By Raza Naeem
08 Dec 2017
The outbreak of revolution in North Yemen, in September 1962, leading as it did to military, financial and political support – including radio and propaganda – for the south, led to upheaval in the neighbouring British colonial region of South Arabia, later known as ‘South Yemen’. Years of trades union and political conflict had preceded the events of 1962, and, a day before the 26 September revolution in the North, the South Arabian rulers had agreed to form a Federation of South Arabia, joining the colony of Aden to the 17 Western Arabian and three East Arabian Sultanates and Emirates. Had the events been in reverse order, many doubt if the Federation would ever have come into existence. A year later, and as an extension of the fighting in the North, guerrilla combat broke out in South Yemen, first in the mountains of Radfan, Yafa’ and Shu’aib, and then, in late 1964, in Aden itself. Three years of war followed, in which two rival nationalist forces, The Front for the Liberation of South Yemen (FLOSY, generally known in Arabic as Jabhat Al-Tahrir) and the more radical National Liberation Front (NLF, in Arabic Al-Jabha Al-Qawmiya), competed for local allies and against the British. FLOSY remained generally loyal to Egypt, but the NLF, antagonised by what it and many North Yemeni radicals saw as an Egyptian betrayal of their revolutionary commitment to support the Republic, and increasingly influenced by the ‘Marxist-Leninist’ trend within Palestinian nationalism before and after the June 1967 war, came out in opposition to Egypt and other Arab ‘petty bourgeois’ regimes.
In the end, amidst the dramatic events of June 1967 and their aftermath in the north, and the escalating crisis in the war in North Yemen itself after the Egyptian withdrawal in the latter part of 1967, it was the NLF which took power in the South. This happened in the weeks preceding and leading up to the final British withdrawal from Aden and the Protectorates on 30 November 1967, exactly fifty years ago from today. The independent radical guerrillas then came to power, ruling first as the NLF, then, from 1978, as the Yemeni Socialist Party (Al-Hizb Al-Ishtiarki Al-Yamani). Although first vaguely sympathetic to China and critical of ‘capitulationist’ forces in the region, the NLF/YSP came, for lack of any other plausible external military and economic support – and as the initially independent Cuban revolutionaries had done a decade earlier – to be increasingly aligned with the Soviet Union, the only case of a clearly pro-Soviet Arab socialist regime, and presiding over the most radical social and economic programme seen anywhere in the region.
This state, first the People’s Republic of South Yemen, then the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen initially, true to its Yemeni, Arab and socialist internationalist character, sought to spread the revolution beyond its frontiers: to North Yemen where the state emerging from the 1970 peace was regarded as illegitimate, to Saudi Arabia, to Eritrea, a short distance across the Red Sea, and, most importantly, to the south Omani province of Dhofar, across the border from eastern regions of South Yemen, where guerrilla war – even more radical in ideological tone than that of its supporters – raged from 1965 to 1975. At the same time South Yemen adopted radical stands on Arab issues, backing its fellow ‘Marxist-Leninist’ elements within the Palestinian movement, the PFLP and the PDFLP, at the expense of al-Fateh, the existence of which it refused initially to acknowledge, denying legitimacy to the United Arab Emirates, when it became independent of Britain in 1971, and seeking, ineffectually, to block the entry of a new Omani regime into the UN and the Arab League in 1971. In what were also ruptures with inter-Arab diplomatic convention, the PDRY recognised the secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971 and, in the mid-1970s, backed POLISARIO against the Moroccan government.
Only gradually was the revolutionary dynamic of these commitments contained and ended. Support for Eritrea continued until the revolution in Ethiopia in 1974. Diplomatic relations were established with Saudi Arabia only in 1975. Relations with Oman remained frozen for years after the effective termination of the guerrilla war in Dhofar in 1975. And relations with the North were only normalised after two border wars, in 1972 and 1979, and with the defeat of the independent socialist guerrillas, backed by the South, who had fought the Sanaa regime on and off since the late 1960s in the ‘middle region’, Al-Mantaq Al-‘Usta, in the North, in 1982. This curtailment of its regionally radical role had its impact on the situation within the PDRY itself. With increasingly violent internal conflicts, faced with reduced Soviet support and confined to an impoverished and economically unviable southern region of the Yemen as a whole, the YSP regime had come by the late 1980s to realise that it had to abandon the hope of a socialist transition in the south – what one critic termed ‘Socialism in Half a Yemen’, and seek an accommodation with the North.
In a series of meetings between the Presidents of the two sides in late 1989 and early 1990, agreement was reached on a merger of the two states. This to be initiated by a ‘transitional period’ and all-Yemeni elections, followed by the full fusion of the two states. The first step on this road was taken in May 1990 with the proclamation of a new entity, the Republic of Yemen, fusing YAY and PDRY, with its capital in Sanaa.
But, in effect, the revolutionary wave that had begun in North Yemen in September 1962, and had spread to South Yemen in 1963 in 1965, had been stemmed. The process that culminated in the implosion of the South Yemeni socialist regime from 1986 onwards, and the entrapment and then subjugation of the South in the unity process itself, from 1990 to 1994, followed from this earlier containment of the revolutionary expansion of the 1960s and early 1970s. This had much to do, also, with the countervailing consolidation and increasing domination of the pro-Western oil-producing monarchies of the region.
A few major questions follow from these events and from a retrospective analysis of the events of these years. Let us consider some of them.
In the first place, the upheavals of North and South Yemen were, in their origins and character, of a revolutionary character. As such, they should be included in any comparative analysis of major social upheavals in the modern Middle East. In each case radical and armed social movements, with a range of revolutionary ideas from the Arab and global context, mobilise significant numbers of people for their political ends. There is much that is obscure about these events, not least the relationship of these autonomous armed groups to broader social forces, e.g. in the South Yemeni mountains from 1963. Or, for instance, one can legitimately ask what the significance of the radical slogans of that time was, especially to the sometimes isolated and illiterate peoples. But these were not ‘revolutions’ made by coup d’etat or foreign occupation – revolutions from above – but, including in the case of North Yemen, where the civil war did much to reshape the country, movements that drew sustenance from popular participation on a significant scale. Along with the Iranian revolution of 1978-9 they were, probably, the Middle Eastern revolutions with the greatest degree of popular involvement.
Secondly, these movements were shaped and in the longer run exhausted by their very radicalism, something that often alienated them from the peoples they sought to liberate. On the one hand, the social and economic conditions for radical change were prevalent in South Arabia, with mass illiteracy, many tribal and religious affiliations, and economies very vulnerable to the lessening of outside contacts. The NLF took over a largely bankrupt economy in 1967, a state compounded by the closure of the Suez Canal after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, and in the years after independence many tens of thousands of people, including many of the most qualified, left the country.
At the same time, the South Yemenis, like others around the world in that period, became addicted to radical rhetoric and methods. On one occasion, during negotiations on Yemeni unity in 1972 President Salem Rubai Ali of the PDRY told his northern counterpart, President al-Iryani, that he would agree to unification of the Yemens on two conditions: that the North liquidate ‘the state’ and liquidate ‘the bourgeoisie’, to which President al-Iryani – not a Marxist but a wise man – replied that first he had to be given either a state or a bourgeoisie and then he would think about liquidating them. All revolutionaries, from the French Jacobins onwards, conceive of themselves as a special, enlightened, elite, with the authority to impose change, and, if necessary, use violence in pursuit of their goals.
The twentieth century saw many examples of this, from the brutalities of Stalin, Mao and the Khmers Rouges, to the FLN in Algeria, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and, across the water from South Arabia, the revolutionary elites of both Ethiopia and Eritrea. In the case of South Arabia these groups, using and to some degree also inspired by ideologies of revolutionary struggle and transformation taken from other countries (Palestine, Vietnam, Cuba, China) sought to mobilise support through a combination of political appeal and coercion.
If the guerrilla struggles, e.g. in Aden up to 1967, were largely matters of small military elites using the population as a support, these elites sought, once in power, to bring about radical social reform. Much of this was, on any reasonable criteria, justified e.g. health education, literacy campaigns, promotion of women’s participation in the economy, elimination of status and other social inequalities, development of agricultural or animal husbandry resources. But these, in themselves, positive and to some degree welcome reforms, like the rejection of foreign, colonial or regional, domination of the countries concerned was too easily and too often accompanied by threats of violence and coercion, by discrimination against those who did not take part in the revolutionary activities, and by a simple authoritarian lecturing of the population – all in the name of the ‘oppressed’ (Al Kadihin). In time, even many of those who had initially supported the revolutionary movements tired of their rhetoric and lack of contact with reality and popular sentiment. They also inexorably involved extreme forms of factionalism: this latter often blamed on foreign influences (Russia, China, Palestinians and in the case of the YSP the Lebanese Communist Party). None of this was, of course, in any way specific to South Arabia, the Yemens or Arab politics in general. Such authoritarian reforms, and the factionalism associated with them, were seen across the revolutionary world, from Russia and China to Albania and Cambodia. They were very much of the shared record and character of twentieth century revolutions as a whole.
Thirdly, and in keeping with much politics in other Arab states at that time, the revolutions of South Arabia had a too easy, and at times dangerous and criminal, attitude to the use of violence. In a rhetorical combination of the ideological fashion of the time, which exalted ‘armed struggle’ and guerrilla war, exemplified in Vietnam, Cuba and South Africa, with more indigenous Arab and tribal patterns of warfare and cult of the gun, the South Arabian revolutions espoused the view that military action was the key to overthrowing oppressors and ousting foreign invaders.
Insofar as this referred to war against military foes, this was no doubt the case, but this espousal of violence also affected the manner in which these groups related to each other, and, when they came to power, to those they ruled over. This was most evidently the case in South Yemen. In the period from 1963 to 1967, i.e. prior to independence, the situation in Aden and the Protectorates was increasingly dominated by a war between the two main guerrilla groups, FLOSY backed by the Egyptians, and the more independent, increasingly radical and ‘Marxist-Leninist’ NLF. On one occasion, the NLF blew up the house of the FLOSY leader Makkawi, killing several of his sons.
Such a culture of violence did not, of course, cease with independence, but continued thereafter. In 1969, when the more moderate leaders Qahtan al-Shaabi and Feisal al-Shaabi were overthrown, without bloodshed, in June, in what became known – echoing a similar development in Syria – as ‘The Corrective Move’, Al Khitwa Al Tashihia, the defeated leaders were imprisoned. The death of Feisal al-Shaabi a few months later was widely seen to have been the work of the new government. North Yemen and Dhofar also saw forms of violence that alienated support and weakened these movements: in the North the reforming and pro-Yemeni unity President al Hamdi was assassinated in October 1977, by assailants whose identity has never been officially confirmed, and his successor President al Ghashmi, was killed in a suitcase bomb sent from Aden in June 1978.
In late 1969 President Nasser of Egypt warned the Yemeni leaders that this would in the end devour them: he pointed to the example of his ousted political foe, Zakaria Mohieddin, who was housed in a villa near Nasser’s outside Alexandria and, as a result, did not threaten him. The South Yemeni leaders did not, however, heed this advice. In 1972, during a particularly radical turn in the revolutionary process, a sort of imitation ‘Cultural Revolution’ led by President Salem Rubai Ali, people suspected of opposition to the regime, including a number of clergymen, were killed in the Hadramaut. But the real escalation of violence was that within the regime itself: in 1978, following a failed coup attempt by the President, Salem Rubai Ali and two of his closest associates were summarily shot, and, in the ensuing few years two other prominent leaders, the militia leader Hussein Qumata, and the popular foreign minister Mohammad Salih Mutia, were both executed in unclear circumstances.
The culmination of all of this was, however, to come in 1986 when, after months of silent conflict within the regime between the factions of President Ali Nasir Mohammad and General Secretary Abdul Fatah Ismail, the latter just returned from some years of political exile in Moscow, the President tried to eliminate his opponents by shooting them at a meeting of the Politbureau in the party headquarters in Khormaksar, Aden. Days of fighting between different political, personal and tribal factions in the Yemeni Socialist Party then followed, with the result, it is believed, that several thousand people lost their lives. To some observers this was a most bizarre event, since during the two or so weeks of fighting in Aden, the mass of the population were not involved. The masses, in fact, remained observers – it was ‘like watching Cowboys and Indians’ as one Adeni put it!
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.