By Raza Naeem
01 Dec 2017
I was struck by two coincidences earlier this month, when upon opening the Dawn newspaper edition of the 14th of November, in its section ‘From the Past Pages of Dawn, Fifty Years Ago’, the headline read NLF to take over Aden, referring to the impending takeover of south Yemen by the Marxist National Liberation Front. Meanwhile, in our own time, the current affairs ‘International’ pages of the same edition screamed Thousands protest in Yemen against Saudi-led blockade, reporting from Sana’a. The current affairs section of the aforementioned newspaper, proclaimed in its edition the very next day that IS car bomb kills 10 in Aden.
From Revolution, Fifty Years Earlier, To Foreign Occupation And Fundamentalist Destruction Fifty Years Later, What Had Happened To This Ancient Land?
Walter Benjamin once said that if the enemy wins, even the dead shall not be safe. When counterrevolution succeeds so thoroughly, on local and global scales, even the memories of what once had been a great revolutionary uprising in a small defenceless place are erased, and that erasure gets reflected in even the left-wing writings of a later time. Amidst the chronicles of modern revolutions, and, not least, of modern Middle Eastern revolutions, from Iran in 1905-6, Turkey in 1908 to Afghanistan in 1978, the revolutions of what can broadly be termed ‘Yemen’, that is North Yemen and South Yemen, occupy a normally marginal – when not almost wholly unrecognised – place.
Separated from the mainstream of Middle East politics in the period of the Cold War, and framed by regional and internal concerns that few observers, even those from elsewhere in the Middle East, analysed, the events that spanned over three decades, from the September 1962 revolution in North Yemen to the final subjugation of the South by Northern forces in the war of 1994, were of immense importance both in the history of the Arabian Peninsula and of the modern Middle East, but also in the annals of twentieth century radical upheavals – and of revolutions themselves.
Much of this history may remain obscure, for lack of reliable documentary and other evidence. Many of those involved are now silent, dead, or reincorporated into local states. The memory of these radical years may mean little to younger generations, but, both to restore historical accuracy about this period of modern Arab history, and to draw out the lessons of these three decades, a retrospective analysis of these revolutions is certainly called for.
The relevance of these revolutions is, however, based on something more important than the considerations mentioned above. The fact is that these revolutions remain of immense importance today. In fact, none of the tasks which these revolutions set themselves – and few of the issues they were intended to resolve – have been settled. The same applies to the revolutions in Yemen of the period 1962-1994: state formation, the relation of state to society in its class, clan and tribal forms; the role of religion in state and society; the position of women; the economic context of social activity and the economic base of the state; the character of education; the very definition of the nation – all of these issues, posed first in dramatic form in the September 1962 revolution in Sana’a, remain on the agenda of the 21st century in South Arabia. Much as contemporary authorities and public opinion may seek to escape from the memory and legacy of that first explosion in South Arabia, the agenda it posed, pertinent and unfulfilled, lives on.
My essay is thus, hopefully, a timely attempt to understand the historical roots of the current uprising(s) in Yemen, initiated against the former dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh in the unfulfilled promise of the old revolutions in both the former North (1962) and South (1967) of the country, on the occasion of the centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the 50th anniversary of the Marxist revolution in south Yemen (1967). It also focuses on revolutionary upheaval and state consolidation in revolutionary Yemen (1962-1994) and on analytic issues following from these events and from a retrospective analysis of the events of these years. These observations may serve to provide a corrective to the prevalent ahistorical accounts of Yemen rife in the mainstream media today, which rest on simplifications about Islam, deserts, Arab resistance to reform and the like – portraying Yemen as some sort of Orientalist fairyland, part beauteous and part dangerous, caught in some sort of time warp, each man armed with multiple weapons, each tribe and group at everyone else’s throat.
We must support the workers,
We must support the peasants,
We must support the fishermen,
And the Bedouin and nomads!
We must eliminate illiteracy,
We must liberate women,
We must arm the women,
And we must eliminate illiteracy!
(South Yemeni revolutionary song, early 1970s)
The most elementary obligation of history is, as the fifth century BC Herodotus put it, ´to ensure that great and marvellous events are not forgotten´. More recently the English radical historian Edward Thompson wrote that it was a duty ‘to rescue the past from the immense condescension of the present’. Both of these wise and enduring, observations apply to the Arabia of today.
Revolutionary Upheaval and State Consolidation, 1962-1994
The events that constituted three-plus decades of revolutionary change in southern Arabia can be summarised as follows. In the period from the early 18th century, and prior to the early 1960s a state system involving minimal military and administrative structures, and a rough delimitation of frontiers, had been created in the Arabian Peninsula and, not least, in the south. In contrast to the unformed Bedouin and tribal regions of central and eastern Arabia (with the exception of the coastal trading cities of Kuwait, Bahrain and Dubai) the south was the site of long-standing coastal cities, settled agriculture, transnational migrant and trading links, and enduring social, class and religious institutions. In the early 18th century the state of Yemen, which had endured in one form or another for three millennia, the longest in the world along with China, Persia and Egypt, broke once again in different parts, with what became south Yemen, based on the Sultanate of Lahej, and the Hadramaut, separating from the Imamate based in Sana’a.
The intrusion of global politics at the end of the 18th century, most notably through the encroachments of both France, into Egypt and the Gulf ( Napoleon signed a treaty with the Sultan of Muscat in 1798), and of Russia into the Caucasus, annexing part of Qajar Iran, led to the first territorial intrusions of European colonialism into the region, the British taking Aden, the base for later expansion into South Arabia, in 1839, and the Turks returning to North Yemen, where they had been first established in the 16th century, in 1870. Imprecision between the British and the Turks was resolved by the 1913 boundary agreement which, from then till 1994, defined the frontier between North and South Yemen.
All Of The Issues, First Posed In A Dramatic Form In The September 1962 Revolution In Sana’a, Remain On 21st Century Agenda
At the same time, and again in response as much to global as to regional developments, the British were emplacing themselves along the Gulf coast, from Kuwait to Muscat, a process that included naval and political support for the appropriation by the Sultan of Muscat of the southern province of Dhofar, in the 1880s. The rise of the Wahhabi movement in Arabia during and after World War I, and the subsequent departure and relocation of the Hashemites from Hijaz, completed the state formation and border delimitation process. All that remained was for the Saudis, who aspired to rule the whole of the Peninsula, to be checked by local and British power, a process completed in the 1920s and 1930s: two-thirds of Kuwait (Treaty of ‘Uqair, 1922) and three provinces of Yemen (Treaty of Taif, 1934) were allocated to Ibn Saud, who had, in 1932, proclaimed the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Major border issues remained unresolved, notably between Oman, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia (Buraimi) and between, the two Yemens and the Saudis (at its time of resolution, in 2000, the largest un-delimited border in the world). These ill-defined frontiers occasioned some conflict, and much litigation and profit for lawyers and compliant historians, but the issue of frontiers was, arguably, secondary to the continued prevalence of non-state, ‘transnational’, links, of an economic, social and religious kind across the borders of the modern states. Throughout the twentieth century, through migration, trade, family, clan and tribal ties, and, not least, through connections established by modern politics, ideas, people, guns and money continued to flow from one part of the Arabian Peninsula to the other.
This process of state formation and enduring transnationalism was, moreover, accompanied by continued contestation of the modern political system by forces within the Peninsula. Nothing could be further from the truth than the image portrayed by writers of east and west as to the timeless, unchanging, static character of these societies. The establishment of Saudi Arabia was not a peaceful affair, but involved the forcible conquest of the Hijaz, a region of greater economic and political modernity than the Najd from which the Saudis came, most notably the massacre of many inhabitants of Taif in 1926.
In 1929, Ibn Saud moved, with British help, to crush a rising by his more militant followers, the Ikhwan. In 1934 his son, Amir Feisal, led the attempted conquest of Yemen, which led to the Treaty of Taif. Earlier, an independent state in ‘Asir was crushed. After World War II, the first liberal, elite (Free Princes, Al’umara Al-Ahrar), and popular, working class, protests became to be heard, first as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and then after Suez in 1956. In Gulf states, there was significant merchant opposition in Kuwait from the 1930s, trades union and middle class protest in Bahrain from the same period, while in Oman, opposition to the encroachment of the Sultan of Muscat into the interior, in violation of the 1920 division of legitimacy and territory embodied in the Treaty of Sib, led to the Green Mountain revolt of 1957-1959.
The Yemens were far from being immune to these processes. The establishment of the Imamate, under the Hamid al-Din family, after the Turkish withdrawal in 1918 represented the emergence of the first independent Arab state in modern times. But it was a conservative, isolated entity, based on rule by a Zaidi elite over a population that was at least half Shafi’i. In the 1930s there began to emerge a critical, modernising, opposition, the Free Yemenis, or Al-Yamaniin Al-Ahrar, calling for an end to the tyranny of the ruling family, for a more liberal interpretation of Islam, and for an opening to the modern world. In 1948 a large scale revolt occurred, when, in conjunction with peasant uprisings, the Imam was assassinated and a Constitutional Movement, al-Haraka Al-Dastouria, attempted to take power. In the end, the movement was crushed, and the Imam’s son Ahmad re-established control. But dissent continued, within Yemen and among Yemenis abroad, and the revolution in Egypt in 1952 had a major impact on the country. It was only a matter of time before revolt would emerge again, and, in September 1962, this came about.
In a move that had widespread popular backing, and which brought crowds into the streets of the major cities, a group of nationalist army officers, with as their figurehead the senior officer Abdullah al-Sallal, took power in Sana’a and proclaimed the Yemeni Arab Republic. It was this event above all which broke the power of the old political system in Arabia, challenging the British in the south, the Sultan in Muscat and greatly alarming the ruling family in Saudi Arabia. It was from this date, 26 September 1962, known in Yemen as Thawra Sitta Wa Ashrin Sibtimbr Al-Majida, that the modern revolutionary history of South Arabia begins.
The effects of the Yemeni revolution were not long in the maturing. In North Yemen itself, the overthrow of the monarchy was incomplete and an eight-year civil war ensued, ending only in July 1970 with a compromise peace. The Republic, backed until 1967 by up to 70,000 Egyptian troops, was battling a royalist opposition that received support, in arms, finance and some covert forces, from Saudi Arabia, Britain, Iran and, to a small degree at least at the beginning, from Israel. The Yemeni Arabic Republic issued calls for the overthrow of the Saudi ruling family and, in the unionist idiom of the time, called for the creation of a ‘United Republic of the Arabian Peninsula’. At first Egypt’s support was whole-hearted, but from 1965 Nasser began to look for a way out and, after the defeat of Egypt in the 1967 June Arab-Israeli war, all Egyptian forces left the country.
The president of the Republic, Abdullah al-Sallal, protested at this ‘betrayal’ but on 5 November 1967 he was himself deposed. A dramatic period then ensued in which royalist forces backed by the Saudis and British laid siege to the capital, Sana’a, and for 70 days appeared to have isolated the city. But, with the departure of the Egyptian forces the Yemeni republican and radical units acquired a new lease of life. Relying on socialist militias, rapidly assembled groups of Yemenis without tribal affiliation, elements of the republican army, and a resolute Soviet airlift of arms, the Sana’a government under General Hassan al-Amri successfully fought off the counter-revolutionary forces. In the end, the siege was broken, in part by a force of Chinese road engineers who continued working throughout the fighting, and, two years later, Prime Minister Muhsin al-Aini signed a peace agreement. The republican left within North Yemen was defeated, again by al-Amri, in clashes in August 1968, the royalists and Saudis lost hope of victory, and a compromise was reached.
But the Republic survived.
In this sense, and amidst all the conventional arguments that Egypt had been defeated in Yemen, or that the September revolution had failed, the fact remains that the aim of the Egyptians, to allow the Republic to survive, was achieved.
(To be continued)
Raza Naeem is a social scientist and an award-winning translator currently based in Lahore. He has been trained in Political Economy from the University of Leeds in the UK and in Middle Eastern History and Anthropology from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, USA. He has been engaged with Yemen since the last sixteen years, travelling in, and writing and reporting on the country in various national and international publications. He is also the President of the Progressive Writers Association (PWA) in Lahore. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org