Originally posted June 2009

In June 2008, when an American newspaper journalist interviewed Yemeni President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih, he asked the President to describe what it is like to rule Yemen. “I always say,” Salih explained in the capital Sana‘a, “it is like dancing with snakes.” Most foreign political observers who travel to this rugged, impoverished country tend to sympathize with the difficulty of running such a state. Yemen has a long history of violent revolutions, tribal rebellions, political assassinations, outbursts of rioting, and other frequent social and political turbulence. Thus foreigners are prone to accept Salih’s depiction of what amounts to the unenviable task of serving as President in such a dangerous environment. Generally speaking, foreigners credit Salih’s effort to develop democracy in the country since the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990. They marvel at the president’s skills of surviving more than three decades in office.[1] Rarely do they consider what the President’s self-description says about his own poor approach to leadership.

Since 1993 ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih has overseen five national elections as head of the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) Party. This includes three parliamentary elections and two presidential elections. Twice Salih was elected President by an overwhelming majority, the first time in 1999 with an official 96% of the direct popular vote and the second time in 2006 with a 77% majority. In addition, the President’s GPC Party placed first in each of Yemen’s three parliamentary elections. In the first and most competitive election held on April 27, 1993, the GPC won less than a majority with 41% of the new Parliament’s seats.[2] Since then the GPC has won an increasingly larger majority share in Parliament, gaining 62% of the seats in 1997 and 76% in the last election in 2003. On February 24, 2009, however, Salih postponed the country’s fourth parliamentary election (originally scheduled this year on the 16th anniversary of the first election) after he conceded to the threat of an electoral boycott by a coalition of opposition parties called the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP).

It is against the backdrop of President Salih’s monopolistic political control of the country that one should seek to explain the extension of Yemen’s current Parliament until 2011. If ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih is the skilled democratic leader which foreign observers say he is, and he has a proven track record of winning broad support across the country on election day, then why would he back down in the face of an electoral boycott by a coalition of weaker parties? The JMP includes the Yemeni Socialist Party (or YSP), which ruled the former South Yemen, the conservative Islamist party Islah (or “Reform”), and various Nasserite, Ba‘thist, and other parties. More than a decade ago, the YSP and a few smaller parties followed through on a threat to boycott Yemen’s 1997 parliamentary election, yet the President went ahead with the vote on its scheduled date. What explains his recent decision to postpone the 2009 election? Did President Salih concede to opposition pressure because the opposition now includes conservative Islamist forces? If so, then perhaps there are shadows of doubt about the popular legitimacy of President Salih and his ruling GPC.

One alternative view is that President Salih’s recent concession to the threat of an opposition boycott relates to a series of regional uprisings in the country. The first, since 2004, is centered in Sa‘da province along the northwestern border with Saudi Arabia. The second, starting separately in 2007, spread across the southern and eastern provinces where the YSP ruled an independent state prior to unification in 1990. Perhaps the recent postponement of Yemen’s parliamentary election says more about the growing appearance of cracks in the country’s territorial integrity. Could President Salih have agreed to delay the fourth parliamentary election because of fundamental fears about Yemeni national unity and the basic survival of the state in its present form? The five-year-old uprising in Sa‘da province has been the more violent and deadly of the two uprisings, both in terms of civilian deaths and injuries and casualties among Yemeni soldiers and security forces. However, the latest round of heavy fighting in Sa‘da ended in July 2008. During the past year, therefore, Sa‘da has been less of a concern for President Salih than the uprising in the southern and eastern provinces.

Throughout 2008, the southern and eastern uprising grew steadily as it attracted tens of thousands of participants who joined peaceful sit-ins, rallies, and marches calling for a change in government. In early 2009 this “Southern Movement” or “Southern Cause” flared into violent clashes in the provinces of Abyan, Lahij, and Dhale.[3] About the time (in February) when the decision was made to postpone the April 27 election, government forces engaged in a violent confrontation with a group of militants inside the town of Ja‘ar, a few miles north of Abyan’s capital, Zunjbar. Then, on the date that the fourth parliamentary election originally had been scheduled to take place, a larger anti-government rally was held in Zunjbar’s main square. This rally drew participants from neighboring provinces and eastern provinces as far away as Hadhramawt. Salih’s government refers to the date of April 27 as “Democracy Day,” a source of obvious irony in a year when the voting was called off. But the date also corresponds to the start of the 1994 civil war, which led to northern military control over Yemen’s southern and eastern provinces.

This is one of the reasons why protesters gathered in the streets of Zunjbar. Among southern citizens, there is a strong feeling that genuine democratic practices are lacking in Yemen. For more than a year, supporters of the Southern Movement have demanded “equality of citizenship,” and the right to directly elect their local governors. (One year ago, after the first round of violence in Lahij and Dhale, President Salih attempted to appease protesters by allowing indirect elections of local governors.) The protesters in Zunjbar also sought to commemorate the start of the civil war in 1994. A second main demand of supporters of the Southern Movement is ending the northern military domination of their lives and lifting the military checkpoints along main roads. Prior to the Zunjbar rally, it was announced that one of President Salih’s main southern allies during the civil war, Tariq al-Fadhli, would make a public appearance, committing himself to “political independence” in a state that he calls “South Arabia.” More than anything else, al-Fahdli’s appearance is what drew large numbers of people to the streets of Zunjbar.

In 2009, it is a very striking political development in Yemeni politics to find representatives of the Southern Movement speaking openly in secessionist language today. Ever since the 1994 civil war, when leaders of the YSP formally seceded from the north, just four years after unification, secession has been a highly sensitive topic. Today, it is particularly noteworthy to find old allies of President Salih, such as Tariq al-Fadhli, who fought with northern forces in the civil war against the YSP, now standing with it and other supporters of the Southern Movement against the government.[4] This signals a major political realignment and is a leading factor in the postponement of the 2009 parliamentary elections. Following the 1994 civil war, al-Fadhli and other prominent southerners accepted membership in the GPC and appointments in the government. Today, they are defecting from the GPC, thus calling into question President Salih’s claim to have preserved national unity. It is nearly as troubling that prominent southerners from opposition parties such as Islah are unwilling to defend the government against calls for secession. Too many southerners of all political stripes feel betrayed by a President who used them as political pawns in the past.

In summary, there now appears to be regional cracks not only inside the GPC, but within Islah and the YSP as well. There has long been a division within the YSP between radical members (particularly from Hadhramawt province in the east and Dhale in the south) who continued to pursue secessionist goals after the 1994 civil war, and more moderate members (particularly from Aden and Lahij, and those members from provinces in the North) who advocate unionist policies and seek to compete for political office within the existing status quo. For instance, when the Southern Movement started in 2007, the moderate leadership of the YSP as well as the JMP coalition encouraged protesters not to call for secession. This has been the stance of the Secretary General of the YSP from the northern province of Taiz, Yasin Said Nu‘man, and also the JMP’s Adani candidate in the 2006 presidential election, Faysal Bin Shamlan, a political independent who was born and raised in Hadhramawt. Beginning in 2009, however, secessionist voices grew louder from Lahij in the west to Hadhramawt in the east.

It remains to be seen what will be the fallout of these political developments. To what extent will the political realignment weaken the GPC’s status as guardian of national unity? Could President Salih create further north-south splintering if he continues using the blunt force of his military as a means of responding to the Southern Movement, as he did in the wake of the April 27 rally in Zunjbar? Could this splintering spread beyond the GPC to other southern Islamists who support the Islah party? And what role will the YSP play? On the one hand, the YSP could seek to exploit north-south divisions for its own advantage, perhaps hoping to return to rule in the South. Ironically, the YSP may be best positioned to serve as a unifying force if President Salih would restore some of its powers and the facilities that were seized in the wake of the 1994 civil war, and begin treating the YSP as a genuine partner in national unity. Salih might even allow the YSP to play a stronger role in drafting and carrying out government policies. The most sensible way of averting another national unity crisis is to adopt a coalition government until the next elections in 2011.

If recent developments prove anything, it is the failure of President Salih’s approach to ruling Yemen as a “snake charmer.” First, Salih charmed the YSP to become partners in unity. Then he charmed Tariq al-Fadhli and other Islamists to ally in civil war against the YSP. Now it seems he has come full circle. It is time for Yemen’s snake charmer to cease his old ways. It is time for him to treat his rivals as more than snakes, and finally allow room in government for other politicians to prove themselves as leaders. In 2006 it was unfortunate that a progressive and independent leader like Faysal Ben Shamlan did not have a realistic chance to become president. Salih initially refused to run as a candidate in the 2006 presidential election, observing his commitment to conclude his multiple terms in office. He should have stayed out of the campaign, and allowed younger leaders in the GPC to step forward. The YSP leader Yasin Said Nu‘man is another of these capable leaders in the country. Nu‘man served as Prime Minister of the former South Yemen, and was the first Speaker of Parliament after unification. What Yemen needs is a good leader who can maintain national unity by bringing an end to Salih’s gamesmanship and corruption.


1. ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih first came to power as President of the former North Yemen in 1978.


2. At the time of the 1993 election, the GPC competed on a more level playing field with other political parties. Following their victory in a brief civil war in mid-1994 against southern military troops which remained un-integrated into the national army, Salih and the GPC were able to monopolize political resources in the country.


3. There was an earlier round of violence at the end of March 2008, which lasted a little more than one week and was largely limited to Lahij and Dhale provinces.


4. Tariq al-Fadhli is the claimant to the old Fadhli Sultanate in coastal Abyan, where his family was forced from power in the 1960s by Marxist rebels fighting British colonialism prior to independence. He is also a militant Islamist with past links to Usama Bin Ladin and al-Qa‘ida’s roots in the Arab Afghan mujahidin. He was previously closest to President Salih’s military strongman, ‘Ali Muhsin, who is occasionally described as the President’s half-brother. ‘Ali Mohsin is also married to al-Fadhli’s sister.