Karen Dabrowska

Originally published: 15th December 2020

by Friends of South Yemen

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Fifty-third anniversary of 1967 revolution:

WHITHER IS FLED THE VISIONARY GLEAM?

Fifty three years ago 30th November was a glorious day. South Yemen was independent after 129 years of British colonialism. The Aden Colony and Protectorate were gone and a new state was created.

The early 70s were a time of great optimism and euphoria. The people were so enthusiastic about the revolution and the changes it made to Yemeni society that in 1971 workers came out in the streets demanding lower wages and chanting kafed alrawtib wagib (a reduction in our salaries is a revolutionary duty). No other nation in history was so politicized on a revolutionary path that people came out in the streets protesting that their salaries must be cut as a duty to the revolutionary cause. Southern people at the time, with hostile regional states and a hostile Yemeni neighbour, wanted so much for their revolution to succeed. The leader of the new state, Salim Rubaya Ali, was perceived as a revolutionary, and many saw him as a saviour of the revolution.

South Yemen Flag

Whither is fled the visionary gleam? The chairman of Friends of South Yemen (FOSY), Abdul Galil Shaif, describing the current political and economic situation, pointed out that for ordinary people in South Yemen life is now a battle for survival, with no salaries, regular power cuts, water and petrol cuts. “But the most acute shortage is revolutionary optimism, a quality that was flowing so abundantly immediately after independence in 1967. The revolution was supposed to build a better country for three million Southerners. Today they complain that it’s not the same dream now as it was then, people are disappointed and frustrated that the revolution has turned their country from the new dawn they envisaged into a breakfast in hell.”

Shaif believes that amid the chaos, the 30th November independence day has become meaningless to so many Southerners, the revolution has failed in almost all its objectives, politicians on both sides are scrambling to make a deal in foreign lands while the Yemeni state or whatever is left of it is disintegrating into a vacuum for militias and extremists with security deteriorating day by day. Some Southerners go as far as saying, we were wrong to kick the British out, things were much better during the British occupation.

What was unique about the 1967 revolution and why did it fail? In Britain’s colonial history, the National Liberation Front (NLF) victory in South Yemen inflicted a defeat which was unique. In other countries colonized by Britain, in which a nationalist struggle had broken out, the British withdrawal was preceded by lengthy diplomatic negotiations and the subsequent regime soon harmonized its relations with the British state.

This was the case in neighbouring Gulf countries such as Kuwait, the UAE, Bahrain and Oman. But the NLF not only forced the British to withdraw completely from South Yemen but also succeeded politically and militarily in undermining Britain’s colonial strategy for transferring power to a pro-Western state that would be accommodating to British and Western interests in South Arabia and the Indian Ocean.

Public support for independence was immense and there was a revolutionary fervour which at the early stages of the revolution looked uncontrollable. The social implications were certainly tremendous. The rural economy was restructured, the sheikhs and tribal landowners were knocked off their perches, land was redistributed and by 1975 the feudal economic structure was almost dismantled, leading to a marked improvement in the living standards of the peasants. Medical care and other social services which were previously unavailable were provided.

Women had played an important role in the revolutionary struggle to gain independence and this was taken to mean that their struggle must continue and their participation in all walks of life was necessary. Colonialism had for over a century ensured that a backward oppressive, traditional way of life was imposed on Yemeni women, limiting their participation to the management of their own homes and nothing else. This changed radically, women took part in education and literacy programmes and were active in the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) which succeeded the NLF. They were also in the armed forces in significant numbers.

A radical transformation also occurred in the army by 1974. The army was fully involved in the social and economic transformation of South Yemen. An example of this involvement was the army’s drive towards agricultural collectivization by establishing and operating a number of state farms. Because of the lack of manpower, particularly for labouring jobs, the army made a significant contribution to filling this gap.

The development of a system based on socialist principles was unique to the Arab world. But throughout its 23-year history, before union with North Yemen in 1990, the People’s Democratic Republic of South Yemen (PDYR) was plagued by disagreements first within the NLF and between the NLF and Egyptian-backed Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen, and later in the YSP which was torn apart by internal conflicts between the more radical elements of the revolution and the more conservative ones.

The radicals were always keen on maintaining the revolutionary fervour which transformed a feudal system into a socialist one. Collective farms had to remain the backbone of agriculture, relations with reactionary Arab regimes, especially Saudi Arabia, were vehemently opposed, and there was no room for the petite bourgeoise in the economic development of the country. On the other hand the right wing wanted slow and gradual reforms based on the idea of Arab nationalism, and believed that the country had to pass through a capitalist phase with a mixed economy before socialism could take root. Some of those involved in the revolution still alive today describe the radicalism in those years as utopian and regret the internal power struggles. They say it would have been better to develop a relationship with the Gulf states to secure much needed economic assistance.

A destroyed Building in Aden
A destroyed building in Aden

The YSP’s inability to resolve these internal power struggles resulted in the disaster of 13th January 1986 when the conservative leader, Ali Nasser, tried unsuccessfully to execute a military plan to massacre his opponents. Support for socialist ideals following this dropped to an all time low and union with the North was seen as an escape route from bloody power struggles and economic collapse. But after unification came in 1990 the Southerners felt they were sidelined from power by their Northern partners and that investments were concentrated in the capital Sanaa while Aden was neglected and the oil resources of the South were exploited by the regime in the North.

The relationship between Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled the North from 1978, and Ali Salem Al-Beidh, the leader of the YSP and vice president of united Yemen, deteriorated and protracted struggles finally resulted in all-out war in 1994 as the Southerners once again demanded their own state. The Northerners emerged victorious and the marginalization of the South, accompanied by gross violations of human rights, continued until the Houthis overthrew the government of the Yemeni state in 2014. The internal power struggles in the unified state have now resulted in new power players with the YSP becoming politically redundant.

The Houthis tried to occupy the South, but after their expulsion to their Northern territory the Southerners were confident enough to establish the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in 2017. Their initial announcement was to restore the independence of the South. The Southerners helped the Saudi-led coalition forces to dislodge the Houthis from the South. The UAE intervened to provide the STC with military backing.

Relations between the STC and the Internationally Recognized Government (IRG) led by President Abdurabbuh Mansur Hadi soured when Hadi dismissed the governors of the Southern governorates, and in January 2018 fighting broke out between the two sides and the STC eventually seized Aden and issued a self-rule declaration, which was rescinded on 29th July 2020. The Riyadh Agreement, an attempt by the Saudis to resolve the conflict, provided for power sharing; it was signed on 5th November 2019, but it was never implemented. Last month the STC withdrew from the latest round of talks on the agreement’s implementation as the two sides were unable to agree on the allocation of portfolios in the new government. The STC leaders are now living as virtual hostages in Riyadh and only the governor of Aden has taken up his post. Fighting continues between the forces of the IRG and STC in Abyan, ceasefires are constantly violated and a political stalemate continues as the Houthis consolidate their stranglehold on the North and establish an autocratic Islamic state while the whole country suffers from the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

So is there any light at the end of the tunnel from which the South has been unable to emerge for decades?

The eternally optimistic Shaif, in charge of the Aden Free Zone 2008-2014, resigned, unable to work and survive in a corrupt state. He sees a bleak future for the people of the South unless they themselves, throughout the Southern governorates, unite under a common struggle and establish a state in the South united by a common endeavour.