Forgetting history

Print edition : February 12, 2010

April 2, 1967: Arab demonstrators, carrying pro-Cairo banners, marching through the streets of the British colony of Aden. The demonstrations were accompanied by three minor attacks against British troops. The popularity of the peoples wars in the north and the south of Yemen led to the British withdrawal from the south in November 1967 and victory for the republican forces in the north in July 1970.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

SO now it is official. In the wake of the alleged Christmas plot to blow up a Detroit-bound plane, we are told that the enterprising bomber, a Nigerian, had spent some time in Yemen before putting his plan into action. And in the wake of some Yemeni jehadists vociferously claiming the would-be martyr as their own, the Western political establishment and the ever-too-ready-to-be-compliant media have been quick to take the back-story to its logical conclusion: egging Washington on to open up another front in the so-called war on terror, in Yemen, despite the disastrous occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq and the murderous, unofficial war, with the compliance of the supine ruling elite, in the north-western region of Pakistan. Then came the inimitable gem from The New York Times that the United States war on terror had indeed been going on in Yemen since last year in the form of covert operations, and another callous ruling elite, divorced from the needs and hopes of its subjects, is busy colluding with its overlords in Washington against Al Qaeda infiltration.

As is too familiar from the pattern in the rush to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the media have jumped on the war bandwagon, and in the days since the Christmas Day plot became public, one could read and hear alarmist phrases such as Yemen being the Afghanistan of the Arab World, the next failed state and, in The Economists ringing, kitschy phrase, the next biggest worry for the West. Senator Joe Lieberman, never the one to stay behind the changing weathervane of American politics, boasted recently after a trip to Sanaa that Yemen would be the theatre for tomorrows war. The trouble with these ahistoric and utterly reductive generalisations is that they lead to the sort of historical amnesia that gives rise to rampant warmongering. Already such uninformed analyses have led to the occupation and cultural and social destruction of two other Muslim countries, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The mongrel passions that now ignite the bellicose propaganda in favour of U.S. involvement in that country first led one to taking the country and its tortured history more seriously in the immediate aftermath of the September 2001 attacks, unlike the pundits and journalists whose only understanding of Yemen and most Muslim societies for that matter comes from the fact that a certain bin Laden family once had a Yemeni domicile. Like Iraq and Afghanistan, Yemen is a country with a past and a unique recent history, which have conspired to place it in the predicament it is in today. Modern equivalents of Augustus and Nero ignore this history only at their own peril, as they are finding out in both the occupied countries today.

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 (no doubt a dress rehearsal for their later atrocities in Iraq). 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 imams assassination.

But the old order quickly reconstituted itself. The resistance continued, however, 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 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 Sanaa would not go unpunished, especially after the revolutionary contagion in the north infected the south, where a full-scale guerilla war with one section of the revolutionaries loyal to the Nasserists and 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 analysed 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 aggression 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, Zionist 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 peoples wars in the south and the north led to the British withdrawal from the south in November 1967 and victory for the 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 were not 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, by 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 peasants, nationalising the nascent industries and eliminating illiteracy and disease. The revolution in South Yemen astonishingly instituted the most radical political and social programme of reforms in the Arab world, more than all the radical colonels in Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus, Tripoli and Khartoum put together.

However, because it was a popular regime rather than a populist-military one like its 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 the 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 Sanaa 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.

BRITISH PATROLS BRINGING demonstrators back to the headquarters in Crater district of Aden. An April 1967 photograph.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

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 Teheran in 1979. Therefore, with Saudi money and blessings, the unification of Yemen was brought about in 1990. Although this snuffed out the only real revolutionary alternative in the post-1967 Arab world, it was hoped that the new democratic state would enable a hitherto passive citizenry in the petrol stations of the Gulf to put pressure on their own autocrats.

But it was not to be. Since the unification, Yemen itself has become a byword for the same malaise afflicting the Arab world that the revolution and then the unification were 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 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 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 Salehs 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).

So what are the alternatives? Saleh, unlike Pervez Musharraf, Saddam Hussein and the Taliban, is a wily dictator who has managed to keep power only by juggling amongst U.S., Saudi and his own cynical interests on the 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 programmes shoved down their throats by the aging dictator.

But that does not mean people there do not take 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, now in exile in Oman) have become, one thing is certain: Yemen is a country where the memory of revolution and resistance remains fresh.

Prominent Islamic cleric Sheik Abdel-Majid al-Zindani (centre), who the U.S. believes has an Al Qaeda link, in Sanaa on January 14. A group of clerics has warned it will call for jehad if the U.S. sends troops to fight Al Qaeda in Yemen.-AP

The mood in the south remains especially militant. A couple of months ago, thousands of people came out in the streets of 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 of the 1950s and 1960s which shook the British empire and the 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 countrys revolutionary history but also a break with whatever the unification entailed much of which has not been tangible to the people at large. That is the history which Yemens would-be occupiers in Washington and their equally spineless satraps in Sanaa and Riyadh want to deny and whitewash, acts which are not serving them well in the occupation 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 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 U.S.

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