Democracy in Yemen: Pandora's box?

By Mohamed Urdoh | 1994-07-01 12:00:00

In April last year, the world applauded Yemen as the only Arab Peninsula country ever to hold fair and free elections.

Four years ago, the country touched the hearts of many well wishers when its components-- South Yemen and North Yemen-merged into a single state with a total population exceeding 13 million.

Welcomed as a feat in an area of regional tensions and interstate back-stabbing, these steps were seen as contributions to the stability of the region, since they were expected to put an end to the traditional hostility between the two former Yemens.

However, by pinning too much hope on these major but isolated developments in that Arab country, optimistic observers made a serious error of judgment due to an oversight. Such pundits failed to appreciate numerous lessons which could have been learned from the experience of the Third World, and of Yemen in particular.

The disintegration of the United Arab Republic (Egypt and Syria) in 1961, the decision of Somaliland to break away from Somalia, and the Eritrean secession from Ethiopia after three decades of bloodshed, are all examples that deserve attention. The international community has ignored the historical and ideological chasms separating South and North Yemen.

For many decades, the two sides belonged to different worlds. As an archaic monarchy, the North was in virtual isolation from the rest of the world for the best part of this century. Therefore, it got stuck in a quagmire of cultural, economic and political stagnation until 1962, when it became a republic.

Conversely, the former South Yemen was a British colony for 128 years before winning independence in 1967 after a bloody struggle. Hence the combined effect of colonialism and the area's geographical and strategic advantages opened it up to other cultures and peoples.

Besides making a strong modern and secular tradition flourish in the South, this process nurtured a dramatic cultural and economic boom that turned the region into a "Hong Kong" of the Red Sea/Indian Ocean zone during the colonial days.

In the post-republican era, Northern conservatism continued to reign supreme, with gradual changes lately. But the South had been awash with radical ideological trends, among which communism was dominant, even before the British went home. Against this backdrop, the chances for bridging the wide gap between the two sides were never very good. That is why the relations between the two Yemens remained tenseand often erupted into violence.

For instance, in June 1978, a booby-trapped brief case carried by a South Yemeni diplomat killed North Yemen President Lieutenant Colonel Ahmed Hussein el Gashmi. Little less than four months later, his successor, Lieutenant Colonel Ali Abdulla Saleh (still in power) was the target of a South Yemen-sponsored abortive coup. And in February 1979, South Yemen allegedly unleashed a three-pronged attack against its neighbor.

Thus the vaunted Yemeni unity has rested on flimsy grounds. Had it not been for the demise of the USSR-which kept the south afloat in the '60s, '70s and '80s-the 1990 unification might never have materialized. Now that the honeymoon is over, the North/South marriage of convenience has run into trouble and may split the united Yemen. The ongoing all-out war is being described as the worst violent confrontation between the North Yemeni troops and their Southern opponent since 1979.

The war has been caused by a power struggle between President Saleh and Vice-president Ali Salim Al-Baid, the leader of the South and its former president before the union.

Ironically, the 1993 democratic elections brought about the current crisis by drastically tilting the delicate Yemeni political balance in favor of the North, which accounts for three-quarters of the total population.

The way was led by President Saleh, whose General People's Congress Party (GPCP) had gained 123 of the 301 seats. His position was entrenched even deeper by the success of the Saudi-sponsored Islah (Reform) Party (IP).

Another political group was controlled by the president's father-in-law, Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar (the Speaker of Parliament). IP took the second place by winning 62 seats, while Vice-President Al-Baid's YSP, which managed to get only 57 seats, came third.

By threatening the security of Southerners, who fear total Northern domination, the new state of affairs has reinforced separatist tendencies.

The situation was compounded by recent drastic changes in the Yemeni oil situation. Before unification in May 1990, hopes of large oil finds in the South were not high. But now it seems that the South has brighter prospects than the North. This sudden reversal has added impetus to Southern separatism. But the North, whose leaders consistently preach "unity or death," are not in a mood to accept separation thateasily. Thus, the outbreak of a full-fledged civil war was inevitable.

This is not the first time Yemen has been driven by war. In fact, both sides have a history of violence.

In the North, the worst in recent memory was the civil war following the ouster of Imam Bader Bin Ahmed in an Egyptian-supported military coup in 1962. The prolonged military confrontation between the republicans, who took over power, and royalists claimed many lives.

The conflict also touched off political and diplomatic confrontation between Saudi Arabia, which sided with the toppled Imam, and Nasser's Egypt, which committed more than 20,000 troops to help the republicans.

In the South, the single bloodiest clash happened in January 1986, after the then-president, Ali Nasser Mohamed, was accused of being responsible for the assassination of some rival hard-liners in the ruling communist YSP.

Against this backdrop, Yemen could be the world's next trouble spot after Bosnia, Rwanda, and Somalia. And a civil war in Yemen could directly affect Western interests.

Yemen has a burgeoning oil industry dominated by Western oil producers such as the Calgary based Canadian Occidental (CanOxy) whose field in the South is sitting on 1.4 billion barrels of oil. American Hunt and Exxon companies have even larger stakes there.

Add to this the fact that Yemen is adjacent to Saudi Arabia. Besides boasting the largest population, the biggest land mass, and the deadliest military arsenal among the Arab Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) memberstates, this strategically important country has the largest known oil reserves in the world.

It is a foregone conclusion that any disturbance in Yemen will pose serious challenges for Saudi Arabia and its other five Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) allies-Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Of these, Oman, which quelled a South Yemen-supported secessionist guerrilla movement with the military help of the Shah of Iran in the late '70s, could be the most vulnerable.

Therefore, the West will undoubtedly keep a wary eye on events in Yemen, while observers around the world ask the crucial question: will democracy become a Pandora's box in the Arabian Peninsula?

Mohamed Urdoh is a Toronto journalist and associate editor of Peace.

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1994

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1994, page 6. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Mohamed Urdoh here

Peace Magazine homepage