All eyes on Aden

As the optimism of the Arab Spring fades, Yemen’s struggle against autocracy continues. Unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, the departure of the country’s President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has not heralded the beginning of a new era. Instead, it has deepened a dangerous political stalemate.

Yesterday, that stalemate grew ever more tenuous as a car bomb killed 8 government soldiers and wounded 18 in Aden. Whilst media attention focuses on Sana’a and Abyan, the situation in this southern port city grows worse by the day. This week alone has seen violent clashes between (as yet unidentified) groups, a mounting humanitarian crisis, and the killing of a British shipping surveyor.

With the de facto devolution of authority that has occurred over 6 months of protest, Aden is becoming a bastion of anti-regime sentiment. As reported over at Foreign Policy, government forces have retreated altogether, leaving the Al-Hirak secessionist movement to come out of the shadows and operate openly. Unlike the capital, Sana’a, where anti-government banners are found only near the University, Aden is emblazoned with anti-government graffiti on walls and shops and even across the high security walls of now empty government buildings.

Bids for secession are far from new. North and South Yemen were only unified in 1990 and the country still bears the scars of a difficult merging process. Responding to new grievances, the most recent secessionist movement – Al-Hirak – has been gathering pace since 2007: responding to new grievances, rather than reviving old ones, its demands have tended to be framed in the language of equality. Despite using the language of unification, President Saleh’s actions have spoken louder than words as he consistently prioritised the development of the north. As southern poverty deepened and perceptions of political exclusion sharpened, the country’s difficult unification came to be more openly questioned. The sense of injustice was exacerbated by the prioritisation of US-funded development projects in the north, fueling a narrative of suffering and marginalisation.  This legacy of social injustice has come to play an important role during the Arab Spring, with Aden becoming an important site of confrontation outside Sana’a. The entire road in Mu’alla – the city’s largest district – remains blocked off by anti-regime protesters, an act that has perhaps been tacitly encouraged by the regime as it has withdrawn its forces from the city.

As news of today’s car bombing continues to trickle out, a regime spokesman has suggested the culprits are likely to be Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Whilst it is far too early to judge, analysts remain skeptical. The army’s strategy in Aden – withdrawing and allowing unrest to increase, then blaming AQAP for its provenance – seems remarkably similar to that used in Abyan last month. The Aden of today is certainly a far cry from the Aden of 6 months ago. Then, armoured vehicles roamed the streets, tightly controlling the security situation as the city hosted the Gulf 20, a regional soccer championship.

The increasing strength of anti-regime protests in Aden, combined with the prominence of Al-Hirak’s secessionist rhetoric, has led experts to raise the prospect of a successful break from the north. Whatever the likely outcome, yesterday’s escalation in violence remains particularly worrying. All eyes should be on Aden in the coming weeks.

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