[News] Yemen's Memories of Revolution and Resistance

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Tue Jan 12 13:48:57 EST 2010


January 12, 2010

The Cuba of the Arab East?

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 
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: 
<mailto:razanaeem at hotmail.com>razanaeem at hotmail.com

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