By Noah Browning in Aden, FT
In the shadow of the volcano that overlooks the coastal metropolis of Aden in south Yemen, the once cosmopolitan district of Mualla is scarred with the signs of revolutionary upheaval.
Placards of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president, have been wrenched from the triumphal archways that reminded southerners of the 1994 civil war that brought independent south Yemen under his rule.
But since Mr Saleh was stricken by an explosion at his palace and taken to Saudi Arabia for treatment this month, the shaky political order he represented has been in almost total collapse throughout the country.
Months of anti-government protests in the capital, Sana’a, gave way to bloody clashes, now in tense stalemate. In Aden, the “Hirak,” or southern secessionist movement, long seething at the region’s marginalisation under northern rule, has exploded into plain view.
Over-running government buildings, protesters have painted over the Yemeni tricolour with the blue chevron and red socialist star of the southern flag.
A funeral on Friday for a youth slain by security forces devolved into deadly skirmishes with southern activists. Most residents nervously seek shelter as the city verges on chaos.
Only the strewn concrete slabs and wrought-iron fences recall the battles just weeks earlier between demonstrators and security forces, both of whom have retreated to the outskirts.
Thousands of refugees from Abyan have fled cadres of Islamist militants who move ever closer from the east. Aden, where only a few security force members remain, teems with armed men and youths organised into neighbourhood watch gangs as residents wonder whether the divided military surrounding the city has the will or ability to repel the militants’ advance.
In makeshift shelters throughout the city’s slums, refugees describe scenes of horror as the self-styled “Defenders of Sharia” group was allowed to over-run their towns in the province of Abyan after a swift retreat by army forces.
“There was nonstop shooting everywhere and we were afraid even to look out the windows, our neighbourhoods were being shelled so heavily,” said Mariam Ibrahim.
She shifted her young grandson on her lap in a sweltering schoolhouse packed with more than 100 people from the town of Zinjibar, which fell to the militants.
US officials – convinced that the militants have ties to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, though their true strength is generally unknown – have intensified drone attacks on suspected operatives to try to deprive them of the leeway afforded by the security vacuum.
“The army disappeared in a matter of hours, with no warning and left us to die at the hands of these groups and the Americans,” said Naif Muktha, another refugee. “The threat of al-Qaeda was manipulated by the regime now that it’s in danger and now we’re the victims of this conspiracy.”
Worry abounds among Adenis that army units stationed outside the city may suddenly withdraw, as they did in Zinjibar, and expose the rebelling populace to punishing combat with the Islamists.
“Southerners have suffered under socialist radicalism in previous decades and now history has turned and we are threatened by religious radicalism,” resident Muhammad Ba Kays noted.
Signs of a looming clash with the extremists are prominent, as graffiti announcing “Freedom for the South” has in many places been crossed out and replaced with “Yes, we want God’s sharia.”
Memories of Major General Ali Muhsin, once Mr Saleh’s top aide and now the chief defector in the army, capturing Aden in the 1994 civil war with the aid of thousands of allied “Mujahideen” and tribes by way of Abyan, still anger many in the area.
“All of these disasters – tribalism, extremism, radical religious schools – they have been imposed on us from the north,” said Qassem Askar, a senior secessionist leader, noting that Ali Muhsin may again be employing these groups for a strategic advantage in the national political crisis.
“Then and now, they seek only the destruction of our will to resist,” he continued, adding that he is still in pain from years of torture in a northern jail. The splintering of the military is especially pronounced around Aden, as some local commanders remain loyal to the president, while others support the revolutionary movement and many appear to be neutral.
In the sun-scorched wastes outside the city, among camel herds and gnarled palms, loyalist tanks heave into motion, their orders and destination shrouded in mystery.
However, local journalists said pro-government units were being positioned not in the east, to confront the militants, but rather in the mountainous west, as a bulwark against divisions aligned with Ali Muhsin on the Red Sea.
“It’s like Lebanon in the 1980s here,” noted activist Azal Omar al-Jawi. “The army leaders are like rival warlords, playing a big political game and treating the area like a strategic chessboard.”
The popular uprising in the south, like its counterpart in the north, stands precariously between a popular revolution and a bloodbath, imposed by traditional strongmen.