The full story of the bloody crisis that tore apart the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) in January 1986 has yet to be told, but more information is now becoming available on how President ‘Ali Nasir Muhammad was overthrown and forced to flee the country.
‘Ali Nasir was chosen to succeed ‘Abd al-Fattah Ismail as president of South Yemen in 1980. At the time, he was considered the weakest and therefore the least threatening of all the candidates. As prime minister of the PDRY and secretary-general of the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP), ‘Ali Nasir was on good terms with everyone in the Aden political community, having earned the nickname of ‘Ali Marhaba (‘Ali at-your-service). And as head of state he was able to balance off the various political and tribal groups against one another. But opposition to his “personal leadership” quickly emerged.
‘Ali Nasir continued to “service” his supporters as a way of guaranteeing their loyalty. His political adversaries did likewise, although they were not as well placed to distribute the perquisites of office. The result was a competition in generosity, with Mercedes and Volvos proliferating in the streets of Aden. Meanwhile, ‘Ali Nasir removed a number of former National Liberation Front (NLF) militants and veterans of the independence struggle from important ministry positions and replaced them with cadres who were less prestigious but more faithful to him personally.
‘Ali Nasir remained unaware of the growing threat to his power until early 1984, when the opposition began to take steps toward bringing the exiled former president, ‘Abd al-Fattah Ismail, back from Moscow. The core of this heterogeneous group consisted of the former defense minister, Colonel ‘Ali Antar, and his successor, Colonel Salih Muslih Qasim, but only the party ideologue, ‘Abd al-Fattah, could galvanize the opposition into action. The Soviets advised ‘Ali Nasir to think twice before granting ‘Abd al-Fattah permission to return to Aden, knowing his return would have dubious consequences for ‘Ali Nasir.
In February 1985, ‘Ali Nasir gave in to the combined pressures of his enemies and went to Moscow accompanied by the Palestinian leader, Nayif Hawatmeh, to inform his rival personally that he could now return to Aden, and also to give him his new assignment. ‘Abd al-Fattah was not yet reinstated on the Politburo, but he would be the Central Committee Secretary of Public Relations. As such, he could work with the committee that was preparing the Third YSP Congress, scheduled for October 1985.
The Rival’s Return
In Moscow and Aden, the Soviets were sporting satisfied smiles, a sure sign that they had practically no control of South Yemeni internal affairs. No one bothered to tell them that ‘Ali Nasir had accepted the return of ‘Abd al-Fattah against his will, a clear demonstration of weakness.
When he returned to Aden in March, ‘Abd al-Fattah was received as though he were in fact the party secretary-general. His residence became a place of pilgrimage, and he was quickly taken in hand by ‘Ali Antar, who provided a contingent of guards from his home province of Dhaleh. The guards were wont to frisk visitors and confiscate their personal weapons and they even decided who would be received by ‘Abd al-Fattah. He was practically a prisoner in his own home.
The opposition increased its demands, and differences soon erupted between the president and the party ideologue. Supporters of ‘Ali Nasir noted with indignation that ‘Abd al-Fattah spoke of “the class struggle within the party, as though he were insinuating that the enemy was to be found inside the party.” An impartial Arab observer estimates that during 1985 the state apparatus was operating at only a fraction of its capacity.
Elections for delegates to the Third YSP Congress were held in this highly charged atmosphere, and after several delays the Congress was finally convened behind closed doors. It was a tense and lugubrious affair. At one point, Ethiopia’s Colonel Mengistu Haile Miriam delivered a passionate speech in support of his “friend ‘Ali Nasir.” After several days of heated discussion, a compromise was reached according to which ‘Ali Nasir would keep his positions as president and party secretary-general (he had already given up the position of prime minister to Haidar Abu-Bakr al-Attas), and would receive a majority of seats on the Central Committee, while the opposition gained control of the Politburo. It was called a “compromise for nothing,” since ‘Ali Nasir would have preferred to control the Politburo, without which no important decision is possible.
However, the worst had been avoided. ‘Ali Nasir was persuaded that he had won a political victory, and he set off on a propaganda tour of the interior. Vice-President ‘Ali Antar followed in his wake, contradicting everything the president said—a Yemeni version of cohabitation that was destined to end poorly. ‘Ali Nasir stubbornly refused to call a meeting of the Politburo to name the new officials to the Central Committee, who would of course be his opponents.
The president was adamant: before leaving Aden for winter vacation in Bulgaria and a trip to Moscow by way of Addis Ababa, he told anyone who would listen, “I have made too many concessions already. I will not make any more.” Upon his return he received a report from his security chief, warning against an assassination attempt. The threat to his life now became his abiding obsession.
The Noose Tightens
The opposition had no intention of taking such a drastic step, knowing that in time it could achieve its aims without spilling a single drop of blood. But both sides took military precautions, just in case. Supporters of ‘Abd al-Fattah grew increasingly confident. During a reception at the Bulgarian embassy in early January 1986, ‘Ali Sha‘i Hadi, one of the Politburo members who opposed ‘Ali Nasir, proposed a toast “to the health of our new secretary-general.” The horrified Bulgarian diplomats reported the incident to their Soviet counterparts, who in turn warned ‘Ali Nasir. This only reinforced his conviction that the noose was drawing tighter.
At dawn on the fateful day of January 13, George Hawi, secretary-general of the Lebanese Communist Party, met with Vice-President ‘Ali Antar in the Hotel Frantel. There ‘Ali Antar told Hawi, “the Politburo met on January 9 without making any decision on the distribution of responsibilities within the Central Committee. Today we intend to make a number of specific proposals, and if ‘Ali Nasir rejects them, I‘ll pull out my gun and shoot myself!”
Although these remarks were apparently made in the heat of passion, the Lebanese mediator immediately communicated them to ‘Ali Nasir. Was this the straw that broke the camel’s back? Or did it confirm ‘Ali Nasir in his suspicion that it was high time to “cut off the rotting head of the party”? At 10 am the very same day, he launched a “preemptive coup d'état.” But the effort was hastily organized without securing all the conditions required for success.
This was clear from the pre-recorded communique broadcast on official Aden Radio in the afternoon of January 13, announcing that the four Politburo members who had attempted to assassinate the president had been “tried and condemned to death by a special committee of the Politburo and executed forthwith.” No such trial had in fact taken place, and two of the four were still alive when the message was broadcast. This had a devastating effect for the president, and precipitated his downfall and flight into exile.
View from the North
Whether or not the Yemen Arab Republic seriously considered military intervention in the bloody factional strife of January is difficult to determine. In Sana‘, anything having to do with inter-Yemeni relations is veiled in secrecy, even though Sana‘, like Aden, gives lip service to the idea of a Greater Yemen.
The North Yemeni official media remained astonishingly noncommittal from the beginning. While pitched battles raged less than 200 miles away in “brotherly South Yemen,” newspapers in Sana‘ headlined the results of a recent census. The fighting in Aden was noted on the inside, pages when it was mentioned at all.
The official silence reflected the predicament of the North Yemeni leadership, who had never concealed their preference for President ‘Ali Nasir. Sources in Sana‘ said that ‘Ali Nasir had done everything in his power to avert the border war that broke out in February 1979, when he was prime minister under President ‘Abd al-Fattah Ismail. According to these sources, the ten-day war was a product of the “adventurism” of the former head of state and party ideologue, who originally came from the North.
They add that following his takeover of the presidency in 1980, ‘Ali Nasir did his utmost to normalize relations between the two Yemens and even made personal sacrifices to set up the institutions provided for in the second unification agreement that was drawn up at the March 1979 Reconciliation Summit.
It was also said that ‘Ali Nasir had personally intervened with the leadership of the dissident North Yemeni National Democratic Front (NDF)—who had claimed to have the backing of the Aden regime—to urge them to make peace with their government. According to these sources, ‘Ali Nasir was instrumental in the defeat of the NDF. Just a few weeks before the collapse of the rebellion in May 1982, he had forestalled an operation by an NDF unit supplied with ground-to-ground missiles that was attempting to infiltrate North Yemen with the assistance of his own Defense Minister, Colonel ‘Ali Antar. During the same period he rejected a “pathetic call for help” from the NDF rebels, who had requested the intervention of the army of South Yemen “for a limited period of six days” to help them loosen the stranglehold of North Yemen government forces assisted by Saudi-backed tribes from the north.
Without going so far as to accuse ‘Ali Nasir of betraying the NDF (which some of his adversaries in Aden have done), one can say that he earned the sympathy of North Yemeni President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih, by helping to “stamp out” a source of rebellion that was a stumbling block to reconciliation between North and South Yemen. Was it not therefore incumbent upon President Salih to come to the aid of a respected friend who had been a loyal and courageous ally? This point was central to the debates in Ta‘iz, the major city of the southern part of the country, where President Salih installed himself on January 13 to keep a closer eye on events in South Yemen. Official and diplomatic circles concede that military intervention was considered and rejected as being unrealistic and inconsistent with the YAR’s principles, according to which unification with the “southern part of the country” should be realized solely on the basis of a “peaceful and fraternal dialogue.”
Well-informed sources emphasize that President Salih was opposed to any action that would make North Yemen a “springboard” for a challenge to communist ideology, which is something certain tribal chiefs and Saudi-backed traditional elements were apparently hoping for. In any case, the North Yemeni president, who is also commander in chief of an army that is more than 80 percent Soviet-equipped, and who maintains excellent political relations with Moscow (if only for the purpose of resisting creeping Saudi hegemony), can hardly afford a serious challenge to Soviet policy in the region.
In fact, President Salih received the Soviet ambassador at his palace in Ta‘iz on the night of January 15. He was given a message that said essentially this: 1) We have nothing to do with what is taking place at this moment in Aden and we were as surprised as you were by the turn of events; and 2) we strongly advise you not to intervene in what is apparently an internal affair of the PDRY. The North Yemeni leadership took this warning as a clear shift in policy for Moscow, which now appeared to distance itself from President ‘Ali Nasir. By the afternoon of the following day, when army tanks had gained virtual control of the capital, some surmised that the Soviets were siding with the “rebels.”
In any case, why should the president of North Yemen come to the aid of another president, “even a friendly one,” when his actions are so incomprehensible? Here is a man who unleashes a bloodbath that turns into a major uprising in Aden, and then he does not even remain on the spot to lead the effort to retake the capital.
Privately, the North Yemeni leaders are quite bitter. They say ‘Ali Nasir waffled and avoided making decisions, and they cannot understand his motives. “In difficult moments, a leader should be at the head of his troops,” says one, alluding to the headlong flight of ‘Ali Nasir and his supporters toward the North Yemeni border area. Adds another, “he could have organized the start of a resistance in his own tribal area, Abyan, where he was threatening to raise an army of 40,000 men. But there was hardly any fighting in Abyan. They had no trouble pacifying it.”
The former president was also faulted for his delay in making contact with the North. It was not until January 17, five days after the fighting broke out, that ‘Ali Nasir sent an envoy, Minister of Health ‘Abdallah Ahmad Bukhair, to Sana‘. Bukhair expressed the gratitude of the people of South Yemen for North Yemen’s policy of non-intervention. He also informed his hosts that ‘Ali Nasir was “firmly in control of the situation in Aden and the interior,” despite what was already known in Sana‘. Nevertheless, President Salih made a dramatic appeal on Radio Sana‘ the following night. He called on the warring factions to accept an immediate ceasefire and send representatives to Sana‘ to begin “a dialogue to resolve these problems in a peaceful and democratic manner.”
This was a change from his previous attitude of extreme caution. It even seemed to pave the way for a military action, since he also announced that a PLO disengagement force “bearing white flags” would cross the border early the next morning en route to the battlefield. But the fighting had already ended and the “rebels” were clearly in control.
President Salih’s appeal was merely a reminder that the North Yemeni head of state was not indifferent to the fate of “the southern part of the country.” Yasir Arafat’s “pathetic white flag expedition,” probably undertaken with the hope of boosting his own fortunes, came to naught. A new cloak of silence fell over information coming out of Aden. In theory at least, this was the reason North Yemen was unaware of the fact that the fighting had stopped in Aden and there was a new government, a new president and a new party leadership in the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.
Relations between the two Yemens were at a nadir. The air link between Aden and Sana‘ was cut, although telephone and telex lines were reestablished after a short time. There was an “extremely low-profile” exchange of envoys. The first public reference to the situation in the South by a North Yemeni official was made in late February. In answer to a question from Salih Salim, the new assistant secretary-general of the YSP, the prime minister of North Yemen confirmed that “the dialogue is ongoing,” without elaborating on its substance.
The balance of power has changed now that the South has so severely weakened itself. For once North Yemen is in a position of strength and can confidently say it is in no hurry. North Yemen no longer sees the South as a threat. Their socialist system is ailing and they need time to heal the wounds and rebuild. Hence the leadership in Sana‘ has taken a wait-and-see attitude. Above all, they want to avoid influencing the Arab Gulf states in the direction of “normalization” when the latter are in the process of reconsidering their own relations with Aden. So far three members of the Gulf Cooperation Council—Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Oman—have given de facto recognition to the new regime by taking the position that the war was an internal affair. Saudi Arabia has done whatever it could to prevent the Arab Gulf states from proceeding too rapidly. Normalization should be very gradual, in Riyadh’s view, with economic assistance only being reinstated at the culmination of the process.
Both Sana‘ and Aden have trimmed their aspirations toward unification and are now discussing only the ways to resolve the problem of the highly politicized refugees, for the most part former senior civil servants, army officers and ministry executives. According to authorities in Sana‘, about 2700 recent arrivals have been installed in camps situated in the region of al-Bayda and Rada near the border. The cost of maintaining them through the end of the year is estimated at close to $40 million.*
Discreet negotiations are under way concerning the return of the refugees to Aden. Authorities in the North insist that the great majority of these refugees were not directly involved in the events of January and can return to their country without undue concern. They would like a Soviet guarantee that would also cover some 100 navy officers who fled to Ethiopia aboard the four patrol boats and one small submarine that constituted the bulk of South Yemen’s navy.
However, officials in Aden seem to be in no hurry to make any promises that could tie their hands. They are convinced that in time most of the refugees who followed President ‘Ali Nasir to exile in Ethiopia and North Yemen will eventually return home.
Translated by Diane James
* This sum (300 millions de francs) seems extraordinarily high—nearly $15,000 per person.—Eds.
Editor’s Note: This article first appeared as two dispatches in Le Monde (Paris), May 6 and May 11-12,1986 and is published here by permission. See also Fred Halliday, “Catastrophe in South Yemen,” MERIP Middle East Report #139 (March-April 1985).