BEIRUT — Ali Salem al Beidh was one of the chief architects of the agreement that united the northern Yemen Arab Republic with the southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen to create the country that exists today.
When the deal was announced in 1990, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who’d led the more populous north, became president, while Beidh, who was secretary general of the Marxist party that ran the south, became vice president.
Yemen’s unification was hailed as a historic moment, but the initial celebration soon faded, and in 1994, civil war broke out. Southern leaders declared independence, and Beidh once again was declared president in the south. It was short-lived, with pro-unification forces crushing the south within months. Beidh, and other southern leaders, fled into exile.
Now Beidh is re-entering Yemen’s politics, positioning himself from exile at the helm of the Southern Movement, a fractious – and officially leaderless – coalition calling for a return to independence in the south.
Speaking in a rare interview from his base in a sea-view apartment in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, Beidh, whose stationery still identifies him as president of the failed southern breakaway state, cast unification as a failure. Even though the south had eagerly agreed to unification, it was never treated as an equal partner with the north. Southerners felt under virtual occupation from the central government in Sanaa. Oil revenues have been siphoned to corrupt officials, he said, southerners’ political voices and cultural identities were suppressed and peaceful demonstrations were met with violence.
“It’s not about secession,” Beidh said. “We’re demanding the restoration of our state and the end to northern occupation.”
Beidh sees himself as the legitimate representative of the southern people, though he admitted it’s unlikely he’ll be able to end his 18-year exile soon. But even from afar, he’s been able to maintain influence: Southern Movement leaders regularly travel to Beirut to meet with him, and a Beidh-aligned satellite television channel boasts wide viewership across the south.
Still, he remains a controversial figure, even among those who espouse secession. Many see the aging Beidh – he’s in his 70s – as a relic from a different era. Others can’t forget how he rose to leadership on the horrors of South Yemen’s bloody 1986 civil war. Still others say his insistence on a total split with Yemen is too doctrinaire; other leaders, including Ali Nasser Mohamed, who lead the south from 1980-1986, and Hayder Abu Bakr al Attas, a former Beidh ally who served as prime minister after unification, have proposed southern autonomy within a federal system.
But Beidh refuses to be part of such a deal. He said the agreement that removed Saleh from the presidency earlier this year was biased against southern interests. “We do not want to be thought of as the leftovers of what’s obtained in Sanaa,” he said.
Diplomats and local politicians have accused Iran of working to increase its influence in Yemen as a way of pressuring its rival, Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s northern neighbor, which has long held sway over religious, tribal and political figures there.
Beidh declined to answer directly whether he’s received money from Iran in return for his intransigence.
“If I have received money from Iran, I was (doing so) to help our people,” he said, characterizing those who raise the issue as politically motivated. The ultimate source of his positions, he stressed, are the desires of the southern people.
Beidh said he’ll continue pushing for secession, saying he did not fear the prospect that a newly independent south would be isolated by an international community that wants to see Yemen remain united.
“I won’t take a position because of the international community’s demands,” he said. “What’s important are the demands of my people. To say ‘the international community wants this,’ great, that’s the international community. But we are the owners of the issue – we, the sons of the south.”
Baron is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @adammbaron