ADEN, Yemen |
(Reuters) - Revolts in southern Yemen, inspired by popular uprisings that toppled leaders in Tunisia andEgypt, are taking on a different tone, raising hopes in the south that an independence lost two decades ago can be regained.
In qat saloons, where people gather daily to chew the stimulant qat leaf, the talk is of southern Yemen's decline and the prospects for a separation from the more tribal north.
"(President Ali Abdullah) Saleh, like the rest of the Arab tyrants, will go down. It will be a crucial step toward regaining the south's independence," said financial adviser Yassin Makkawi, as he chewed qat and sipped on a sweet drink.
Nationwide protests against Saleh's 32-year rule have intensified over the past two weeks, and most of the 24 reported deaths have been in the south. Although separatist sentiment is running high, protestors in the former capital Aden have mostly stuck to slogans used by northerners for Saleh to leave power.
Southerners say they have seen their incomes decline, society become more religiously conservative, corruption become more widespread and their home city of Aden lose the leftist spark that gained it the nickname "Cuba of the Middle East."
After striking a shaky unity deal with the north in 1990, a civil war erupted four years later, which the south lost.
"Even the water used to taste better before. Unity has been a disastrous experience in every way. We never imagined that a united Yemen would mean discrimination and domination of our land and resources," Makkawi added.
The bloody uprising in Libya, and January's independence referendum in southern Sudan, just across the Red Sea, has also bolstered hopes of independence.
The mostly northern security forces have pulled back from Aden in the last several days. Police units, known as central security, man road blocks but are mostly letting people through. Traffic, however, remains thin. Popular fish eateries, known as mikhbazas, are doing less business.
In Aden, a cosmopolitan port that had declined in importance by the time the south gained independence from British colonial rule in 1967, residents say the north-dominated government has been eroding their way of life.
They point to a civic tradition and a spirit of tolerance that survived the Soviet-style political system of the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, as the south was formally known.
"I remember playing soccer with Christian and Jewish children in the streets. The full face veil women wear now in Aden was not known to us," said engineer Mohammad Aman.
"Saleh and his bunch are not satisfied with taking our land and depriving us of a voice in government. They have been trying to smash our identity, the songs we used to sing, even the architecture. Aden used to have beige buildings in harmony with nature, not the technicolor mess they brought," he added.
Asked whether unity was possible without international support -- Saudi Arabia finances Saleh and the United States considers him an ally in its war against al Qaeda -- Tamam Bashraheel said the president was losing his usefulness.
"The West has started to understand the game. They are getting to know that Saleh's argument as the bulwark against al Qaeda and instability is false," said Bashraheel, the publisher of the al-Ayyam newspaper, which was banned two years ago.
"Southern society is religious but moderate. Al Qaeda will lose any foothold in a democratic south," he added.
Most of the violence in Aden took place in the commercial Mouala district, which has relatively prosperous businesses compared with Yemen's yearly per capita national income of a little over $1,000. A large British cemetery sits along the main street and a derelict Jewish one is hidden behind a wall.
One of Aden's main sites, a picturesque fort on top of giant volcanic rocks overlooking the deep blue Arabian Sea, has attracted zero visitors since the demonstrations intensified two weeks ago.
"The fort was renovated last year and we got up to 15 Western tourists a week. Now there is no one. It has not been easy even for me to get here," gatekeeper Ahmad Abdulwahed said.
But not all southerners are in favor of the protests, or nostalgic about the time the south was independent, remembering instead the autocratic socialist party and its heavy-handed nationalization of the economy.
"I used to stand in line for hours with my mother to buy bread. Saleh has overstayed his welcome and he might as well declare Yemen a hereditary republic. But the alternative is not sabotage," said Mustafa Khader, who makes a modest living selling used cars.
"Aden always took the brunt of political crisis," he said, referring to the 1994 conflict and a southern civil war in the 1980s that killed thousands. "We want to be spared this time."