Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, the transitional president of Yemen, is doing everything he can to bring the different groups in his country to a national dialogue planned for the middle of November 2012. The discussions are expected to last for six months and to address a range of issues related to the transition. If successful, the dialogue is supposed to come out with a vision for a “civil state”—a goal that almost all the included groups have talked about in one way or another—and to begin with the presidential elections in February 2014, and to include the drafting of a new constitution for the country. But if the dialogue fails, civil war looms ominously as a likely outcome. There are a number of challenges that might lead to the dialogue’s failure.

Among those is the issue of southern secessionists, or the Peaceful Southern Movement (al-Hirak al-Salmiyy al-Janubi) —or alternatively, the Southern Separatist Movement. Hirak, as it is known locally, has no unified leadership, and a number of different visions each claim to speak for the whole movement. All, however, are concerned with three things: correcting the failures of Yemeni unification, the application of federalism, and the degree of southern autonomy or independence. One group, for example, is inspired and supported by the former president of  South Yemen, Ali Salem Al Baidh (in exile since his defeat in the 1994 civil war). They believe that the southern part of Yemen is “occupied” by the north, and struggle for an independent south. This group wants the dialogue to lead the restoration of a southern state. A different former president of South Yemen Ali Nasser Mohammed (also in exile) leads another group; they talk about a federal system in which Yemen might be divided into three or five regional states.

The majority of southerners have long complained of being politically and socially marginalized after the 1994 civil war—which erupted less than four years after a north-south union was proclaimed. “The issue of the south is an issue of land and wealth that was looted,” said Mohammed Haidara Masdous, a Hirak leader. “It is an issue of identity and history that was obliterated for the favor of the north." Nearly all parties and politicians in Yemen note that Hirak’s participation is the key to the dialogue, which is difficult due to the group’s amorphous nature. If Hirak is convinced of unity, then most of the other disgruntled groups will follow—namely, the Shia Houthis in the north, who present similar challenge. Dr. Abdul Kareem Al Eryani, the deputy chairman of the People's General Congress (to which some 50 percent of the national unity government belongs, and is headed by former president Ali Abdullah Saleh) and head of the technical committee for preparing for the dialogue, said: “It’s impossible to have a successful dialogue without the participation of Hirak.” 

A number of prominent Islamists feel likewise: Mohammed Qahtan, a leading member of Yemen’s leading Islamist party, Al-Tajamm'u Al-Yamani Lil-Islah (known informally as “Islah”) said, "To bring the dialogue to success, the problems of the south should be solved first." Islah has dominated the political coalition of opposition groups that led protests against Saleh and the PGC last year. The coalition, known as Joint Meeting Parties (JMPs), includes Islah, the Yemen Socialist Party (which ruled the south before unification in 1990), Nasserites) and Baathists, as well as two smaller Islamist—Zaydi—parties. That Zaydi groups—a moderate Shia sect found almost exclusively in the north—are in coalition to support the Southern cause is a significant sign of non-partisanship.

Others feel differently. Professor Adel Al Shugaa, a history professor at Sanaa University, believes that Islamist groups would obstruct any dialogue that leads to an agreement about establishing a civil state, although the largest Islamist party Islah raises the slogans of a civil state. The Islamist groups consider the civil state to be something against Islam,” said Mr Al Shugaa. “Islamists refuse the notion that Muslims be equal to non-Muslims, and refuse equality between men and women.” 

There are other complications. Islah insists on having Hirak in the dialogue, but it has its own iinterests in the mix competing under the banner of southern autonomy—one of Hirak’s main leaders, Abdullah Al Nakhebi, recently appointed this past September ot the coordinating committee of the national dialogue, is viewed as having strong ties to Islah.  Islah now comprises the largest opposition party in Yemen, and has tremendous influence on President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi through its tribal, religious, and military, leaders. These traditional forces still dominate the larger political and social scene in Yemen exactly as they did under Saleh—indeed, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi hails from the same party—and stand to lose a great deal if the dialogue comes out with a solid vision for law and order. To this end, there are some who believe the new regime to be allying itself with Islah against Hirak and the Houthis—despite calling them to participate in the national dialogue—to as to preserve a unified Yemen and their place in it.  Islamists want to keep the unity but they do not want secularism and socialism of the south. The "real" Hirak knows this very well.

“Bringing all groups to the dialogue will not necessarily lead to success,” said Sami Ghalib, a political analyst. "The problem is that the gaps between the new regime and Hirak and the Houthis are getting wider and wider." That both groups allegedly receive funding from Iran doesn’t help matters. Sporadic clashes have erupted between Islamist supporters of Islah and the Houthis in Saada, Hajja, and Al Jawof; Islah has likewise clashed with Hirak in the southern city of Aden.

Activist Afra Al Hariri, who herself hails from the south—doesn’t believe that the problems of the south have changed, even after a southern president came to power: “Insecurity, exclusion, marginalization, absence of equal citizenship, and the same faces who were ruling us are still there being repeated,” Al Hariri says. Success for the dialogue, she points out, lies in two contingents—and the onus is on the north: “The tribal speeches against the south should stop, and fatwas [religious decrees] should stop.”

Tribal and religious anti-southern rhetoric dates back to the civil war and continues to raise southern ire. Incidents date back to 1994, when the then-Minister of Justice and Islah-affiliated northern religious leader Abd al-Wahhab al-Daylami (and later, the influential cleric Sheikh Abdul Majeed al-Zindani) issued fatwas declaring southern socialists of being kafirs (infidels), and called for holy war against them.  More recently, northern tribal leader Sadeq Al Ahmar, declared earlier this month that he would lead a war against southerners who would not participate in the dialogue. Both statements were widely condemned by northerners and southerners alike.  

Additionally, the activities of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) continuously attempt to thwart any political success also present a security challenges. Despite this, however, some insist that al-Qaeda participate as long as the Houthis and Hirak—both of which are armed entities—are going to participate. 

Opponents to Hirak’s participation accuse southerners of jockeying for power. “It is not a matter of power. If it were a matter of power, the current president is from the south, said Mohammed Haidara Masdous, a Hirak leader. “The prime minister is from the south, and the defense minister is from the south. But it is not an issue of power.” But the situation on the ground is such that Yemenis cannot establish a national rule of law without the help of players outside the looming north-south tensions. To this end, The UN envoy to Yemen Jamal Bin Omar has even opened a permanent office in Sanaa to monitor closely the implementation of the transitional deal and the two resolutions of the UN Security Council on Yemen crisis. An important factor that will affect the success or failure of the national dialogue is international and regional support. President Hadi and the unity government cannot do anything without external players, whose support is vital. At present, though, such backing seems enough to ensure that the dialogue will be held—and all groups represented, even despite the difficulties. But the problems of north-south tensions will likely remain unresolved after November, and Yemen’s civil war anxieties will likely remain until the rhetoric—and the suspicions behind them—change entirely. 

Nasser Arrabyee is a Yemeni journalist based in Sanaa. He has reported for The New York Times (among others) and blogs on Yemeni affairs here.