Regionalism and Rebellion in Yemen: a troubled national union

Regionalism and Rebellion in Yemen: a troubled national union

by Stephen W. Day, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge Middle East Series), 2012.  + 336. Maps. Tables. Chronology. Notes. Index. Pb. $29.99. ISBN: 978-1-107-60659-3.

This long awaited book by Dr Stephen Day, an American scholar and namesake of a former chairman of the BYS, is the fruit of his research for a PhD thesis in the second half of the 1990s combined with his subsequent interest in Yemeni politics, with a particular focus on the south since unity in 1990. The book looks at two 1960s revolutions that created the Yemen Arab Republic and the Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), the emergence of ex President Ali Abdullah Salih and how be built his rule, the failed unification of the two Yemenis in 1990 and how events in the 1990s and early 2000 have shaped the politics of today.

Dr Day argues that the past, present and future of Yemeni politics cannot be properly analyzed without taking into account its regional divisions, whose influence previous scholars have tended to neglect. He points to the strong regionally-based states of the distant past and the difficulty that Yemeni leaders, whether Imams or Presidents, have experienced in persuading Yemen’s diverse peoples to accept central authority by force, co-option, persuasion or the ballot box. He defines seven distinct regions that are generally aligned with geographical divisions. The most coherent, perhaps is what he calls the ‘north-west highlands’ that are strongly associated with Zaydism and the major tribal confederations of the Hashid and Bakil. He argues that elites from this region have dominated and continue to dominate Yemeni regimes. To the west is the coastal plain of the Tihama. The ‘midlands’ is the Sunni Shafi'i heartland of Taiz, Ibb and parts of neighbouring provinces. The ‘southwest lowlands’ is Aden and southern Lahij and Abyan and the ‘mid southern’ the mountainous areas of Eastern and Central Abyan and Shabwa and adjacent lands. To the north is the ‘central of desert interior’ of Marib and Al-Jawf and parts of Al Bayda and Hadhramaut. Hadhramaut (and Mahra) has historically and culturally long been a distinctive region. Dr Day makes his case well and avoids an overly deterministic approach but some scholars and this reviewer see regionalism as being a crucial but not overriding influence.

What Dr Day successfully shows is that authoritarian regimes or centralised systems in north, south and united Yemen have provided only short term or illusory stability. Ali Abdullah Salih’s regime in its early days and the PDRY in the 1970s tried to build governments that included politicians from all regions and ran into difficulties when they later reverted to centralisation or tried to exclude powerful local groups. Salih stripped power from what had been effective local government in his efforts to strengthen the centre. The 1986 quasi civil war in the south was essentially a fight between two regional groups, each trying to exclude the other from power.

A core part of the book discusses the flawed unification of the northern and southern elites in 1990 and the way that Salih carried out a ruthless and unrelenting policy of marginalising the southern leadership and undermining the PDRY’s relatively efficient government systems in the period up to the civil war of 1994 and the subsequent ‘occupation’ of the south. He shows how the Salih regime at first co-opted the supporters of Ali Nasser Muhammad, the southern leader forced out in the violent events of 1986, and then discarded them as he and his allies from other parts of the northern elite exploited the south for their benefit. This is by far the strongest part of the book, based on surveys and interviews Dr Day conducted for his PhD. He provides the best and most authoritative account that has so far been published in English and should be required reading for scholars, diplomats and others trying to help create a better future for Yemen’s 24 million people . It shows why so many in the south demand secession, federation or insist that there must be a more inclusive and democratic system if they are to remain in a united Yemen.

Dr Day draws more on secondary sources to trace how southern discontent evolved from protests in 2007 by military officers dismissed in the 1990s into what has become the southern mobility movement – al-Hiraak.

The regime’s attempts to put it down merely helped the movement to spread. Al Hiraak may lack cohesion and a united leadership and have inherited the regional divisions of the PDRY but it is a grassroots movement that is too powerful and widespread to ignore – a fact that is now recognised by many in Sana’a and the international community.

The final part of the book appears to be a late addition but is useful in bringing the work beyond the fall of the Salih, which Dr Day attributes to the impact of the great 2011 popular uprising of the Arab Spring on a regime that had been weakening since the mid 2000s. Salih’s policies, including a plan to ensure that his son Ahmad would succeed him, alienated erstwhile allies within the northern upland elite. This intensified after the death of Shaikh Abdullah al-Ahmar, who despite heading the Islah opposition party, was also a strong ally of Salih. Cracks in the regime became major fractures as former allies sided with (or exploited) the mass demonstrations to force Salih out with the help of GCC and UN mediators and heavy pressure from international and regional governments.

His concluding chapter lends force to those who argue that a federal system is likely to provide the most stable system for Yemen whether it is one based on the old north and south Yemen or on some, possibly all, of the regions which Dr Day describes. However, there are quite district differences – which Dr Day acknowledges but does not analyse – between the outlook of the northern and southern elite. Whatever divisions exist in the south there is also a strong sense of a distinctive south Yemeni identity.

This is visible in the argument used by many in the south that negotiations over the future of Yemen should be discussed not in the Conference of the National Dialogue (starting in November 2012) but in direct negotiations between southern and northern leaders. To them the southern state still exists. A majority of the northern elite see unity as non-negotiable.

He sets his arguments out against the background of Yemen’s profound economic and social problems (as well as discussing the problems in Sa’ada with al-Huthi). This is a very good and well written book that manages to find a path between being academically rigorous in its core sections and accessible to a wider public.

Noel Brehony

Stephen W. Day