Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 06/2010

The Political Challenge of Yemen's Southern Movement

Stephen Day

March 2010

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


Three opposition groups within Yemen are undermining that country’s stability. The newest, called the Southern Movement, has been less militant than al-Qaeda or the al-Huthi rebels on the northern border with Saudi Arabia. It began in 2007 and used peaceful means to seek redress of problems rooted in the troubled unifi cation of North and South Yemen in 1990. The creation of the new state has meant problems for residents of the South: issues of national identity, economic grievances, and concerns over access to political power. The central government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh has cracked down on the Southern Movement, but this pressure has radicalized the group. It now presents a greater threat to the regime in Sanaa. Many supporters are demanding secession, and they want to rebuild the former southern state. More dangerously, there are signs that the Southern Movement might be forming ties with al-Qaeda. The Southern Movement challenges Yemen’s political status quo, which could help al-Qaeda by increasing instability in the country. The real danger, however, is that the movement might be conflated with al-Qaeda and targeted for military methods of counterterrorism. Such actions would magnify al-Qaeda’s role in Yemen and worsen the problem of terrorism there. The Yemeni regime can prevent further radicalization of the Southern Movement and avoid strengthening its ties with al-Qaeda. To do so it must address the political and economic problems that gave rise to the movement and increase southerners’ access to power, which is currently held chiefly by the president, his family, and his Hashid tribe.