SAN’Aa, Yemen - Growing demands for secession in Yemen’s south and al Qaeda’s unshaken hold over rural areas are threatening a stable transition to democracy following last year’s revolution.
The country’s warring factions have come together for the first time to jointly write a new constitution and prepare for the nation’s first free parliamentary elections after three decades of dictatorship. The government, recognizing historical divisions, is looking to give the country’s regions more autonomy while keeping them together under one banner.
A federal state is likely to emerge from the talks, officials say, which could see Yemen divided into as many as seven semiautonomous states with San’a remaining the capital.
But whether the constitution will be ratified in a countrywide referendum in November is questionable, as Hirak - the southern secessionist party that has largely boycotted the talks - demands that Yemen be partitioned into the northern and southern states that existed before unification in 1990.
Political leaders warn that if Hirak insists on secession, the country will be plunged back into a civil war of the kind it experienced in 1994, when the south tried to secede from the north.
“The question is, can we sell what we’ve agreed on here in the street to the ordinary citizen? Can we do this, especially in the south?” asked Ahmad Awad Bin Mubarak, the secretary-general of the national talks. “If we can’t prove that we’re implementing real change, then we won’t win over the street. We don’t have the street now, because we’re still talking about promises.”
Last week, Yemen celebrated Unification Day, which al Qaeda and Hirak have used in the past to challenge the rule of San’a, a threat that still troubles the capital’s quest for a peaceful democratic transition.
Every year, Hirak organizes a massive march against unification while al Qaeda marked last year’s holiday by staging one of the bloodiest attacks to ever rock San’a, killing more than 90 soldiers and wounding about 200 more.
Last week, hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Aden, the port city that was once the capital of South Yemen, chanting anti-unification slogans and waving the secessionist flag.
“No to unification and no to San’a!” protesters chanted, waving the flag of South Yemen, which is similar to Yemen’s flag but sports a light-blue triangle surrounding a red star on one side.
Secessionists have always said they are occupied by the north, a drag on southern Yemen’s more plentiful resources, such as its oil and fisheries.
After the north-south civil war in 1994, a victorious northern Yemen looted its southern neighbor and gutted its military under then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a northerner.
Now, Hirak sees a chance for secession after widespread protests forced Mr. Saleh, a strongman who ruled Yemen with an iron fist, to step down in February 2012 in exchange for an immunity deal.
His vice president at the time, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, became president after an election in which he was supported by both Mr. Saleh’s ruling party and the opposition. Mr. Hadi was given the task of creating a unity government to administer elections next year.
“Federalism is rejected by our people. There’s no proof that San’a can even run a functioning state,” said Ali Munassir, a Hirak founder.
“When we protest on the streets and get shot at by the army, what are we supposed to do? All options are open if they don’t accept our demand,” Mr. Munassir said, adding that an armed struggle against San’a was on the table.
In San’a this month, Yemen’s military finished building a memorial marking al Qaeda’s attack on a rehearsal for a military parade last year, as it prepared for Unification Day celebrations. Craftsmen put the finishing touches on a memorial last week, a mirrored structure bearing the names of the more than 90 dead, encircling a painting of two slain soldiers, their bodies splayed on a road drenched in blood.
Al Qaeda’s threat overshadowed not just Unification Day celebrations this year, but also Yemen’s struggle for a peaceful political transition after the country’s revolution.
Al Qaeda has largely taken advantage of the chaos that ensued after the revolution and the weakness of national-security forces to take over large towns and even small cities in Yemen’s south.
While some of those gains have been beaten back, al Qaeda’s assassination campaign against government officials continues.
So far this year, 18 officials have been assassinated across Yemen, many in broad daylight by assailants on motorcycles, the Defense Ministry said. Although that number is down from last year’s 83, al Qaeda has a strong presence in rural Yemen that continues to haunt the government.
Hirak leaders accuse the government of supporting al Qaeda’s operations - which are strongest in the south - in order to suppress secessionists, a charge the government denies.
But the accusation shows how little trust there is among Yemen’s political factions and how difficult it will be for the government to push through the new constitution this fall.
Al Qaeda continues to maintain a presence throughout much of the country, as Yemen overhauls its security forces.
“Once we rebuild our security forces, we’ll take back the advantage,” said Yemen’s Minister of Information, Ali Ahmed Al Amrani. “For those people who think they can divide the state, we’ll have a long civil war and still end up as one Yemen.”