Yemen's legacy families: between reconciliation and exclusion

Friend of the blog Fernando Carvajal reflects on a social group that is often overlooked in discussions of Yemen's political scene: families that made up the political elite in pre-unification and pre-republican Yemen. Fernando is a PhD candidate at the University of Exeter, and has studied and worked in Yemen for over a decade. As Yemenis live through phase one of the National Dialogue Conference, launched March 18, insiders and international observers work through pessimism, limited transparency, and an abundance of caution. The process itself has marginalized revolutionary elements from among the youth bulge and has failed to encourage southern participation. Added to the list of excluded groups now are various legacy families with their own historical grievances.

The process of incorporating independent youth elements to the Dialogue is much easier than observers have described. Strong young candidates have been identified by credible actors, yet a mix of hesitation by the international community and a complete refusal by traditional actors to recognize revolutionary ideas continue to marginalize those with credible grievances and street power. The more difficult issue haunting the transiton process remains the exclusion of legacy families from the north and south with grievances. The families of northern political actors affected by fifty years of intra-regime conflicts continue to struggle to find a role since the start of the 2011 uprising and now within the Dialogue process. Southern political actors, whether in Sanʻa, in the south, or abroad also find themselves struggling to fit into the process.

This year the Republic of Yemen will celebrate the fifty-first anniversary of the 26 September revolution against the Imamate of Al Hamid al-Din, and the forty-sixth anniversary of southern independence from British rule. In the north, conflict was never restricted to fighting between Royalists (supporters of the Imam) and Republicans (supported by Gammal 'Abd al-Nasser). Internal conflicts within both camps not only obstructed peace processes but also contributed to prolonged elite conflicts. The Hamid al-Din family, much of which has lived in exile since 1962, are not alone in demanding relief for their own grievances. Relatives of ousted president Abdullah al-Sallal and murdered president Ibrahim al-Hamdi are some actors among many other revolutionaries and sayyid families who believe the Dialogue must also address their concerns, as well as form part of the process bringing about a new Yemen.

In the south, contemporary politics are fixated on political actors such as ‘Ali Salem al-Baydh, ‘Ali Nasser, Haydar al-Attas, Mohammed ‘Ali Ahmed, Hassan Baʻoum and others leading the current uprising throughout southern provinces. Behind the scene there are other actors working arduously to ensure their voices are heard during the Dialogue conference or at minimum influence the process from behind closed doors. Such actors include southern sultans (al-Abdali, al-Kathiri, al-Qa’yti), tribal shaykhs and sharifs who—depending on whom you ask—were either forced to leave or left voluntarily before the establishment of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. Many of them have lived in Sanʻa or elsewhere since 1967, and while not directly part of the northern regime they were never reclaimed by the southern government, nor were they accepted by southern actors during the Unification process of 1990. Since 1999 many of these actors expanded their activities to form a number of discussion forums where topics being discussed today were addressed, but never came to influence the regime in Sanʻa.

Intra-regime conflicts led to exile of revolutionary politicians and military offices in the Yemen Arab Republic, as well as numerous assassinations and ‘accidental’ deaths. In the south, those who opted to leave prior to 1967 were never allowed to reclaim their role in politics or their properties. Many of those who were pushed out in 1986 (known as Zumbra) did not have a role in the process of unification, but have been demonized for their role during the 1994 civil war as result of their support for ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Saleh’s regime against separatists led by ‘Ali Salem al-Baydh.

Two generations in Yemen have grown up under conflicting historical narratives that have either ignored or demonized elites from both the north and the south. These ‘marginalized’ elites not only have an uphill climb vis-à-vis the current political structure, influenced by international actors and entrenched rivalries among centers of power, but also have to deal with the great distance between them and the current generation driving revolutionary ideas since February 2011. Even though youth in the north raised pictures of president al-Hamdi and revolutionary poet Mohammed Mahmoud al-Zubayri, young northern Yemenis have no connection with their progenies, and current elites have no incentive for including them. In the south, since 2009, youth only raised pictures of leaders perceived as their patrons, such as al-Baydh, and Baʻoum, the man who suffered from relentless northern harassment and oppression. This is the limited connection between the youth and the old guard in the south.

Many youth view legacy actors as merely part of the past and in no way find a role for them in the new process. The absence of trust extends beyond today’s institutions and political elites. Youth nationwide are unable to rally behind any political figure lacking potential staying power, and for any significant number of young Yemenis to eventually trust marginalized or exiled legacy elites remains very far away. The uphill battle for legacy elites will not end with exclusion from the Dialogue process. If they fail to position themselves in society once again during the transition period they may soon simply be relegated to history books written by non-Yemenis.