Socialist Revolution in Arabia

Half a Century Ago, the Independence of Yemen · A few weeks after the defeat of Arab countries against Israel in June 1967, Southern Yemen gained independence following an insurgent movement against the British presence. The most radical socialist experiment in the recent history of the Middle East was about to begin.

British soldiers facing a protest organised by the NLF in Aden, 1967.

Fifty years ago, on 30 November 1967, the only ever-socialist state in the Middle East was born: the People’s Republic of South Yemen, renamed People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in 1970. It emerged after 4 years of armed struggle against British colonialism. Britain ruled “indirectly” the mainly rural Eastern and Western Aden Protectorates, where its interventions were limited to “political advice” and the supply of cash and weapons to tribal leaders and directly Aden colony, a city state whose economy was based first on its internationally important port controlling access to the Red Sea and Suez Canal, and second, its position as Britain’s major naval base east of Suez.

The war of liberation had not only pitted British forces against nationalists seeking independence but was also the locum of military conflict between two rival liberation movements, the National Liberation Front (NLF) and the Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY). The former had a mainly rural base and was composed of the Yemeni branch of the Movement of Arab Nationalists (MAN) in alliance with local tribal groups. Its leadership included members of all these organisations, some of whom became prominent in the following decades: Salem Ruba’a Ali, known as Salmine (1935-1978), Abdul Fattah Ismail (1939-1986), Ali Nasser Mohammed (1939-) and Ali Salem Al-Beedh (1939-), each of whom led the organisation and its successor, the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) as well as the state for different periods; they were also all involved in the bloody internecine struggles which tore it apart.

FLOSY by contrast had its origin in the People’s Socialist Party, primarily active in Aden and based on the strength of the trade unions there, with an ideology closer to British labourism and Nasserist type of socialism. Its main leaders were the late Abdullah Al-Asnag (1934-2014) and Abdul Rahman Al-Jifri (1943-) who is still active in separatist Southern Yemeni politics today. With stronger popular support as well as military forces in the rural areas, the NLF militarily defeated FLOSY in Aden and, in the course of 1967, took over most of the hinterland where the latter was largely absent. Britain belatedly recognised it as the main liberation movement and handed it the symbols of power after last minute rushed negotiations in Geneva.

End of the popularity of Nasserism

This victory came at a turning point in Arab nationalist movements and ideology: earlier that year the defeat of Egypt and other Arab states in the Six-Day War against Israel also marked the end of Nasserism as a popular anti-colonial socialist and nationalist ideology in the region, a situation confirmed in Yemen itself by the NLF’s victory over its rival Nasserist FLOSY. In the following years, the NLF was at the forefront of a leftward shift of parts of the MAN exemplified elsewhere by the emergence of the Popular and Democratic Fronts for the Liberation of Palestine, the transformation of the Dhofar Liberation Front into the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG) and a multiplicity of smaller organisations in different Arab states. All argued that the June 1967 defeat was due to the “petty bourgeois” socialism promoted by Gamal Abdel Nasser and that only far more radical, Marxist-based analysis and movements, would be able to defeat Zionism, bring down the monarchical autocratic regimes of the region and improve the living conditions of the poor.

A Revolutionary State

It is also worth remembering that this was also a time of revolutionary fervour in the North and West, with strong support for the Vietnamese NLF and other anti-colonial struggles in Africa and Asia and, of course, the May 1968 events in France itself. During the following decade, debate on the left focused on ideological differences within the Marxist credo and also reflected the then active Sino-Soviet dispute, with tendencies ranging from Maoism and Trotskyism to more traditional Soviet-type socialism. These bitter disputes flourished despite all these movements being under direct attack from the regimes they sought to overthrow, regimes supported to varying degrees by the West as the Cold War was, at that time, the prevailing international arena of ideological, political and economic struggle.

The PDRY was the only Arab state in which one of these movements achieved power, and it fully endorsed its revolutionary mantle, supporting the more radical Palestinian organisations as well as the PFLOAG and other regional revolutionary movements in the Peninsula and beyond. This ensured active aggression from former rulers exiled in Saudi Arabia, Oman and even the Yemen Arab Republic who, supported by their hosts, carried out military incursions forcing the regime to focus on military spending and defence at the expense of development. The PDRY also had its place in the Cold War, which provided it with military and economic support from the Socialist world, ranging from the USSR to Cuba and later the Mengistu Haile Mariam regime in Ethiopia. The West saw the PDRY as an outpost of the Socialist Bloc in the Arab World.

The NLF’s revolutionary positions explain its ostracism and rejection by the regional absolute monarchies which felt threatened by its revolutionary fervour. They perceived it as the vanguard of revolutionary movements in their own states at a time when, internationally, radical ideologies were on the ascendant. In addition to military subversion and diplomatic, political, and economic isolation of the PDRY these states, particularly Saudi Arabia, responded by initiating and promoting quietist Salafi Islamism throughout the Muslim world, something considerably facilitated by the dramatic rise in oil revenues after 1973. This trend remained largely unnoticed by the left, deeply embroiled as it was in its own internecine ideological and other conflicts; it therefore took decades to realise that radical Islam was emerging as a major rival popular ideology, particularly among the youth.

Equality for Women

Economically, the new regime was faced with very difficult circumstances and its very survival was initially in doubt: Aden’s economy collapsed with the closure of the Suez Canal after the defeat of the Arab states in June 1967, the departure of the British and their base followed by that of Aden’s private sector economic elite with its financial assets. The hinterland had limited potential other than a rich fishery in the Arabian Sea, and some agriculture; no oil had been found. Despite this hostile environment, the PDRY regime introduced important social and economic policies, providing universal education and a free health service, giving women formal equality and opposing tribalism seen as a rival political mobilisation mechanism. With financial support from the Eastern Bloc, some international financial institutions and in the Arab World, Kuwait, these social and economic policies were gradually implemented during the 1970s and 1980s. As a result, ordinary Yemenis not involved in political activity, achieved reasonable standards of living and the gap between rural and urban living conditions was significantly reduced; the regime, whose leadership included many of rural origin, ensured that rural areas were not neglected despite the low population density and vast geographical size of the country. Incomes, though modest, were sufficient to ensure the basics of life whether in agriculture, fisheries or services.

By contrast, active involvement in politics was likely to have a nefarious impact on longevity. Not only were some of the few remaining members of former leading groups under the British or in FLOSY ill-treated, but the NLF itself continued to be torn apart by internal struggles. The Sino-Soviet dispute was part of the background to the NLF’s internal struggles as it transformed itself from a nationalist front into a more conventional socialist party and the more revolutionary populist strand led by Salmine was defeated by the Soviet-oriented bureaucratic one of Abdul Fattah Ismail. Absorbing the local communist and Baathist organisations, the NLF became the Yemeni Socialist Party in 1978, having suffered a number of attempted coups, purges and other internal struggles in the preceding decade, the most virulent, in June 1978, having been the overthrow and execution of Salmine, the leading member of a more radical “Maoist” left in the triumvirate which had formally headed the country since June 1969.

Bloody Confrontations within the Party

Internal strife within the YSP continued throughout its 23 years of existence: even today it is not clear to what extent these conflicts were personal, regionally based, or ideological. What is clear, however, is that the regime’s positions softened considerably during the two decades. There was no repeat of extremely radical events such as the 7 days of 1972 when demonstrators demanded reductions in salaries in support of the state’s financial difficulties, a moment seen as the peak of Salmine’s influence. Support for the more extreme international revolutionary groups in the Middle East and beyond waned and ended by the late 1970s. In the 1980s, mutual diplomatic relations were established with Saudi Arabia and Oman, media wars ended and the regime received some financial assistance. Its search for private sector economic investment from emigrant and other foreign sources was only partly successful. Internal struggle culminated in what became euphemistically known as the “events” of 13 January 1986, when Abdul Fattah Ismail and most of the other “historic” leaders of the revolution were assassinated at a Political Bureau meeting on order from Ali Nasser Mohammed who had been seen as a more pragmatic leader since he had sent the former into exile in 1980.

These events fundamentally undermined the regime as its credibility among the population tanked: the struggle was seen as lacking any ideological or principled rationale and simply a grab for power. Taking place when the Soviet Union itself was undergoing massive changes, which were to lead to its own demise, the post 1986 regime became similar to a western democracy, but it was too late. The discovery of oil on its borders with the YAR and a comparable crisis in its regime led to a situation where the alternatives were war or unification. Yemeni unification had been the one popular slogan throughout the PDRY period, and its implementation, at the instigation of Ali Abdullah Saleh, then president of the YAR, and the rump leader of the YSP, Ali Salem al Beedh, was initially the most popular action either leader had achieved. On 22 May 1990, after 23 years, the PDRY ceased to exist and became part of the Republic of Yemen.

As is clear today with the emergence of an increasingly virulent separatist movement in its former geographical area, unification has been a complex and unsatisfactory process, to be discussed elsewhere. But the names of the remaining leaders of the PDRY are still prominent in Yemeni political debate, despite their age and the fact that few, if any of them, claim any allegiance to socialism of any form.