Three separate crises—the newly intense Huthi rebellion in the north, an increasingly violent secession movement in the south, and the pervasive threat of the second generation of al-Qaeda—are tearing Yemen apart. Moreover, Yemen has to deal with these crises against the backdrop of a financial meltdown and a looming ecological catastrophe. It has become conventional wisdom that these three conflicts pose an existential threat to the nation; that, together, they could push Yemen from a fragile state to a completely failed one. This is true, but it also misses a key point: separately, and together, each uprising questions whether Yemen really exists as a modern, centralized state.
How did Yemen reach this pass? To look first at the north, when the tired Imamate that ruled north Yemen was overthrown in 1962 and replaced by a republic after a civil war, the Shi’i Zaydis who made up the old regime’s loyalists faded into a bitter semi-acceptance of the state. But just as the writ of the Imam barely existed past the big cities, so too did the new government have limited control. Zaydi revivalism emerged in the post-unification era, but with the exception of Husayn Badr al-Din al-Huthi’s brief stint in parliament, there was little political participation. Tensions increased, and fighting flared in 2004—it is still open to dispute who fired first.
The latest northern flare-up began in August, and is by some reports the most vicious. There have been accusations of indiscriminate carpet bombing by the government, as well as hostage-taking by the Huthis. Many outside observers have interpreted the fighting as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but this misses its uniquely Yemeni makeup. The fighting has mutated over the years and even non-Zaydi tribes have become involved. They are offended that the central government, heretofore largely uninterested in their lives, has now demonstrated its interest using tanks and fighter jets. In doing so, President Ali Abdullah Salih may have broken the previous uneasy acceptance of the distant central government by the northern tribes.
The al-Qaeda upheaval and the southern secession movement have their roots partly in the civil war that came four years after the 1990 unification of north and south Yemen. In that war, President Salih used jihadis recently returned from Afghanistan and geared up to continue the fight against communists. After the North’s victory, the fighters were allowed power to control land and impose a rough version of Islamist rule on the secular south. When a country lurches from crisis to crisis, as Yemen has done since its inception, leaders often fail to see the ramifications that today’s decisions will have tomorrow.
This taste of power emboldened the Islamist fighters, and among several militant groups al-Qaeda emerged as the most powerful. It was largely defeated in Yemen by 2003, but has seen been reconstituted under the leadership of Nasir al-Wahayshi and Qasim al-Raymi. This new generation is tougher and more ruthless than the first, and less willing to play by the time-honored Yemeni traditions of negotiation and compromise.
The new generation of al-Qaeda leaders is also more talented and more ambitious. In January 2009, al-Qaeda affiliates in Saudi Arabia and Yemen merged into al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), headquartered in Yemen and controlled by al-Wahayshi and al-Rayami. The group carried out a series of successful attacks, but the most shocking one came in August: a suicide bomb in Riyadh that very nearly killed Saudi Prince Muhammad bin Nayif, who orchestrated Saudi Arabia’s campaign against al-Qaeda. The bomber was on Saudi Arabia’s most wanted terrorist list and was hiding in Yemen. This shows AQAP’s institutional growth, reach, boldness, regional ambition, and perhaps most unnerving, its patience. The group’s new leaders are content to strike when they are able, and meanwhile to let the government struggle with its other problems.
The secession movement springs from south Yemenis’ feeling of being colonized by their countrymen following the 1994 civil war. Southerners had been promised integration but were treated as second-class citizens and were largely unable to climb the ladder of the military, Yemen’s top institution for social growth. Discontent spread and in 2008 it became a vocal and increasingly violent uprising, as south Yemenis evolved from being upset with their lack of inclusion in the state’s politics and finances to a desire to no longer be part of that state.
There is no actual overlap among the three threats to the Yemeni state. Al-Qaeda tried to capitalize on the southern secession movement but was quickly rejected. There is no overlap in goals; al-Qaeda does not want a secular state in the south. The southerners have no interest in Zaydi revivalism in the north, and the Zaydis are as hostile to al-Qaeda’s Salafism as they are to Sanaa.
Nonetheless, the three threats must be considered together because of the catastrophic cumulative effect they are having on the state, which is unprepared to deal with them. Salih has made promises of decentralization and economic prosperity to the south, as well as calling for a national dialogue. But the southerners seem to have passed a point of no return. Not only is there little prosperity to be shared, but the south has little interest in remaining part of a state that is racked by terrorism and rebellion.
As for the north, the government seems to be attempting to destroy the Huthis militarily while kicking the can of reconciliation down the road in order to buy some time to deal with other issues. But this most likely is a dead end, because the current tactics will make future acceptance of reconciliation with the state impossible.
Although the three rebellions do not share goals, they all cut to the bone of the Yemeni state and constitute a direct challenge to the central government, the ruling General People’s Congress, and to Salih. It is important to remember that there was no real Yemeni state until some 40 years ago, and it is only in the last 18 that the state has stretched throughout historic Yemen. While there might be an ancient notion of nationhood, the current rebellions each, in their own way, call this recent and slapdash attempt at translating it into statehood a failure.
It would be difficult enough to address the rebellions—as well as Yemen’s serious financial and environmental challenges--with a strong, functioning government. Salih’s regime is essentially neither, and now it has millions of its citizens questioning its legitimacy. The rebellions have Yemen poised on the brink of disaster; they are holding up a broken mirror to the idea of a modern, unified Yemeni state.
Brian O’Neill, a former writer and editor for the Yemen Observer, is currently a freelance writer and co-writer of the Yemen blog Waq Al-Waq.