Yemen’s Memories of Revolution and Resistance

Yemen was a chessboard for both Ottoman and British empires in the 19th century, the latter occupying Aden in the south and the former becoming dominant in the North. Prior to this, it had remained one of the oldest ancient undivided states along with Egypt, Persia and China. After the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, a feudal anachronistic imamate took hold in the North which ruled with an iron hand sanctioned by the hammer of the Zaidi sect.

The British consolidated their rule in the south of the country, using a vicious pacification campaign which involved the use of mustard gas. A Free Yemen movement began to take shape in the North in the 1930s demanding an end to the imamocracy, a more liberal rendition of Islam and a greater opening to the outside world. The rumblings continued and in 1948 a radical alliance of the constitutionalist movement and peasants came out on the streets, profiting from the imam’s assassination. The old order quickly reconstituted itself, though the resistance continued and the contradictions between the rulers and the ruled made an old-style classic revolution to displace the Bourbons of Yemen imperative.

In a palace revolution that was to shake not only the feudal order in the Arab East buttressed by the al-Sauds in Riyadh but also British colonialism in the region, nationalist military officers inspired by Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the hated imam in the north in September 1962, thus completing a remarkable hat-trick of revolutions in the Arab world within a decade – Egypt (1952), Iraq (1958) and Yemen. It was natural that such intransigence against the moribund old order in Sana’a would not go unpunished, especially after the revolutionary contagion in the north infected the south, where a full-scale guerilla war –  one section of the revolutionaries loyal to the Nasserists while the other, more radical Marxist-Leninist wing inspired by the Cuban, Chinese and Palestinian struggles – erupted in 1963, complemented by a militant trade union movement.

Those who would hurriedly dismiss Yemen as a stronghold of beards and burqas would do well to study this revolutionary upheaval in the heart of feudal Arabia which shattered all previous stereotypes about desert societies floating on a sea of oil with passive and benighted citizenries bought off by decades of oil largesse (so lyrically analyzed by the bard of all Gulf Arab novelists Abdel Rahman Munif in his ‘Cities of Salt’ quartet).

In a counter-revolutionary aggression reminiscent of the tripartite onslaughtn by Britain, France and Israel against Nasser in 1956, the Yemeni revolutionaries were ranged against another foreign alliance comprising monarchical Saudi Arabia, Iran and Britain and initially, Israel. That Nasser, who had by then become a veteran of Zionist and British conspiracies to unseat him, supported the guerilla struggle in south Yemen with a commitment of 70,000 troops (until his own forces were called away and then defeated in the catastrophic 1967 Arab-Israeli war) did much to bolster this most radical of Arab revolutionary forces.

The popularity of the People’s Wars in the north and south forced British withdrawal from the south in November 1967 and victory for republican forces in the north in July 1970. At one stroke, one of the oldest feudal orders in the Arab east had been dismantled, alerting pasha, emir and colonel to the need for vigilance if they weren’t to lose their own caps and crowns. While the north soon reverted to a military- populist regime typical of other radical Arab regimes and in confrontation with socialist guerillas opposed to them, it was in the south that the revolution was really consolidated, first by the newly victorious guerillas of the National Liberation Front and from 1978, as the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP).

Analogies of south Yemen as the Cuba of the Arab east were not far-fetched as the new revolutionary regime set about emancipating women, distributing land to the peasants, nationalizing the nascent industries and eliminating illiteracy and disease. The revolution in south Yemen astonishingly instituted the greatest popular participation and the most radical political and social program of reforms, more than all the radical colonels in Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus, Tripoli and Sudan put together.

However because it was a popular-revolutionary regime rather than a populist-military one like its other Arab counterparts, the radical reforms of the south Yemeni revolutionary regime were quarantined and checked from one side by harsh opposition from the counter-revolutionary north and conservative Saudi Arabia on one hand and its dependence on the Soviet Union on the other. Added to that the consistent ideological and personal battles between the leadership of the YSP and the leaders in power in Aden ate away whatever revolutionary gains had been made in this tiny Arab revolutionary outpost.

By the 1990s there was no real ideological difference between the regimes in power in Sana’a and Aden, and this difference reflected the general turn in the Arab world towards family dictatorships or monarchies in thrall to Washington and tamed by Tel Aviv. Still the threat of a communist Arab state amidst a sea of dictators and autocrats alarmed the Saudis, especially in the aftermath of another revolutionary upheaval in Tehran in 1979. Therefore with Saudi money and blessings, the unification of Yemen was brought about in 1990.

Although the unification snuffed out the only real revolutionary alternative in the post-1967 Arab world, it was hoped that the former in the form of a new democratic state would enable a hitherto passive citizenry in the petrol stations of the Gulf to put pressure on their own autocrats. Not to be. Since the unification, Yemen itself has become a byword for the same malaise afflicting the Arab world which the revolution and then the unification was intended to solve – a personalistic family owned dictatorship under president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

An attempted secession of a disgruntled south in 1994 was dealt with an iron hand. The pacification of the south meant extending Northern control over southern property, British colonial villas in Aden and southern trade. The Salehization of the whole country has also meant that whereas once women used to work and move around the streets of the south unveiled, the beards have once again taken over. This is a legacy of the ugly compromises the Saleh kleptocracy has made with the religious Islah Party in order to keep the YSP out of the power structure.

What is really happening in Yemen today is the unfolding of unfinished historical baggage from Yemeni unification. The Huthi uprising in the north is led by former allies of Saleh who were used as mercenaries in the reconquest of the south in 1994 and have now fallen out with the ruling elite. Far from being a religious revolt, the aim of the rebellion in the north is not the establishment of a Zaidi/Islamic heavenly kingdom on earth as the alarmist media would have us believe; in fact what started as an old-fashioned bar-room brawl over resources and political influence has now taken on greater proportions because of Saleh’s vicious military campaigns against the rebels, midwifed since last year by the US and now by its chief proxy in the peninsula, Saudi Arabia, whose interventions in the country (as everywhere else) have always been self-serving and expansionist.

The revolt in the south mainly comprises former socialist military officers who have seen what little revolutionary gains they fought for in the revolution dismantled by the grotesque combination of military officers and clerics imported from the north (and quite possibly Riyadh). So what are the alternatives? Saleh, unlike Musharraf, Saddam Hussein and the Taliban is a wily dictator who has managed to keep power only by juggling amongst US, Saudi and his own interests on one hand and by doling out oil money to buy off a pliant opposition on the other. Of course what has also helped is the ease with which a passive civil society has accepted the neoliberal programs shoved down their throats by the aging dictator.

But that hasn’t stopped people from taking risks. Jarallah Omar, the charismatic and courageous former secretary-general of the YSP, was assassinated a few years ago for advocating an end to capital punishment. However moth-eaten and isolated from the people the aging leaders of the YSP (like Ali Salim al-Bidh, former president of the south and now in exile in Oman) have become, one thing is sure: Yemen is a country where memory of revolution and resistance remains fresh.

The mood in the old socialist south remains especially militant: just two months ago thousands of people came out in the streets in Aden to commemorate the anniversary of the British withdrawal, which quickly became a protest against the misery of the present. The rebellions in both the north and the south, are thus a continuation of the old revolutionary movements in the 1950s and 1960s which shook the British empire and forces of reaction; and like the struggles of old, they have no truck with religion. Only a jaundiced vision would fail to see them as such and ascribe to them the views of a fanatical minority. For the rebellions reflect not only a sharp memory of the country’s revolutionary history but also a desire for a break with whatever the unification entailed – much of which hasn’t been tangible to the people at large.

Such is the history which Yemen’s would-be occupiers in Washington and their equally spineless satraps in Sana’a and Riyadh want to deny and whitewash, acts which are not serving them well in the occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq. As one of the songs of the revolutionary wolves of Radfan (the south Yemeni Yunan) from the early 1970s reminds us:

‘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!’

It would be comforting to believe that such infectious enthusiasm extends equally towards combating foreign occupation and its hired quislings; for those who did not tolerate a British occupation will certainly not be content with a possible American one.

RAZA NAEEM is a Pakistani national working on his PhD in History from the University of Arkansas in the US. He can be reached at: