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January 20, 2012

South Yemen's former President: Saleh's regime behind alQaeda's recent advances

January 20, 2012

January 20, 2012

Ali Salem al-Beidh, the last president of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen’s, has in recent years returned to public political activism by taking a leading role in the Southern Peaceful Movement for independence. After being forced into exile following an internal conflict in South Yemen, Al-Beidh moved to Oman where he remained until 2009. Today, he is a vocal supporter of independence for South Yemen, after two decades of Northern domination, engineered by Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime. The Arab Digest interviewed Al-Beidh on the peaceful movement, Al-Qaeda, and regional politics:

You were exiled from Yemen in 1994. In 2007, the Southern Peaceful movement started. Today, the whole of Yemen is revolting. How do you see these changes?

When we look today, we see signs of the upcoming victory. In 1994, when we left Yemen, I was unable to do anything for my country. But I was not far from events there. In 2007, after the Peaceful Movement started, I was in touch with my people in the South. In 2009, I left Oman and I declared my support to the movement; my new status enabled me to be active. Today, we witness improvements despite the counter-revolution efforts against the youthful forward-looking movements, disappointed by ruling parties. In the South, the Peaceful movement fights against the real occupation by Yemen Republic’s forces; we still have a long way ahead of us, but we are already seeing signs of victory. Among these were the crowds on the 30th of November during the celebration of the 44th anniversary of the independence of Yemen’s Democratic Republic, and last Friday’s celebration of the “forgiveness and reconciliation day” to mend all the past differences in South Yemen. Unfortunately, this peaceful gathering was faced with live rounds by the occupation forces in Eden’s independence square. They are still exercising the same repressive practices. But their security grip is now looser, as the situation exploded in more than one direction.

- Regionally, Saudi Arabia supports Saleh, and has put forward the GCC initiative to solve the Yemen crisis, buy the regime more time.

The GCC put forward an initiative to solve the crisis in Sana’a, where there is a power struggle, and they ignored the Southern demands. The gulf countries were not far away from what was happening in Sana’a. We have to continue our struggle, count on ourselves, and mend our souls.

You speak of a blackout against the Southern cause. Who is behind it?

There is a blackout. Even in the GCC initiative, there was a small clause at the end, stressing the unity of Yemen. But it is difficult in these days to block such a cause. The world is an open place.

Is there a pro-unification GCC policy?

During the last period, there was a planned media blackout of the Southern cause. There was no news on South Yemen, despite all its miseries and desperation. Sana’a’s budget is fuelled by the South’s riches, while our people suffer homelessness, hunger and dismissal from government. Of course, there is something. Such a situation could not be unintentional. But time is capable of restoring everything. We ask our brothers and neighbours in the GCC to pay attention to the South and its people, and to reconsider their stances. And then, we could form better relations; the Southerners have never had any bearing.

How would an independent South Yemen be like?

We are struggling now to get rid of dozens of Northern occupation brigades. We are also working on strengthening and deepening reconciliation in the South. We have witnessed eras of internal divisions before and after the first independence. But we have good signs of reconciliation and national unity. We extend our hand to all factions without discrimination and regardless of past differences to build a democratic parliamentary and federal Yemen. We want a federal state in South Yemen, a country that involved throughout its history Sheikhdoms and Sultanates. We need a different way of thinking and governing this country, away from central government, and to seriously consider federalism in an independent South Yemen. After unification, we went to Sana’a, where we found a militarized tribal society that rejects modernising the administration, improving state performance, creating a civil society, or reforming the state to become democratic. In the South, we aspire to establish a state that coexists with everyone and build its relations with our brothers across the borders, or with the world. We will exhaust our efforts to eradicate all conspiracies to plant terrorism in the South. There is a conspiracy to display the South as a safe haven for terrorism; this is mistaken, what we have is exported by Sana’a, specifically from the presidential palace. They (Northerners) want to tell the world that the South will fail at building its own state, that we will dissolve again and become a safe haven for terrorists. Such a reputation is harmful to our cause.

When we ruled The People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, before the ominous and treacherous unification, there were no pirates in the Arab sea or Eden’s gulf. I believe that our independence and building our new state will create a friendly environment for good relations with the world based on exchanging benefits and working full-force against all forms of terrorism. We know where terrorism was exported from. Saleh created this scare crow to extort Western financial, economic and military assistance. This situation will end when Southerners reclaim their country; we will make use of various experiences in this aspect. We are committed with the different strata of our society, with no exception, and including the Sultans, businessmen, academics and civil society to build a democratic country.

From 1994 till 2009, there were 15 years of political silence in Oman; have you used this time for reflection on the past’s mistakes, errors or misjudgements?

The re-evaluation is not personal. In both the national and peaceful movements, such reassessments occur. We have good cadres and academics who look back recognizing the need to eliminate the past’s residues, and look forward to a pluralistic and tolerant society. During our independence years, we had one political party, and then after unification, we tried to open the door for political pluralism, but it was too late. After all these years, we are exerting efforts to establish a democratic pluralism, and to open the door for wide participation and tolerance. We do have a true re-assessment of the past, but it is not personal. I and many other leaders of the peaceful movement who live in exile have learned from our experiences; we have great hope that we can offer a better model.

In a nutshell, what were the effects of the North’s domination on the South?

What happened during those two decades led hundreds of thousands of Southerners to demonstrate and demand freedom from this backward and barbaric occupation. Many things happened. Before unification, The People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen’s public sector employed no less than 600 thousand people. Our big government policy was known. Our population was about 5-6 million, while the North had 20 millions people, while their public sector employees did not employ more than 200 thousand. 600 thousand workers became unemployed; they establish what is known as “stay at home party”. They were real and professional cadres; we spent a lot of money on training them. The People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen was the only Arab country that eliminated illiteracy through an effective program; today, under this occupation, illiteracy rates have risen to 60%.

There is also an intentional sabotage of our Southern culture, stealing our natural wealth, and erasing our history. They even replaced famous names of streets, mostly to commemorate popular martyrs. Saleh’s regime also fostered a culture of revenge between Southern tribes in a divide and rule strategy.

Through unification, Southerners dreamed of going forward and developing, but we were dragged into a miserable heart-breaking situation. They destroyed everything. We were two states, two regimes, and we agreed to unification according to signed plans that were scrapped. Then, no less than 150 Southern cadres were assassinated. This situation led us to signing an agreement in Jordan in February 1994, months before the war erupted. After the agreement, I told my brothers in the leadership that the agreement will lead to war. The first clause calls for the arrest of those behind the assassinations; but in reality, they were all Saleh’s men and relatives, and he will not touch them. They fought a destructive war against us in the South where they destroyed the beautiful city of Eden, an international cultural hub. God willing, we will rebuild it. We are a nation of 5-6 million over a land of 336,000 squared kilometres; the North has more than 20 million people over 195,000 squared kilometres. The resources that fuel Sana’a’s budget are mostly in the South; while our people are poor and many times homeless. This is why people rose up, not because of our political activism, but as a result of this tribal and military occupation. God willing, we will regain our independence.

You and many Southerners stress the cultural differences between the South and North. Can you elaborate on that?

In the South, there is potential for creating and encouraging a civil society. At the time of unification, we, the Southerners, tried to improve our model, as both sides had agreed to take the best elements of the two former regimes. We introduced an economic reform program; it was passed in parliament but not implemented. We demanded that in every town where you have a policeman, there should be a court. Such demands were scrapped. Saleh oversees tribal fiefdoms. In every tribal Sheikh’s house, there is a prison. Outside Sana’a, Ta’izz, and Hodeidah, there is no government. There are ruling tribal sheikhs who run their affairs in coordination with Saleh, usually via his most preferred way, the telephone, rather than institutions.

We have two cultures, two views on the way of life. We found ourselves very different from the North in all walks of life. All the rhetoric on “our Yemen” and unification failed in practice. The North had no will to change its ways; the trio of the military, tribal leaders and Islamists like (Sheikh Abdul Majeed) Zindani wield too much influence.

Southern leaders are now divided between pro-independence, like yourself, and the GCC supported federalists. How do you justify this split?

In the South, there are two projects. The first is the federal project whose proponents are unable to hold a single meeting on the streets because of popular rejection. The second is the independence movement represented by us, and the Peaceful Movement.

Is there an organisational/hierarchical link with the Peaceful movement?

Of course. A higher leadership council runs the movement; its president is Hussein Ahmed Baoum who was moved this week from a Yemeni prison to Saudi Arabia after his health deteriorated. I agree with all of the movement’s principles and decisions. They are now preparing a conference, leading to a wider national (Southern) conference; all the other brothers are welcome to attend.

Another project, in addition to aforementioned two, is the state of Hadramut. Proponents believe that such a state has the potential to become the Arab Sea’s Singapore after the passage of oil pipelines. We hope that even those brothers join us in this conference; we welcome all Southerners, even those who are with the current regime.

Are you committed to peaceful means in your cause?

Yes. There are efforts to drag us into violence, and there might be an on the ground decision to take some action to preserve the peaceful nature of our movement. But this is not my decision to make. Since 2007, we have committed to peaceful protest, and the Arab spring revolutions have followed on the same track. We consider this “Our Southern copyrights”.

The Time asked last year whether the current security gap in the South might lead to an independence declaration, is that on the table?

It is not that easy. There are still security forces, and control tools. We are trying to raise the effectiveness of the peaceful movement and strengthen its ranks. The re-assessment was scheduled for this month, but we had to reschedule to face the upcoming and imposed election of the current Vice President. Voting for one person! This is a novelty in democracy. They have also created problems in the South. Ali Mohsen Ahmar and Ali Saleh, while they are fighting each other in the rest of the country, conspire against us in the South. In Zanzibar, Saleh brought some of his Islamist allies, which he claims to be from alQaeda; while Ali Mohsen’s units have brought Ansar Sharia from the other side. They started implementing Sharia laws; those who steal five dollars have their hands amputated, whereas those responsible for extorting billions are left unscathed. We demand the assistance of international organisations in holding a referendum for Southern independence. Southerners have reminded the United Nations’ Security Council in letters of its two resolutions during the 1994 war. Our mission is to reject the elections; let the northerners do whatever they want with it, as the South is unconcerned. We are bothered by the shameful Arab and international silence and intentional blackout over our cause; we urge them to change course. In particular, the British position is the most troubling; they ruled us for 129 years. If they want to understand, they could and would, but there are important interests and maybe, who knows, Washington’s guiding hand. We hope they change course and help the Southern people who is resolute in his quest for independence.

You face a difficult and complex regional situation. But you recently welcomed any regional support to your cause, did you mean Iran?

I have said more than once that we will welcome any rapprochement and support. This applies to everyone and not a single side. I wish that there will be support to the people of the South; we are the victims.

What will you give in return?

Nothing. We reject any conditions. The reward is meeting their human responsibility in eliminating grievances and prejudices.

Do you have any relations with Houthi rebels?

They have changed their position, and now support our right to self determination. They will have a future role in the North.

What do you say to Southerners today?

I call for widening the participation in the peaceful movement, reassessing our experience in the past five years, innovation new ways of peaceful resistance and looking after the youth generation. I expect this year to be that of victories.


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