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Searching For Yemen: Opposition Leader Yassin Said Numan's National Quest

As embattled Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh looks to be finally relinquishing power, the nation must struggle to avoid the longstanding tribal and regional divisions. For charismatic opposition leader Yassin Said Numan, it has been his life'

Yassin Said Numan at an opposition rally last March (euronews)
Yassin Said Numan at an opposition rally last March (euronews)
François-Xavier Trégan

SANAA - "You're taking me back in time..."

Yassin Said Numan, the top Yemeni opposition leader and head of the Socialist Party, pauses before plunging into the childhood memory: It is 1958, and a young boy of 11 years decides, with five of his friends, to venture beyond the border. In southern Yemen's Lahij province, a mountain serves as the boundary with the north. In this country, children only know one thing: the inhabitants live under the power of a king. Yassin Said Numan and his family exist under the authority of sultans and of the British colonists in the protectorate of Aden.

After several hours of walking, the escapade north leads them through a valley and then into a village. "Where are you from?" an elderly peasant woman asks them. "From Lahij," they reply. The woman invites them to her home and prepares lunch as the children watch. "Everything was the same," Numan recalls, "the landscape, the mountains, the cuisine. This unknown country was somehow familiar to me – I felt something for it."

For the boy, it was the decisive encounter with a place called Yemen. Because back in the 1950s, each area formed its own country. One was from Lahij or Aden, from Zinjibar or from Hydramout – no one was from Yemen.

Coming from an educated background, Yassin Said Numan dove into geography and history books. Throughout his reading, he discovered a country much bigger than his small valley in the Lahij, and it gave him a feeling of belonging. Meanwhile, in the south, opposition to the British presence began to get organized. At 17, Numan joined the National Front, the predecessor of the Socialist Party, a unique movement hiding a purpose: chasing out the British and the sultans. This "armed popular revolution" lasted five years, spurred on by the unions and student organizations, workers and bureaucrats.

On November 30, 1967, independence was declared, and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, with roots inspired by Marxism, was born. Some years earlier, another revolution had brought down the regime of the imams and installed in the North the Arab Republic of Yemen, with a more Westernized bent. At that point, the question of unification was born.

"For us southerners, we were convinced that unity would bring stability to the entire world," Numan recalls. On May 22, 1990, after a long process, the Republic of Yemen was declared. In Aden, a cheering crowd took to the streets shouting for unity: "Wahda! Wahda!"

"But the terms for unification were not met," says the opposition leader with regret. Unity became a debacle, a display of arrogance by a dominant North. "Unification was an ideological concept that distracted from the needs of the people. The will alone would not suffice," Numan says.

An old mountain, a new Yemen?

Yassin Said Numan accepted the post of Speaker of Parliament under a united Yemen. At the opening session, he unfolded a map before the parliamentarians. "This is Yemen," he begins to a dumbfounded audience after deciding to bring down "the cultural, personal and psychological barriers' palpable in the chamber.

He raised the number of speaking minutes allowed to the Islamists, supported the participation of women in the political debate and opened up parliamentary sessions to the public. Numan successfully played the reconciliation card in Parliament as a way to heal.

But outside the chamber, unity was little more than a series of violations and obstacles – the grabbing of land and public-sector jobs, with the northerners creating their vision of a state and the southerners submitting to it. After nearly 22 years, the two worlds have drifted apart. Today, in the districts of the south, the separatist movement is taking on increased momentum. The idea of a federation is no longer taboo. The "revolutionary Yemeni," who for the past year has challenged the power of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, calling for the fall of his regime, struggles amidst a landscape of conflict and resentment.

Finally, after intense negotiations, a deal was reached meant to allow Saleh to step down from power in exchange for immunity for himself and members of his regime. Still a political transition is difficult to implement in the best of conditions, and this is the poorest country in the Arab world. On February 21, after an early presidential election, a "New Yemen" will officially come into being. Change Square, the epicenter of the anti-regime opponents in the capital of Sanaa, hosts the young revolutionaries. They are angry, denouncing the legal immunity accorded to Saleh and his close allies, and accusing the opposition of depriving them of their movement and using it as a tool for political maneuvering.

Yassin Said Numan, the head of the political opposition, one which has endorsed an agreement signed in Riyadh last November 23 to end the political crisis, still supports it, convinced that the initiative "protects the revolution by allowing it to achieve its goals."

Numan has no doubt that "the revolution can create a unified state for the first time. "The difference between other Arab states and Yemen is that it is not about developing a state, but rather creating one, building a country, even."

At 65, Numan the politician is not planning to run for president in 2014. "We have to look for candidates in the ‘Change Squares' that have been set up around the country. The future of Yemen is in the hands of these young people, and the country has lagged far behind."

But the man from Lahij has a piece of advice for the future head of state: "I would invite him to climb the highest mountain in the country in order to embrace all the various regions in one glance. Then he would forget the question of tribes and territories, he would forget the manipulations of a regime over all these years. Yes, as I did as a child, he would only see one and the same country."

But instead there are many, from all sides, who would urge Yassin Said Numan to make the same climb yet again. And to lead on his own terms "this long voyage" in search of Yemen.

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - euronews

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