Ghosts of the Left

Few remember that Yemen once had vibrant movements and a powerful left.

Armed members of the Yemeni National Liberation Front, who forced the British to withdraw, in 1967.

In May 2004, Guardian columnist Mark Seddon reported that while visiting a black market north of Sana’a, he found L1A1 Self-Loading Rifles among a selection of various other firearms.

The guns were British-made, and one of many reminders of “Britain’s century and a half in command of Aden, once the most strategic ports in the world.” Others include military cemeteries, a scaled replica of Big Ben called “Little Ben,” postboxes, and the occasional pound banknote.

The British left southern Yemen in defeat. They were unable to quell a major anti-imperial insurgency during the Aden Emergency, and in the fallout of their withdrawal, the Marxist-Leninist cadre outflanked their allies to create the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.

Unlike the British reign, however, the memory of leftist rule in Yemen has largely been forgotten. How did religious militancy, through Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and now ISIS, come to define our perceptions of southern Yemen less than five decades after the National Liberation Front’s victory?

From Emergency to Unification

The Aden Emergency was a crystallization of the regional mood during the 1950s and 1960s, in which left-wing national liberation movements grew in popularity. These trends were especially dominant in North and South Yemen.

Yemenis lived in an underdeveloped country, even in comparison to their neighbors, and were deeply scarred from centuries of tribal conflict, colonial rule, and dynastic religious politics. A mixture of pan-Arabism, Marxist-Leninism, and clan revolt became the ideological manifestations of this exhaustion, leading to over a decade of turbulence.

North Yemen became mired in civil war following an Egyptian-backed republican coup d’etat by Abdullah as-Sallal in 1962. Foreshadowing today’s proxy violence, and notable for its apparent lack of religious sectarianism, the North Yemeni Civil War saw Saudi Arabia supporting a Zaydi Shi’a imamate against the pan-Arabist government. Riyadh was willing to overlook the Shi’ism of its monarchical ally in order to challenge secular republicanism on the Arabian Peninsula, which threatened to overtake the Saudi Royal Family as well.

Meanwhile, tensions were extremely high in South Yemen due to a steady stream of anti-imperial propaganda from Nasserist Egypt, as well as the British Empire’s plans to sponsor a federated monarchical state to replace its rule after independence. If the transition had succeeded, the Federation of South Arabia would have looked structurally similar to the United Arab Emirates.

Various anti-British political organizations and guerrilla fighters steadily coalesced into two rival camps: the National Liberation Front (NLF), which established ties with Egypt, and the Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY). FLOSY was composed heavily of Adenis, many of whom wanted to create a socialist republic upon independence. While the NLF shared many of these aspirations, it boasted a membership that was mainly rural, and espoused a far greater ideological affinity with Marxist-Leninist parties in China and the Soviet Union.

The NLF and FLOSY attacked each other as well as British troops (though in memoirs of the war, British officers have admitted to framing both groups for many of the attacks).

The war began when a state of emergency was declared following a grenade attack against High Commissioner Kennedy Travaskis. While rebels posted significant victories through hit-and-run attacks, particularly in the Crater District of Aden, the majority of deaths in the conflict were from infighting.

The British finally withdrew in 1967. Until the Iraq War, it was Britain’s last major war in the region. After a brief reconciliation government, the NLF launched a coup against FLOSY and other South Yemeni revolutionaries, leading to the formation of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). The PDRY aligned with the Soviet Union, and espoused various tenets of Marxist-Leninism, including state control of large swaths of the economy.

Before long, regional events would cause the Aden Politburo to reconsider its hardline stance. Key among them were the failure of the Dhofar Uprising in Oman, the repulsion of PDRY cadres after clashes on the Saudi Arabian border, and the inability of the National Democratic Front Rebellion to unseat Ali Abdullah Saleh in North Yemen (now known as the Yemen Arab Republic, following republican victory in the civil war, which ended in 1970).

The Dhofar Uprising was initially a tribal revolt that began in 1962 with the insurrection of Musallim bin Nafl, a tribal leader who obtained weapons and vehicles from Saudi Arabia, as well as additional support from exiled Imam Ghalib bin Ali. Dhofar was a severely marginalized province in southern Oman that suffered from social, economic, and linguistic disenfranchisement (while Sultan Taimur’s court in Muscat spoke Arabic, Dhofaris communicated in various south Arabian languages like Shehri and Mehri).

By 1965, Sultan Taimur’s efforts to pacify the revolt had radicalized it, leading its organizing committees to evolve into the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman (PFLO). The PFLO was an alliance of groups with various demands, including greater autonomy and development. Marxist and pan-Arabist blocs also pressed for the overthrow of the monarchy, gaining increased influence with the NLF’s seizure of power in the PDRY, which shared a land border with Dhofar.

After serious discussion about how to continue the revolt, which required foreign assistance, Marxist-Leninists took control of the movement in a 1968 congress. They renamed it the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf, and began receiving weapons, training, and logistical support from the PDRY, China, and the Soviet Union.

Desiring to export its revolution, Aden also backed border incursions into Saudi Arabia in 1969 and 1973, and in the Yemen Arab Republic, supported the NDF Rebellion in 1978.

Its penetration of Saudi Arabia was the first to be repulsed, with the Pakistani Air Force bombing PDRY fighters in defense of Riyadh. The Dhofar Uprising had, through the “cunning of history,” inadvertently forced the Omani state to reinvent itself through counterinsurgency.

Westminster had no intention of sustaining Sultan Taimur’s rule past the United Kingdom’s planned withdrawal from the Persian Gulf in 1971, and assisted his son Sultan Qaboos in taking power and ambitiously transforming the hitherto underdeveloped country. Major reforms were implemented, modern technologies like telephones were introduced, and Dhofar was formally incorporated as a province.

Hostilities concluded in 1975, with the PDRY having failed to spur the revolution it intended in Oman. As a result, Yemen was faced with ideological uncertainty, as well as material shortages resulting from diplomatic isolation. This was particularly acute given that clashes with Saudi Arabia had gone so poorly.

The final blow was the 1978 NDF Rebellion in North Yemen. The rebellion was a major effort to overthrow Saleh, who had taken over that same year and immediately moved to consolidate his rule.

It was led by various oppositional factions, and was supported by the PDRY and Libya. Despite initial successes in the war, it was unable to hold significant territory, and the PDRY’s moves to assist with a 1979 border conflict led to a peace mediated by the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The NDF was eventually defeated in 1982 by a combination of state military forces and the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood. The conflict’s immediate effect was to help galvanize the ascendancy of less militant elites in the PDRY.

President Abdul Fattah Ismail had led the creation of the Yemeni Socialist Party in 1978, in order to succeed the NLF with a fuller representation of leftist factions in the PDRY. However, he could not prevent the rapid ascendancy of party members who, as a result of the country’s defeats abroad, favored a less interventionist foreign policy, and reforms in the PDRY itself.

When Ismail resigned from his posts (ostensibly for medical reasons, although it is possible he was alerted to an impending coup) in 1980, and handed the presidency to Prime Minister Ali Nasser Muhammad, it was an indication that a far less militant bloc had taken power in the country.

This was of particular delight to the Brezhnev Politburo, which had long regarded Ismail to be a liability, noting that his unwillingness to compromise his regional ambitions and refusal to even consider detente with the Gulf monarchies were out of sync with Soviet foreign strategy at that time.

This pivot away from militancy was accelerated after a 1986 civil war between a resurgent Ismail and Muhammad’s supporters, which led to the former’s death in a naval raid, the latter’s exile to the Yemen Arab Republic, and the ascent of Defense Minister Ali Salim al-Beidh to power.

Al-Beidh had even less interest in Ismail’s bureaucratized militancy than Muhammad, and immediately began exploring oil reserves while reopening talks for unification with the YAR.

The more radical government he followed, however, should not be sugarcoated. All factions within the PDRY modeled themselves on an authoritarian, single-party manner widely adopted in the Eastern Bloc. As a result, the PDRY was marked by brutal repression, and for much of its history, Ismail ruled it as a dictator.

Still, it is important to note its material achievements. The PDRY ended over a century and a half of British imperial oversight that would have otherwise continued into the post-colonial era. By the 1970s, it also boasted state support for employment, health care, education, and housing, including outside the city of Aden, in provinces that were mostly neglected by the British.

While current nostalgia for the PDRY emphasizes these material achievements, as well as its victory over the British, it is important to remember that these gains were not as impressive as they could have been (although they dwarfed that of the YAR, which for instance never implemented a woman-focused literacy program like the PDRY did in the 1970s).

The main problem was that the PDRY was hostage to historical trends outside of Aden’s control. By the time it began implementing policy in the 1970s, most of its allies (especially in the Eastern Bloc) had begun to relax state controls and explore new relationships with the marketplace.

Aden has also never recovered from the closure of the Suez Canal from 1967 to 1975, especially since this occurred alongside the rapid ascent of the Gulf monarchies as new centers of shipping and transnational commerce.

The scale of this transformation was so rapid and immense that it is almost impossible to remember the economic and strategic importance that Aden had for the British. Within a generation, it was almost totally replaced by cities like Dubai, Manama, and Doha, which now commanded far more geopolitical importance due to the production and export of oil.

It is no coincidence that the steady decline — socially and economically — of southern Yemen has coincided with a resurgence in favorable popular memory of the PDRY. In fact, the current movement for Southern independence has its roots in May 2007 protests by former pensioners who demanded more generous assistance from Sana’a.

Their small protests quickly exploded into wider calls for autonomy and secession, mainly because in their demands for equality and increased state support, they galvanized a wider sense of discontent in southern Yemeni society. This sense of impatience is impossible to understand without grappling with the political and economic realities of life since unification.

Emerging Nationalism

Current nostalgia for the PDRY explains much about the present situation in Yemen, a situation colored by discontent with the terms of Yemeni reunification and, especially since 2007, the emergence of a South Yemini nationalism as an ideological articulation of longstanding grievances over the lack of democratic and economic rights in the country.

Since unification with Saleh’s YAR, the South has been subjected to various problems as a result of the sudden adoption of free market economics. Tensions over privatization became severe enough that southern leaders attempted to secede from the newly reunified country altogether.

Sana’a reestablished control over the South during the 1994 Yemeni Civil War, and continued its imposition of unpopular policies supported by powers like the United States and Saudi Arabia, as well as international lenders like the International Monetary Fund.

Subsidies were removed, the currency was devalued, the public sector was gutted with dire consequences for housing, health, and education, electricity and water networks were neglected, and many pensions were dismantled.

Unification also led to the further empowerment of northern elites, who were able to purchase property, gain control of important industries like oil and tourism, and dominate university places and the skilled labor market.

Saleh also quickly began to implement cultural policies in the South that he had previously used to neutralize dissent in the North. Essentially, Saleh’s approach was to mediate among various elites in a weak state, with particular emphasis placed on empowering tribal reactionaries in order to control Yemeni Bedouins.

While Saleh and his supporters insisted that this was necessary due to the various divisions in Yemeni society, it was obvious to many southerners that the actual purpose was to prevent too much power from gathering in any one area of the country, where it could then be used to mount a significant challenge to Sana’a.

Part of this approach meant fueling the rise of Sunni Wahhabi religious rhetoric growing in popularity in the Gulf. The rebirth of religious doctrine, as disseminated by reactionary elites linked to the Gulf monarchies, further served to neutralize left-wing thought in the region.

The consequences have been particularly severe in countries like Yemen, where they have prepared the ground for reactionary religious politics. Following years of unrest, they have also begun the creation of new forms of religious militarism, although Yemenis still broadly reject groups like Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS.

This is an important point for international observers, particularly in North America and Western Europe, to understand because it challenges narratives of Yemeni backwardness, and the reception many Islamist militants have received in the country.

Many of Yemen’s current social dysfunctions, then, are not a result of inherent problems in Yemeni society; they have been fanned by Saleh and his allies in order to silence the insurrectionist politics that once dominated the country, and threatened to engulf the entire Peninsula, in the decades prior to his rule. Their hegemony will be impossible to overcome without making space for the ideologies and platforms that have been meticulously suppressed in Yemeni society.

Interestingly, the backlash to this repression motivated the creation of various factions now at war with each other. The Houthis began as a Zaydi Shi’a cultural revival organization called the Believing Youth, which arose in direct reaction to the increasingly Sunni fundamentalist character of Yemeni society.

Northern tribes reacted to the sociocultural climate by falling back towards a Shi’a identity that seemed to have been overthrown with the creation of the YAR. And in the South, nationalism for the now defunct PDRY began to grow as its avowedly secular cultural politics were unraveled, with particularly grave consequences for southern women.

This recent trend must not be mistaken for a desire to reestablish the PDRY in all its aspects. There is more or less a consensus that South Yemen was ruthlessly oppressive. Rather, from 1994 onwards, nationalism has steadily become a major articulation for various grievances in local society, which are widely understood as a consequence of northern control under Saleh.

These nascent ideological trends solidified in 2007 when a revolt by retired army officers seeking their pensions spread across the South, eventually coalescing into Al-Hirak, known domestically as “the Southern Movement.”

Al-Hirak’s local committees vary in their positions, from desiring outright independence, to local autonomy, to increased federalism in the broader state. However, they are unified in their nostalgia for the PDRY.

Despite its authoritarianism, there was a degree of redistribution, state protection, and most importantly, economic stability that was lost with its collapse. Its existence also provided at least a hope that serious alternatives to authoritarian and monarchical capitalism could take hold on the Arabian Peninsula.

That is precisely what makes Al-Hirak, and indeed most democratic movements in the country, so frightening to greater powers in the region. Religious militants dominate news stories, and factor heavily into strategic considerations, in part because they are useful in marginalizing the potential strength of democratic politics in the country.

The Arab Spring was a moment at which Yemeni society began to revive brutally repressed ideologies and political movements in response to new conditions. It was as if the revolutionary possibilities that have been carefully pushed out of Yemeni society since the beginning of its post-colonial period had come roaring back, with particularly strong consequences for younger movements like Al-Hirak.

Criticisms that the US-Saudi bombings are serving to only fragment Yemeni society, and subverting these new possibilities by empowering jihadists, miss the point. Saudi King Salman has every interest in seeing such an outcome. Movements like Al-Hirak are built on a cultural memory of Yemenis, particularly in the South, pressing for a genuinely democratic politics that countries like Saudi Arabia have absolutely no interest in seeing realized on their borders.

It is more palatable for them to see a potential allegiance between forces as diverse as those who engaged in the National Dialogue Conference, which included the Houthis, tribal revolutionaries, Al-Hirak, and various leaders of civil society, made impossible by an imposed war. The alternative would be another PDRY potentially exporting revolution to the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Those British SLRs in the Yemeni black market may be a relic of a war that occurred before many of us were born, but certain dynamics haven’t changed. As was the case forty-eight years ago, no one has any interest in seeing Yemeni democracy succeeding and influencing its neighbors. The question going forward is how movements like Al-Hirak are going to secure their objectives against the wishes of greater powers like Saudi Arabia and the United States.

The unfortunate trend of Yemeni history points to further conflict, and it is unknown how prolonged warfare will continue to shape forces on the ground. Progressive alternatives remain elusive.