Since mid-October, a protest encampment has been spreading out across the dirt and asphalt of Al-Orod Square in the southern Yemeni port town of Aden. According to those who oversee the day-to-day management of the ragged collection of makeshift tents, the population of the camp has swelled over the past week to 5,000 from 3,000.
The people gathering at Al-Orod have only one thing on their minds. “Those [expletive] people in the north, they don’t care about us, and [President Abd Rabbu Mansour] Hadi is just a puppet for [them],” said Ali Mohammed Saleh, a retired oil worker who supports Hirak al-Janoubi, or the Southern Movement, a loose coalition of ideologically diverse groups aiming to undo a 24-year-old unity pact between the formerly separate northern and southern republics of Yemen.
Passions have been running high, both at the camp and across the territory of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), or “South Yemen”, comprising the southern tip and much of the east of the modern state.
Sunday marks the 47th anniversary of south Yemen’s independence from the British empire, and organisers of the Al-Orod protest are planning to make an announcement on what will happen next.
“Tomorrow is the anniversary of our independence from the British, and, inshallah, it will also be the anniversary of our independence from the north,” said Mohsen Saleh Omar, who has decorated a tent that was once the property of the UN with a portrait of Qahtan al-Shaabi, the first president of the socialist PDRY.
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So much excitement and nervous tension has been generated in the south over the November 30 date that Hadi sent his recently appointed defence minister, Mahmoud Al-Subaihi, to monitor the situation. Rumours swirled in local and regional media that Hirak, as the secessionists are often described, planned to declare independence outright, seize government buildings and attack “northern” military units stationed in the south.
To quell the hysteria and dispel fears that an announcement of independence could lead to outbreaks of violence, the Hirak faction behind the camps had to arrange a press conference laying out their plans.
The problem is, they say, how can we talk to so many leaders, parties, groups, in the south. If you want to talk to us, you should be united. Form some kind of leadership council and we will take you seriously.
“People are scared, and there are many lies around,” Sheikh Hussein bin Shuaib, a southern secessionist cleric who describes himself as the “president” of the protest camps, told Al Jazeera. “It will be peaceful.”
Without resorting to violence, Bin Shuaib says, Hirak will “escalate” its current campaign of civil disobedience from Sunday onwards, holding three demonstrations a week, calling for secessionists to strike and create an economic blockade in the port town, and closing the border with the north for several hours a day. They may also blockade oil production facilities in the south of the country, he said.
The question for many is whether or not the November 30 declaration will be another missed opportunity for a movement that has hugely popular aims in the south of Yemen but has struggled to achieve internal cohesion.
For seven years, southerners have been agitating for secession, holding regular marches and populating the south of the country with the flag of the former PDRY, despite harsh penalties under former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Yet, they have produced few, if any, tangible results, with the movement wary of repeating the mistakes of the past by using violence to achieve their aims. A 1994 attempt at secession through force was brutally defeated by northern military and tribal forces.
“It was bloodshed and economic disaster and if we repeat this, after the war we would face big problems,” said Saleh Abdulhaq, a former colonel in the PDRY military who was a senior southern military adviser during the civil war. “If you lose 60 or 70 percent of your people and you win, you have really lost.” Instead, he said, southerners must “raise our voices” and force the UN to act.
When Saleh was unseated by a 2011 uprising that morphed into a battle between different factions of his regime, there was an opportunity for southerners to exploit the ensuing security vacuum and declare independence. Most of the movement’s most prominent leaders refused to attend peace talks held in Sanaa in 2013 and early 2014 to make their case. Now, following the takeover of Sanaa in September and a subsequent period of rapid territorial expansion by a group known as the Houthis, calls for independence have become more urgent. The Al-Orod camp, established after an October 14 pro-secession rally that drew more than 100,000 people into Aden, is emblematic of this renewed focus.
“When the Houthis went into Sanaa, it changed things; it helped us a lot,” Bin Shuaib said. “The security presence in Aden and Hadramawt [an eastern province] is looser. The government is not here; it gives us a big space.”
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There are other reasons that Hirak may be gaining confidence. The neighbouring Gulf states have long maintained a pro-unity stance when it comes to Yemen, but the Houthi takeover of Sanaa and the group’s continued expansion may be changing their calculus, said a Sanaa-based power broker who meets regularly with members of Hirak and representatives of Gulf governments.
The Houthis follow the Zaydi form of Shia Islam largely unique to northern Yemen, and stand accused by their Gulf neighbours of being backed by Iran. In November, the UAE designated the Houthis, who also go by the name Ansar Allah, as a terrorist group, following the lead of Saudi Arabia. “They are looking at the south as a way of penalising the Houthis, and of protecting themselves against them,” the source told Al Jazeera.
Although he has not been formally told that the GCC states are likely to back the secessionists, Bin Shuaib believes the threat of Houthi control over the Bab al Mandeb strait – a vital maritime chokepoint that separates the Red Sea from the Indian Ocean, and is vital to trade for Saudi Arabia and Egypt – could lead to formal support for Hirak. Already, he said, Gulf businessmen were helping to underwrite the cost of the protest camps. Abdulrahman al-Jidri, a prominent Hirak supporter who is said to have close ties to the regime in Riyadh, returned to Aden from self-imposed exile in late November and brought donations totalling around SR1m, or $260,000, Bin Shaib said.
Saleh bin Farid al-Awlaki, a prominent southern sheikh who also has close ties with the governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, agreed that the Gulf states could soon shift their position on southern independence. But they will only fully support the movement when they have a clear view of who its leaders are, he added. Despite repeated attempts since 2011, Hirak’s most popular leaders have repeatedly failed to form a united front.
“The problem is, they say, how can we talk to so many leaders, parties, groups, in the south,” al-Awlaki said. “If you want to talk to us, you should be united. Form some kind of leadership council and we will take you seriously.”
The Gulf states also have concerns that some of the southern movement’s most prominent leaders have ties to Iran. “We in the south are Sunnis, there is no chance for us to be connected with Iran,” al-Awlaki said. “Our future is with the European countries and our neighbours.”