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 had led the more populous north, became president, while Mr. 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 Mr. Beidh once again was declared president in the south. It was short-lived, with pro-unification forces crushing the south within months. Mr. Beidh, and other southern leaders, fled into exile.
Now Mr. 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, Mr. 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.
"It's not about secession," he said. "We're demanding the restoration of our state and the end to northern occupation."
Mr. 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 has 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 Mr. 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.
But Mr. Beidh refuses to be part of such a deal. He said the agreement that removed Mr. 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.