Massive protests have broken out in recent days in the southern port city of Aden, where a southern separatist movement has been demanding an independent state for South Yemen ever since it was absorbed into Yemen more than 22 years ago.
Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets demanding restoration of the former independent state of South Yemen. Aden was the capital of South Yemen until 1990. The demonstration was held on the anniversary of a 1986 civil war in which the exiled former leader, Abdul Ismail, returned from Moscow and tried to reclaim power. In 1990, officials agreed to come under rule of the north. Ever since, there have been secessionist groups who want South Yemen to be restored. There have been constant complaints that southern development is ignored by the north.
The roots of the South Yemen movement are in contrast to those of the Islamic radicals in the south. South Yemen was a secular state, Marxist oriented and an ally of Russia. In the spring, when there was an offensive against parts of the south controlled by Islamic militants, there was also an offensive in Aden to clear out separatists. Major General Mansour Hadi has offered to negotiate with officials from South Yemen to grant partial autonomy to the region but most at the demonstration are demanding independence.
The Obama administration is a fervent supporter of the new Yemeni government and President Hadi, the new ruler, who was formerly vice-president under former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was also supported by the US until protests and civil unrest made it crucial that he be replaced. Hadi was elected in a contest in which he was the sole contestant. This has been held up as a model for democracy in the area! Obama even suggested that Yemen be made a model to follow in Syria, after Assad is turfed out.
Saleh's retirement and Hadi's taking over was arranged in concert with the Gulf Cooperation Council, in particular Saudi Arabia. Saleh and his cronies were granted immunity from prosecution for any of their crimes and his relatives continue to wield considerable power in the new government. President Hadi has supported the US intervention in Yemen since it has been instrumental in helping him drive Islamic rebels out of the areas they had occupied last year. However, the groups continue constant attacks on the government using guerrilla tactics.
US Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein, interviewed recently by the official Yemeni state media, insists that the entire South Yemen secessionist movement is an Iranian plot orchestrated by "extremists" opposed to Yemeni democracy in a bid to destabilize the Straits of Hormuz. Of course, the US has been intervening in Yemen for decades. While Iran may be interested in expanding its influence in Yemen, the more likely Iranian intervention would be to aid the Houthi rebels in the north who are Shia.
Insofar as there are radical extremists in the south, they are Sunni Islamic radicals often linked to Al Qaeda not to Iran. The democracy in Yemen that Iran is supposed to oppose has been of autocratic rulers supported by the US and neighbouring Arab states.
President Hadi is charged with drawing up a constitution with elections not scheduled until 2014. A national reconciliation dialogue is also to take place to iron out differences among different groups. Islamic radicals are unlikely to take part in the dialogue and apparently most from the Southern secessionist movement will not either. Given that many key groups may not attend, the dialogue will probably be between different factions of the old guard.
Yemen represents a successful model in that the democratic demonstrators who originally tried to bring about democratic change have been mostly sidelined and the transition is led by the old guard under the guidance of foreign powers, but not Iran!
Meanwhile, the US is advancing its own drone democracy in Yemen to help provide security.