How can social tensions be managed and policy differences resolved by ruling socialist parties in poverty-stricken Third World states? On January 13, 1986, this question defeated the Yemeni Socialist Party in a devastating spasm of civil war. Parallels can be drawn between the South Yemeni trauma and the equally tragic collapse of unity within the New Jewel Movement in Grenada, although the regional conjunctures were different and the geopolitical context of the Yemeni Republic precluded a Reaganite outcome.

The South Yemeni state emerged out of the victorious struggle against British colonial rule in 1967. A population of some two million people live in a land that is almost totally barren; only 2 percent is cultivable and only 1 percent cultivated. Expanding the agricultural area is almost impossible because of the lack of water. Two land reforms after the revolution have brought most of the land into about 60 collective farms and 50 state farms. Some private peasant plots have been allowed, but under stricter limitations than, for example, in the Soviet Union. Despite efforts to achieve self-sufficiency, only about half the country’s food requirements are met domestically. Lack of capital inputs and of trained agronomists and managers has caused severe problems, especially in the state farm sector, where a great deal of investment has been wasted. In 1984, only three of the 24 crop-growing state farms operated profitably. Since the late 1970s, fishing has developed as the one non-industrial sector able to expand successfully. Fish has become the country’s major export, both to the Soviet Union and to the Far East. Per capita income in 1982 was $460. In 1985, agriculture accounted for 10 percent of output, but 42 percent of employment; the figures for industry were 16 percent and 11 percent respectively.

For almost all of its 18 years of existence, the South Yemeni state has been a focal point of continuous war between revolution and counter-revolution in the region, but it has gained a measure of strategic security through its continuous close relationship with the Soviet Union. Politically, the Soviet view has been that it is absolutely premature to speak of a transition to socialism in a country with such a weak natural endowment, massive illiteracy, great shortage of cadres, and so on. Right from the beginning, Soviet advice has been strongly against what it sees as domestic adventurism, favoring caution, accommodation to Islam, liberalization, a conditional opening to the oil states, and the loosening of control on the peasants and fishermen. Thus, Soviet views have always been more moderate than many of the indigenous South Yemeni political currents both on internal social policy and foreign policy. They have argued that, in the long run, efforts to “normalize” relations with the Saudis and Oman would weaken the position of imperialism more than support for movements against those surrounding regimes.

The Soviets have sought to avoid becoming too deeply involved in the internal politics of the country, and it is only in the last few years, under the government of ‘Ali Nasir, that Soviet and South Yemeni views of how to proceed internally and externally have drawn closer together. Moscow has given South Yemen some $270 million in aid over the past 18 years, accounting for about one-third of the total aid received since independence. The non-Soviet contributions have come from China ($133 million), other socialist states, the Arab states, and multilateral agencies.

The Soviets do not maintain a military base in the sense of a sovereign area or permanent troops, but Aden is valuable as a naval port and depot more secure than any others in the region, and they no doubt maintain some intelligence-gathering facilities there.

Ruling Party

The South Yemeni ruling party was founded in 1963 as the National Liberation Front, which carried the guerrilla war against Britain to victory in 1967. In 1978, it transformed itself into the Yemeni Socialist Party. It has a membership of about 26,000, some 20 percent of whom have been army personnel. Less than 15 percent are members of the working class (by their own criteria) and most of the rest are peasants, intellectuals or party officials of one kind or another.

Throughout its existence the organization has been marked by factionalism. First of all, the liberation struggle itself was at least as factional as that in Angola or Zimbabwe: the NLF’s victory in 1967 was won not against the British alone, but also against the Front for the Liberation of South Yemen (FLOSY), the rival, more pro-Egyptian group with whom it had been impossible to achieve unity. More people were killed in the conflict between the NLF and FLOSY—a mixture of personal, political and regional issues—than either group lost at the hands of the British.

After independence, there was an initial rivalry between a quasi-Nasserist faction under President Qahtan al-Shaabi and those regarded as the “Marxist-Leninist” left. The latter came to power in a bloodless coup on June 22,1969. (Al-Shaabi remained under house arrest almost until his death in 1980.) The Front then began transforming itself into a “party of a new type,” following what it regarded as a Leninist model. It united with two smaller political groups—a pro-Syrian Baathist faction and a small, pro-Soviet communist party, the Popular Democratic Union. This was a fusion in some ways similar to that between Fidel Castro’s movement with the Partido Socialists Popular in Cuba, but the Cuban PSP was a much larger political force than the PDU had been.

In 1978, just before the first congress of the YSP took place, another major factional conflict broke out. On June 26, 1978, President Salim Rubaya ‘Ali tried to seize power against the majority on the Central Committee. Though not a Maoist in a strict sense, ‘Ali was opposed to an orthodox party and advocated spontaneity. He believed in appointing people on the basis of political principles rather than functional competence and in the early 1970s he had tried, with catastrophic consequences, to imitate the Chinese cultural revolution in South Yemen. But he remained a popular leader, with a larger following than the party leaders who defeated him in 1978.

The man who emerged as president in 1978 was ‘Abd al-Fattah Ismail. After less than two years in office, he was ousted in a bloodless change of government in April 1980, on the grounds that he had promised too much from the alliance with the Soviet Union and had mismanaged the economy. His opponents dubbed him derisively with a Khomeinist label, the faqih, the interpreter of religious law, a dogmatic Marxist who buried his head in the books but was technically and administratively incompetent. In the mid-1960s, ‘Abd al-Fattah proclaimed the need for a Marxist-Leninist line, by which he meant a struggle against the “petty bourgeoisie.” This entailed combatting the small traders on whom Aden’s prosperity depended, and those whom he called the “kulaks” in the countryside. This dogmatic view of economic and social development scarcely equipped him for managing the country’s affairs competently, yet many people remained loyal to him. He went into exile in the Soviet Union, but was able to return in 1985. He was a prominent figure leading the movement against the government this January, and he died in the conflict.

‘Abd al-Fattah’s successor in 1980 was ‘Ali Nasir Muhammad, who remained in power until the January crisis. Continuing tensions during these last five years indicate that factionalism, not just a left-right conflict but various shifting alliances and currents, has been an endemic feature of the Socialist Party. One source of this factionalism has been two divergent forms of radicalism: an indigenous, Yemeni trend and a more orthodox, bookish radicalism. The revolution’s origins lie very much in the first; the second, regarding itself as orthodox “Marxist-Leninist,” flourished in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Controls and Markets

Under ‘Ali Nasir’s presidency, these contrasting trends did not apparently diverge over relations with the Soviet Union or China or the West. They clashed over two partly interrelated issues: internal economic policy and policy toward the region.

The dominant internal question was: how far does domestic economic development require the loosening of state controls? The first ten years of highly centralized economic regime did not yield many results. As state controls loosened in the late 1970s, and even more so under ‘Ali Nasir Muhammad in the 1980s, living standards rose. There was more foreign aid, private traders were given greater leeway, peasants were allowed to sell about a dozen different products at prices ranging up to 150 percent above those in state markets, and controls on fishermen’s sales were also relaxed. This was not a case of completely free markets, such as exist for peasants in the kholkhoz of the Soviet Union. It was a controlled liberalization, nothing more.

There was also an attempt to encourage Yemeni workers abroad to send back more money. These workers amount to perhaps one-third of South Yemen’s able-bodied young men. They send back over $300 million a year, which amounts to between 60 and 70 percent of all South Yemen’s foreign exchange earnings. In 1982, for example, exports of $21 million contrasted with imports of $747 million. The contribution of the workers abroad came not only in foreign exchange but also in imports of consumer goods. By the age of about 35 such workers are worn out and have to be replaced by younger workers going abroad in search of jobs.

Economic liberalization was a source of tensions. When people in the private sector began to have higher incomes, people on party salaries became nervous. The result was the classic pattern of growing party privileges. In the middle 1970s, special shops for members of the Central Committee; then privileged access to certain goods; then increased license as to what people could bring back from foreign trips, special allowances for state functionaries to buy foreign exchange goods, the provision of air conditioners, video machines and cars. This was done from the top downward. In the mid-1970s, for example, the army had been completely reequipped by the Soviets, so the old leadership decided they would get rid of superfluous British arms by selling them to smugglers at the Saudi frontier in return for Toyota cars. The arms most likely ended up with the Afghan mujahidin, probably the only people in the world looking for Lee Enfield replacements. The Toyotas were allocated to officers in the army and members of the party. In a very small and very visible society, this created rifts. When everyone had been poor, there was less tension; when more goods became available, competition became greater.

To all this must be added the dimension of class forces within the country and outside. There were clearly internal social groups who realized that such developments increased their leverage, and there were both emigres and foreign governments who realized this was a wedge for undermining the socialist experiment. Just as people living in Havana are aware of Miami, so Adenis know the very high living standards in the Gulf. Such acquaintance comes not only from the migrant workers but also from people being able, since the late 1970s, to pick up television programs from North Yemen, with their idealized picture of North Yemeni life.

So this economic loosening certainly created social tensions and instability, as it did in Cuba in the late 1970s. And insofar as ‘Ali Nasir promoted this policy, differences within the party focused upon him. There was no doubt an increase of corruption in official circles as well.

The second broad source of policy struggles within the party concerned relations with neighboring states. In the Dhofar province of Oman there had been a decade of war from 1965 to 1975. There had been border clashes with Saudi Arabia. It is only very recently that the South Yemeni government has established diplomatic relations with neighboring states. In the cases of Saudi Arabia and Oman, there is no dispute that South Yemen has to find ways of living with its conservative neighbors. But in the case of North Yemen, the South had, until 1982, supported the National Democratic Front there, the successors of the radical republicans of the 1960s. [1] This decision to stop supporting the rebels and to press for normal relations with the Sana‘ government involved bringing some 2,000 Northern rebels south and settling them in camps. This undoubtedly aggravated the internal situation even more, reflecting 20 years of revolution and counterrevolution in South Arabia.

Each of these policy shifts brought internal accusations of betrayal. In the cases of both Oman and North Yemen such accusations cannot be justified. Their revolutionary movements had been decisively defeated. The withdrawal of support for the Eritrean movement is a different matter: that shift was made in the name of solidarity with the Ethiopian revolution but in fact was an act of realpolitik. Such internal tensions may have been fanned by the very wide coverage in the Western press and Arab media of ‘Ali Nasir’s supposed “opening up” to the West.

Chain of Events

These disputes over economics and external policy cannot easily be accommodated in a highly centralized power structure where all but the president are in fairly marginal positions. In such circumstances, personal animosities can rise. When ‘Abd al-Fattah returned from the Soviet Union in the spring of 1985, he did not accept the merely honorary role that the Soviets had in mind.

The tribal factor is also important. In a peasant society, tribal loyalties remain and extend even into urban life, since most city dwellers are first-generation migrants. Recruitment for the party, the militia, the border guards and so forth invariably takes on a certain tribal dimension, and such allegiances were clearly visible in the recent conflict.

The first unmistakable sign of this recent political crisis appeared with the June 1985 elections to the Third Congress of the Yemeni Socialist Party, which was held in October. In these elections, supporters of President ‘Ali Nasir Muhammad won a disputed percentage of the positions. His opponents—‘Abd al-Fattah and others—started to protest and distribute arms to their people, with the result that political, personal and tribal tensions focused on the struggle over party positions.

We do not know with any certainty the precise chain of events precipitating the tragic, bloody convulsion that began on January 13—who fired the first shot and why. Aden, where the fighting was largely concentrated, was sacked, but this was not an example of a traditional Yemeni struggle of the rural hinterland against the city, even if that appears to have been the unintended result. Geographically, ‘Ali Nasir seems to have drawn support from Dathina, his regional base north of the capital. His victorious opponents had their support from regions north and east of Aden and deployed the guerrillas of the North Yemeni NDF as well.

‘Ali Nasir seems to have had the backing of the navy and most of the air force as well. But the army split, with the tank corps in Aden apparently playing a key role on the side of the opposition. This corps had been formed by the former Minister of Defense (1978-1981), ‘Ali ‘Antar, who was allegedly assassinated by ‘Ali
Nasir at a leadership meeting when the crisis broke. This killing of ‘Ali ‘Antar on the first day reportedly turned the loyalty of the officers’ corps of the army when it became known to them three or four days later. This seems to have been decisive in the military struggle. The intelligence service reportedly also sided with the rebels; its former leader, Muhammad Sa‘id ‘Abd Allah (“Mohsen”), previously exiled, is now back in office. The militia seems to have split on regional lines.

Much remains obscure about the tragic January conflict. We must, on present evidence, conclude that it has been a largely self-inflicted catastrophe. It occurred at a point when the country was under less pressure from external counter-revolutionary military threats than at any time since the 1967 liberation.

The only substantive policy charge that the opponents of ‘Ali Nasir have specifically made against him has been that of excess license for the private sector and corruption of officials. On all the evidence available up to now, ‘Ali Nasir’s policies were on balance positive. No doubt there was corruption, and many problems connected with it. But living standards rose substantially, general popular contentment rose even more as the sense of being left out was reduced, and the confidence of Yemeni workers abroad in conditions at home also increased. Remittances rose from $119 million in 1977 to $307 million in 1982. Prospects for increased aid were also much brighter, not only from the direction of the Soviet Union, but also from the Arab states and even the multilateral agencies such as the World Bank. Secondly, many key figures in the new government were important promoters of this policy. The new president, Haidar Abu Bakr al-‘Attas, was one of the chief organizers and negotiators of the economic opening to the Arab oil producing states.

More broadly, whenever a transition is made from a highly austere, state-controlled economy toward a certain degree of economic liberalization, all sorts of problems are bound to arise. This has been the experience in Cuba, in Poland, and above all in China. People are going to want more consumer goods, there is going to be corruption, foreign companies will take the government for a ride with various projects. The question remains as to the extent of such problems. Do they affect the social character of the state, basic property relations and so forth? No evidence has yet come to light that qualitative problems of this sort were surfacing in South Yemen.

And in the absence of such evidence, we must invariably focus on more narrowly political sources of the upheaval, and look for parallels with the political crisis in the New Jewel Movement in Grenada before the US invasion. There also, economic problems, administrative problems, problems of personal style, elements of corruption certainly existed—but they were greatly exaggerated in a highly pressurized system. The South Yemeni crisis is another case of that broader political problem of highly centralized political systems in socialist states where politics is very much confined within the leadership and all sorts of disagreements can expand and acquire an explosive potential out of all proportion to their substantive significance. Conflicts then spill over into wider circles of highly politicized but inexperienced and undisciplined youth, who quickly escalate the struggle. The result in Aden was the death of thousands of people, including perhaps half of all the leading cadres of the regime.

How to cite this article:

Fred Halliday "Catastrophe in South Yemen," Middle East Report 139 (March/April 1986).

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