With violent protests swelling in Egypt and fighting escalating in Syria, there's a sense these days that the Arab Spring has taken a dark turn. This week, Jamal Benomar, the U.N. envoy to Yemen, expressed similar concerns about Yemen, which is beset by challenges ranging from water and fuel shortages to a growing al Qaeda presence to separatist movements in the north and south. "The transition is threatened," Benomar warned, adding that the Yemeni government should "take confidence-building measures to address the grievances of the southerners" for national reconciliation talks to work.
In the once-prosperous southern port city of Aden, which I visited twice in October and November, the demand for secession from the country's north is everywhere -- from the city's beaches to its graffiti-covered walls. Shaking off more than a century of British rule in 1967, Aden served as the capital of the Marxist People's Democratic Republic of Yemen until 1990, when Ali Abdullah Saleh unified the country's north and south. The former Yemeni president solidified his control over the country in a bloody civil war four year later, leaving behind bitter feelings in the south that linger even after Saleh relinquished power earlier this year.
The primary force behind the secessionist push is the Southern Movement (known as al-Hirak in Arabic), an assortment of groups united by the goal of southern autonomy. Their mission appeals to southerners who are embittered by what they perceive as aggression by armed tribesmen and Yemeni military forces in the north, and corruption and land grabs by government officials in the northern capital Sanaa.
Yemen's new president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, has pinned hopes for ironing out differences between the north and south after the revolution on a National Dialogue Conference bringing together the deeply fragmented country's disparate factions and political parties. Twice delayed -- largely due to difficulties in arranging southern participation -- the conference is now expected to begin in roughly two months. Even if these discussions prove productive, my impression after 15 days in Aden is that the government will have to launch a much more ambitious on-the-ground campaign for hearts and minds in southern Yemen to preserve national unity -- and to head off secessionist bids in the future.
Above, a father and son sit at a Southern Movement meeting place in Aden. Behind them, a message geared toward foreigners suggests that the Southern Movement is channeling an Adeni desire to join a global community that values principles of progress and modernity. The Southern Movement's flag originally belonged to the now-defunct People's Democratic Republic of Yemen.