“Al-Hamdani” is the nom de guerre of a representative of the Yemeni People’s Unity Party. MERIP spoke with him in February 1984.
The early development of the left in the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) is to some extent known to the outside world: the rise of a republican left during the civil war of the 1960s; the founding in 1968 of the Revolutionary Democratic Party, based on the Sanaa militias and trade unions; and the armed resistance of this left to the republican-royalist coalition government formed in 1970. This guerrilla resistance lasted up to 1973, but the improvement of relations between the YAR and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) in 1972, and even more the accession of the reformist President Ibrahim al-Hamdi, encouraged the left to concentrate on political work. Yet, in the latter part of the 1970s, the left once again engaged in guerrilla activity. Can you explain how your party arose out of the earlier forces of the republican left, and how its practice developed?
The Party arose from the National Democratic Front. The Front was founded in Sanaa on February 2, 1976, by the Revolutionary Democratic Party, the Popular Democratic Union, the Vanguard Party, the Organization of Yemeni Resisters and the Labor Party. (The Revolutionary Democratic Party, founded in 1968, was formed by members of the North Yemeni branch of the Arab Nationalist Movement. Its secretary-general, Sultan ‘Umar, later became one of the leaders of the NDF. The Popular Democratic Union was the North Yemeni branch of a pro-Soviet communist grouping of that name founded in 1961, by the South Yemeni politician ‘Abdallah Badhib. The PDU in the South merged with the ruling National Front in 1975. The Vanguard Party was formerly the YAR branch of the pro-Syrian Baath Party; its southern counterpart also merged with the National Front in 1975. The Organization of Yemeni Resisters, founded in 1970, grew out of the armed republican forces that helped defend Sanaa during the royalist siege of 1967-1968, and was in the forefront of the 1970-1973 guerrilla war in the YAR. The Labor Party, founded in 1969, was an independent Marxist-Leninist party and included some former Nasserists and Baathists.)
On March 5, 1979, these five separate parties united to form the Yemeni Popular Unity Party (YPUP), at a congress held inside the YAR. They all claimed to be Marxist, scientific, revolutionary — yet they were in competition. The founding of the NDF and its later evolution led them to establish this single party, whose first secretary was Jarallah ‘Umar, formerly in the Revolutionary Democratic Party. The NDF, however, still exists as a wider front, albeit with a fluctuating membership. The NDF was for a time joined by two other groups — the Baath Party, led by Qasim Salam, and the Septembrist Grouping, a faction of army officers active in the 1962 revolution. In 1978, the Baath left and in 1979 the June 13 Front of Popular Forces joined the NDF. This was a mainly military group that included members of the YAR armed forces who had attempted to overthrow the government in 1978. These included ‘Abdallah ‘Abd al-‘Alim and Mujahid al-Quhali, a prominent supporter of the late President al-Hamdi. In November 1980, the June 13 Front withdrew from the Front, but a faction remained within it. Al-Quhali stayed too, and a number of other independents then joined the NDF. The growth of the NDF, before and after 1979, has enabled it to overcome the regionalism that was previously so endemic in YAR left activity.
After the assassination of President al-Hamdi in October 1977, the NDF again took up arms against the government. When exactly did this begin? Was it after the death of al- Hamdi, or was it only with the even greater crisis that exploded in June 1978, when al-Hamdi’s successor, Ahmed al-Ghashmi, was killed at the same time as the leadership crisis broke out in the PDRY?
The armed struggle did not have a clear starting point. It was not the revolutionary forces who began the fighting. Ever since the beginning of the NDF, we had put forward some simple goals — strengthening independence, basic human and political rights. When al-Hamdi died, trouble developed with the local landowners and their mercenaries, and many people had to flee, including those who had come back after the end of the 1973-1974 guerrilla war. The feudalists took the opportunity to drive NDF members out of their areas. Ambushes began, and small clashes developed into larger ones. When the local feudalists were too weak to do the job, the armed forces intervened.
Larger clashes took place in May and June 1978, and the worst fighting was in the period between October and December 1978. This was mainly in the middle region, in the south of the YAR, in such areas as Damt, Ibb, Sharab, al-‘Udayn and the areas west of Dhamar. The NDF suffered hundreds of casualties. By early 1979, the NDF had been driven into the areas along both sides of the border with the PDRY. At that point, the PDRY authorities felt a threat from the YAR and said that the YAR was preparing for a total war against the PDRY.
In February 1979, the cross-border guerrilla activities developed into a full-scale war between the armies of the YAR and the PDRY. It appeared 16 at one point as if the PDRY army would be able to seize the southern city of Ta‘izz and substantially threaten the whole YAR regime. Yet the PDRY was forced to withdraw. It was not just Washington’s commitment of emergency military aid, but also a coalition of Arab states who put pressure on the PDRY to retreat — Saudi Arabia, Egypt and, in an ill-timed interlude of Baathist collaboration, Syria and Iraq. Initially, the escalation into inter-state conflict would seem to have benefited you, but the broader balance of forces activated by this internationalization seems to have, in the end, weakened your position.
We won the war, but this was of little political significance. After the war, people began to question our strategy. The YAR army is hard to defeat: you need to have a lot of infantry and be able to control all strategic positions. The PDRY, too, began to question the validity of the war, and its government began to talk about the need for mutual guarantees between North and South. The result was the Kuwait agreement of March 1979, in which the presidents of the two countries reaffirmed their commitment to the 1972 unity agreement.
This Kuwait agreement created problems for us. We had to withdraw some of our members from the North, especially from near the borders. We also had problems disciplining and controlling our members. We are a genuine political force in our own right, and our intention was to focus on political work as long as circumstances allowed, and as long as we were able to have some freedom of expression. The problem was that the ruling forces in the YAR were determined to prevent this.
What was your response to the PDRY-YAR Kuwait Agreement between Aden and Sanaa?
We published our six-point program of peaceful development. The six points were: 1) sovereignty for the YAR; 2) democratic rights; 3) a coalition government to prepare elections; 4) election of a constituent assembly to draw up a constitution; 5) employment of all resources for productive development; 6) fostering conditions for the eventual unification of the two Yemens in a peaceful and democratic manner. These points were announced in March 1979, but from June 1979 there were continuous attempts by reactionary forces backed by the army to prevent political activity. In June 1979 there was a major clash at Bani ‘Abd, 70 kilometers from Sanaa, in which the whole tribe supported the resistance and defeated the armed forces. This led to dialog with the government and eventually to the agreement of January 31, 1980, between the NDF and the government of ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih. This agreement embodied the six-point program, with some modifications. We agreed to support the government in establishing a strong central state that would exert control over the whole country. For its part, the state’s acceptance of the agreement constituted an implicit recognition of the NDF, and this willingness was conveyed in the acceptance of basic democratic rights. We thought it was a just and honorable agreement for both sides: it gave the state what its due and gave the political organizations their due.
This agreement did not lead to peace.
Saudi Arabia put very strong pressure on the regime — financial, political and even military. Sheikh ‘Abdallah al-Ahmar, also began to put pressure on the government. The Saudis stopped aid to the state, which had run at around 345 riyals million annually. The Saudis continued subsidies to the tribes. The government capitulated and abandoned the January 31 agreement, and the bloody cycle of military repression began again. About 60 people were killed between April and August 1980. The first major clash took place in Huban, a part of Ibb province, when the army helped some religious forces to attack us. On August 28, 1980, a member of the Central Committee of the YPUP, ‘Abd al-Salam al-Dumayni, and two of his brothers, ‘Abd al-Karim Qasim and ‘Abdallah, were killed in Sanaa while discussing a new ceasefire with the government. Serious clashes then broke out in the middle region, beginning in the Sha‘ar area of Ibb. Substantial fighting lasted from October 1980 until June 1982. It was particularly fierce in Damt, Nadira, Sadda, ‘Utuma and al-‘Udayn. By June 1982, the NDF had been defeated. All military operations then ceased.
Was there no way you could have saved something from the January 1980 agreement?
Our aim was to return to the dialog of that period, not to seize power in Sanaa. We wanted to carry out a peaceful dialogue, and integrate ourselves into the political life of the country. Our inability to achieve this was, in part, a result of the overall situation in the Arab world.
In the end, we accepted a political settlement worked out through the good offices of the PDRY with the YAR government. We had to abandon the 1980 agreement and settle for a less fruitful one. This new agreement had four parts: 1) abandonment of force in political activity by both sides; 2) withdrawal of all armed manifestations against the state; 3) return of political refugees to their homes and lands without reprisals; 4) extension of the general amnesty of October 28, 1980. This was sufficient for us. Although we were in a position to continue our armed resistance, we did withdraw our forces to the South — about 2,000 fighters and about 1,000 families.
Since the May 1982 agreement, the YAR has been at peace, for the first time since the 1962 revolution. But the country has undergone further crises, which led in October 1983 to a major shift in government composition and policy. What is the political situation now?
All political parties are outlawed by the constitution. One source of critical expression is the weekly journal Amal (Hope), published by Said al-Ginahi in Sanaa. Amal was permitted by the regime in August 1980, as part of a compromise. There is also one person on the 70-member Permanent Committee of the General People’s Council who is sympathetic to the NDF. But all political activity is restricted.
What is the level of repression and how is it organized?
The main instrument is al-Jihaz al-Markazi lil-Amn al-Watani, the Central Organization for National Security. We reckon that there are about 2,500 political prisoners of all types — from the NDF and other Nasserist and independent forces. The main prison is in Sanaa, for those already interrogated. There is also an important security building in the Hadda quarter of Sanaa where interrogation is carried out, and several other less well-known buildings. The headquarters of the traffic authority has underground rooms and a network of damp cells — dangerous political prisoners are kept there. The Jihaz is controlled by the president, but its actual director is Ghalib al-Qamish.
What is your overall estimation of the situation in the YAR now, and what are your goals?
Ours is a very complex society. There are no valid statistics. In South Yemen there is at least a civil service set up by imperialism which does produce some statistics. Here the word has no meaning. The administration has its own very different traditions, from the days of the Turks and the imam.
We must be realistic about our goals. Our main aim is to establish a national democratic regime, a political authority capable of carrying out the tasks of the national democratic revolution. The greatest single obstacle to economic development is the lack of land reform, since agricultural activity is the main activity in this society. We must free the country from feudal and semi-feudal relations and create the circumstances needed to advance along the road of economic development. We must do all we can to mobilize all resources, human and natural, to carry out economic and social development in a scientific and planned way. This goal requires the exclusion from power of the feudalists, semi-feudalists and comprador bourgeoisie. A third aim is to maintain and strengthen our political independence, by supporting it with economic independence. All this is, of course, relative — you can’t talk of full economic independence in this world.
And Yemeni unity?
Yes. This too is one of our national democratic tasks.