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Sultan al-Shaibi had some of the same complaints as the separatists. Before the unification, many southern customs were more British than Arabian, he said. The clothes most modern Yemeni women now wear - long black robes with veils covering their faces - were only worn in the north. In the old days, he said, his mother wore miniskirts.

In the 1990s, a “morals police” was unleashed on southern Yemen. Fundamentalist Islamic soldiers harassed women who appeared in public with exposed faces and demanded marriage certificates from couples on the streets.

That police force has long been dissolved, but southern women say they still appear in public fully veiled because they are afraid. The morals police, they say, used to throw acid at women’s exposed faces. Over the years, northern Yemen’s conservative traditions crept into what was once a secular society.

“After the revolution, I’m going to reclaim my face,” said one veiled southern woman, who asked not to be named for security reasons.

It is unclear, however, whether the Southern Movement has the capability of staging a revolution. There are no southern militias or training camps, and leaders disagree about how to achieve their goals. Some say the movement seeks to secede peacefully, while others openly call for war. Even those calling for change through peaceful protest looked slightly pleased when they all agreed that a violent uprising is possible, with or without their support.

Southern people, who all have guns in their homes, they say, would fight in the war. The southern Yemeni army was almost entirely dismissed after a brief yet bloody civil war in 1994 that ended in what many southerners call “the northern occupation.” Sixteen years later, the soldiers are still armed, trained and ready to fight.

But local men’s AK-47s cannot match northern tanks, planes and bombs, said Mr. Tamah, who spent much of his life in the U.S. He readily gave the names of American officials he knows personally and said he hoped the U.S. will support a revolution and recognize southern Yemen as an independent country. They want to call it “South Arabia.”

For Western countries, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is the main security threat in Yemen. Both the U.S. and the United Kingdom are staunch supporters of the Yemeni central government, which has committed to eradicating the threat. Neither is likely to support a rebellion that seeks to cripple that government. In the past few months, billions of dollars of foreign aid has been pledged to Yemen’s efforts to fight the al Qaeda branch.

In Yemen, a complex web of loyalties and tribal rivalries often blurs the line between jihadist, separatist and government. Tariq al-Fadhli, one of the Southern Movement’s most popular leaders, fought with Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in the 1980s against the Soviet Union. In the ‘90s, he was a close confidant of the president and fought alongside other al Qaeda members to quash the southern rebellion.

More recently, Mr. al-Fadhli has been known to fly an American flag and lead separatist demonstrations. Activists fondly refer to him to as “our sheik.” When asked whether Mr. al-Fadhli was considered suspicious to the movement when he switched sides, Mr. Tamah said “no” at the same time another separatist said “yes, at first.”

Despite his side-changing, separatists now seem united in their loyalty to Mr. al-Fadhli.