Shades of the past

Published : Oct 21, 2011 00:00 IST

A protester at a demonstration in Sana'a demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, on September 23. The writing on her hand, in Arabic, reads: "Our blood is fuel for our revolution". - MOHAMMED AL-SAYAGHI/AP

A protester at a demonstration in Sana'a demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, on September 23. The writing on her hand, in Arabic, reads: "Our blood is fuel for our revolution". - MOHAMMED AL-SAYAGHI/AP

The way Washington and Riyadh are backing the dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, the killings in Yemen are certain to go on.

YEMEN is on the boil and unhappy. And like the previous two upheavals in northern Yemen in 1948 and 1962 the injured despot who has just ended his welcome exile in Riyadh and returned to the country is at the centre of the crisis, ably helped by his Saudi and American backers. At the time of writing, 95 protesters had been killed by President Ali Abdullah Saleh's enforcers in various parts of the country over the past week. And with yet another attempt by Saleh's backers in Riyadh and Washington to preserve his 33-year-old dictatorship, over and above the wishes and hopes of the country's brave insurgents in both the north and the south, the killing seems certain to go on indefinitely.

Yemen was one of the countries that were immediately infected with the revolutionary enthusiasm generated across the Arab world by the overthrow of the despots in Tunis and Cairo. Unlike the rest of the Mashreq countries Saudi Arabia and the imperial petrol stations and the occupied Arab countries of Iraq and now Libya, Yemen did not warrant the type of concern in the West that followed the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak or the speed with which the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) effected regime change in Tripoli as it does not have natural resources; nor does it have a central position in the Arab world like Syria and Egypt.

Yet, the history and memory of resistance and revolution in this ancient land go deeper than its more placid neighbours to the east, as I warned in my last article about the country (Forgetting history, February 12, 2010), published following the apprehending of the Nigerian bomber and his failed attempt to blow up an American plane over Detroit. Information about his supposed stay and terrorist training in Yemen created new interest in the country but not in its troubled revolutionary history. What is needed is an engagement with that history, not the senselessness of calls for an occupation or bombing of the country emanating from opportunistic Western politicians.

A few months later, this writer had an opportunity to witness the ferment in the country first hand during a visit to it in May 2011, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the country's unification. Unlike what mainstream media hacks are used to reporting, Saleh's Yemen was something far from a country of beards, burqas and Al Qaeda. It was a country in pre-insurrection mode. Even before the latest uprising against the dictator had taken root in January this year, there were already revolts going on in the north and the south of the country, neither of them led by Iran-inspired Shia fanatics or communists. This is what this writer wrote before the visit:

The Salehisation of the whole country has also meant that whereas once women used to work and move around the streets in the south unveiled, the beards have once again taken over.

This is a legacy of the ugly compromises the Saleh kleptocracy made with the religious Islah Party in order to keep the YSP [Yemeni Socialist Party] out of the power structure. What is really happening in Yemen today is the unfolding of the unfinished historical baggage from Yemeni unification. The Houthi 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 rebellion in the north is not aimed at 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 U.S. 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 involves former socialist military officers who have seen what little revolutionary gains they fought for dismantled by the grotesque combination of military officers and clerics imported from the north (and quite possibly Riyadh).

Tragic history

This unique Arab country has a tragic history. It was touched by both the wave of orthodox Arab nationalism and the more radical revolutionary wave in the north, with radical colonels inspired by Gamal Abdel Nasser toppling the medieval imamate in 1962 and radical communists driving out the British from the south in 1967 and proclaiming the Arab world's only Marxist state.

As the country gears up to celebrate the 49th anniversary of the revolution in the north on September 26, it seems relevant to reflect on another, earlier uprising that almost a decade before 1962 helped lay the foundations for the uprisings that were to follow. That was the Constitutional Revolution of 1948, which took root amidst the stifled isolation in which Imam Yahya had kept northern Yemen, his Hamid ad-Din dynasty and earlier assorted ancestors having ruled the country for about 10 centuries under the hammer of absolute rule, aided by the anvil of divine sanction.

However, since the mid-1930s, an indigenous Free Yemeni movement composed of returning intellectuals (who had tasted Nasserist and nationalist ideas while studying abroad) and peasants began to demand an end to the hermetic isolation, a relaxation of the harsh conservative religious tradition and, most importantly, an end to absolute rule to be replaced by a constitutional government chosen by the people. During the uprising, the ageing imam was assassinated and replaced by a reformist coalition, which tried to establish the first elected government in the Mashreq. However, within a few weeks, the counter-revolution asserted itself and with it died this very first attempt at democracy in the Arab east.

But not for very long. In 1955, two reformist brothers of the ruling Imam, Ahmad, allied with radical members of the armed forces to launch an unsuccessful coup against him. King Badr, Ahmad's heir-apparent, himself had reformist tendencies and went a bit further than his father's bold but self-preservatory tactic of temporarily allying feudal Yemen with the radical United Arab Republic not only was this Red imam an admirer of Nasser but he had even arranged for Nasserist experts to visit and help modernise Yemen while Imam Ahmad was convalescing in Italy.

It had the desired effect: within a week of Badr's accession as the new imam, revolutionaries led by nationalist military officers overthrew the conservative order. And within the next five years, the Marxist National Liberation Front threw out the British, in the process establishing a radical republic that instituted radical land reforms; provided free health care, education and housing to the poor; and empowered women.

All this was too much for the reactionary Saudi royals next door and the equally conservative monarchs of Oman and the Gulf petrol stations. In steps remarkably reminiscent of their recent crushing of the uprising in Bahrain, the Saudis poured in financial and military support for the deposed reactionary-in-progressive-clothing Imam Badr against the revolutionary colonels aided by Nasser. And in the south, the Saudis made sure to defame and discredit the plucky godless socialist republic that had empowered its women and sanctioned public burnings of burqas in Aden while their Saudi cousins have wilted over the years even for permission to drive their cars.

The scale of this Saudi-financed retreat was evident in Aden. There were hardly any women on the streets. The only burqa-less women in Aden were to be found in the University of Aden. The scale of the defeat was admitted to by the leaders of the YSP the heirs of the National Front when this writer questioned them about defending their own legacy in the south against creeping Saudisation. They seemed powerless to confront Saleh and his Saudi-backed allies who had first made inroads into the south in 1994, when the latter had briefly declared secession from the north and was brutally crushed with the help of mercenaries who were proud veterans of the Afghan jehad against another godless regime.

So Saleh has ruled Yemen since 1978 in a fashion similar to the imams of old, relying on tribal patronage and on the goodwill of his Saudi and American patrons on the dubious assertion that if he is not allowed to continue until he obviously dies in office, the country will fall prey to Al Qaeda. There is no substance to back this fictitious claim.

Far from an Al Qaeda presence, what is indeed present is a deep and abiding memory of the struggles that helped the country get rid of, first, a repressive ruler and, later, his entire dynasty in the north, aided by a revolutionary upheaval in the south. These struggles have in turn produced another upheaval in 2011 and have united the north and the south once again, in a way opportunistic imams and colonels never could.

There is at the moment a lot of mistrust on the streets of Sana'a, the capital, about Saudi and American intentions to strangle Yemen's nascent uprising at birth. Not without reason. After every revolutionary upheaval in the country, it is the counter-revolution, backed by the reactionary and moribund old order in the east led by Saudi Arabia, that has been victorious.

But Yemen is also not Bahrain: it is a real country with a proud history of democratic resistance. As the killing goes on, it is the ghost of old Imam Yahya, assassinated in Yemen's first democratic uprising in 1948, that beckons Saleh for his comeuppance as he makes his way back to Sana'a having nursed his injuries in Riyadh. But for how long? Imam Yahya was not so lucky, while his son Ahmad survived two serious assassination attempts.

If Yemen's past is any guide, a people's victory in Sana'a would be a tremendous inspiration to the hopes dashed by the bloody Saudi crushing of the Bahraini uprising and a huge step forward towards an Arabia hopefully without sultans and emirs.

Raza Naeem teaches political economy and West Asian history and is completing a book on the legacy of revolutionary Yemen post-Saleh. He can be reached at

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