, young activist from Aden, is in favour of southern secession.

“I support the restoration of the South Yemeni state because I am simply not optimistic about a future where southerners could have equal chances and opportunities in a unified Yemen.”

“A radical Islamist party is in a controlling position in Sana’a, and Saleh is returning to the centre of political life.”

Alaa had applied to be a delegate in the National Dialogue Conference, and, although his application was not accepted, some of his fellow southern activists will be taking part.

“My intention was to go and discuss the return of our state and at the same time use the media attention to publicise our cause to the world.”

Alaa, like Murad in Sana’a, is a young Arab inspired by the protest movements that have swept the region over the last two years. However, unlike Murad, he sees no part for himself in a united Yemen. It may prove impossible for pro-unity forces to convince him, and many others like him, otherwise.

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