Monday, January 04, 2010
Obama in Aden. posted by Richard Seymour
What is this actually about? In one light, the conflict could be seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the latter accused (though I have seen no evidence for the accusation) of sponsoring the Houthi rebels, who are in turn accused of having engaged in a cross-border raid on Saudi Arabia. In another light, it is simply about the breakdown of the Yemen polity, which is increasingly de-funded as oil and tourism revenues tumble. President Ali Abdellah Saleh's resort to reliance on Saudi air power against the Houthi rebels reflects the inability of the nothern ruling class, represented by Saleh, to maintain their dominance in response to various regional challenges despite having won the civil war in 1994. As is so often the case, though, it is not possible to extricate the internal conflict from imperialist pressure, as the US shores up the regime and attacks both Sunni and Shia rebels, the latter through Saudi strikes. One thing it isn't about is 'Al Qaida'. The radical Sunni militias that helped the north to victory in 1994 may have turned against their former allies, and there may be organisations there dedicated to attacking US interests in the Middle East. However, to characterise such groups as 'Al Qaida' is to buy into a brand myth. There is no 'Al Qaida' in the sense of a coherent movement with a shared organisation, a clear set of goals and a consistent ideology.
The roots of the current crisis of the Yemeni state are to be found in its construction from a polity divided between British imperial rule, and Ottoman rule. The Arab nationalist and leftist movements sweeping the Middle East since the 1920s did not take root in Yemen until relatively late, only becoming strong among the Adenis in the south by 1956, though a number of oppositional clubs had been founded. Typically, such nationalist groupings demanded not only the unity of southern Yemen, but also unification with the north: this was the position of the group around the an-Nahda (Renaissance) publication, and that around al-Fajr (Dawn). But the independence movement was given a radicalised edge by proletarianisation and the emergence of a militant trade union movement (the Adeni Trade Union Congress). It was this movement that gave a cutting edge to the emerging forms of anticolonial nationalism, as the organised working class rallied to Nasser's Egypt when it was attacked by Britain, France and Israel in 1956. It had successfully organised election boycotts, scuppered attempts by the British to circumvent anticolonial unity by creating a 'Federation' linking traditional sultan rule in the 'hinterland' of southern Yemen to British capital in Aden, and formed the basis of the People's Socialist Party. Despite ferocious repression by the British authorities, they were able to win major reforms and pose the anti-colonial question in a compelling way.
Meanwhile in the north of Yemen, the lead was taken by Nasirists. In 1962, the newly crowned King, Muhammad al-Badr, had attempted to check opposition by appointing a Zeidi and a nationalist, Abdullah as-Sallal, as head of his bodyguards. But he owed al-Badr no loyalty, and began preparing a coup. A separate group of Nasirists had also developed in the army officers' corp, a typical social base for modernising Arab nationalists. They had been planning their own coup for September 1962, but were beaten to the punch by as-Sallal, whose tanks shelled the palace in Sanaa, the capital of the north, taking control of the city. They declared a Yemen Arab Republic in the north, quashed the Imamate, liquidated the property of some landowners, outlawed slavery, and set up a new currency as well as a series of institutions to help transform the north into an independent centre of capital accumulation. Badr fled to Saudi Araba from where he launched a royalist counterattack, with Prince Hassan returning from New York to rally opposition to the royalists' side. At the same time, a number of local tribal leaders took the opportunity to declare their own Imamates. There began a civil war that consumed approximately 4% of the North Yemen population, with Egypt and the USSR backing the Republicans, and the US and Saudi Arabia backing the royalists. But the royalists had the greater resources at their disposal, and as territories held by the YAR fell, Egypt's involvement in the war became very unpopular domestically, as well as among some tribal forces constituting themselves as a 'third force' hostile to both the royalists and Egyptian involvement. Nasir decided to cut a bargain with the Saudis, pledging to withdraw his troops if the Saudis would stop aiding the royalists. There were also said to be unpublished agreements that would limit the scope of anti-British resistance in southern Yemen. When as-Sallal flew to Cairo to protest against a deal which they were not party to, they locked him up and imposed a new leadership on the YAR. This particular deal collapsed, but the fact that Egypt continued to prosecute the war in the old ways - attempting to control the republicans bureaucratically, containing their efforts in ways congruent with the interests of the Egyptian state - weakened the YAR's chances, strengthening the 'third forces' who would eventually cut a deal with the royalists and turn North Yemen into a Saudi sattelite.
In southern Yemen, it was the left that took the lead. The anti-colonial insurgency had been given a shot in the arm by the declaration of the YAR, although it would probably have received little support from the north were it not for Britain's decision to back the royalists. The socialist Left had until that time relied on more or less peaceful metods of mass mobilisation, but it now became apparent that a military solution was called for. It had to spread well beyond the capital into the 'hinterland', and embrace forces beyond the left. So, a new National Liberation Front was formed, comprising army officers, pro-republican tribal leaders, workers and intellectuals. It sought to mobilised the hinterland and develop a 'popular revolutionary army', quite distinct from the kind of professionalised army that was in power in Egypt and intervening in north Yemen. The guerilla war it launched sought to tax the British army by drawing it into a territory, hammering it, then vacating as troop concentrations became overwhelming, whereupon a new offensive would begin elsewhere. The policy of igniting the mountainous and rural areas of the 'hinterland' was effective. The British had relied on traditional sultan rule to counterbalance the militancy of workers in Aden and the Gulf. Now they had lost control of the countryside, and the insurgency was about to go urban. Attempts by the incoming Labour government in 1964 to coopt the leadership, appointing a nationalist (albeit a right-wing one) as Prime Minister and putting on a conciliatory face, were futile. They were committed to maintaining the 'Federation' and their base, but the NLF was not willing to accept this as the basis for any agreement. British military repression, and the torture of local residents intended to extract information, were insufficient to quell the rebellion.
In 1966, the Labour government accepted that it could no longer hold the base and included withdrawal from Aden in a Defence White Paper. This did not mean that they would relent on trying to ensure a pro-British government remained in power. And, in fact, when Egypt was defeated in the Six Day War in June 1967, they took this as the cue to reverse course, declare that they would increase aid for the 'Federation' government, and maintain their military presence for at least six months after 'independence'. Meanwhile, the NLF was radicalising, having refused to subordinate itself to Egyptian interests by uniting with the more right-wing bourgeois nationalist group, the Front for the Liberation of South Yemen (FLOSY). Its leadership began to speak of 'Marxism-Leninism', had studied the guerilla tactics of Mao and the Viet Cong, and was preparing for a much more radical struggle for power. Instead of depending on the Egyptians for funding, they would expropriate the bourgeoisie (bank and jewellery shop robberies), and raise whatever contributions they could from supporters. The FLOSY, backed by the Egyptians, began to attack the NLF using their new paramilitary units, to little avail. A right-wing faction within the NLF favoured negotiating with the FLOSY, but this was unacceptable to most NLF militants. And even as Britain was back-tracking on its commitment to withdrawal, an uprising in Crater took place in which the police and army corps rebelled against the British. This threatened Britain's last credible instrument of power, the South Arabian army. The NLF governed Crater for thirteen days, freeing prisoners, distributing propaganda, and handing over British owned villas to the local population. Moreover, the British had failed to anticipate one effect of Egypt's defeat in the Six Day War, which was to discredit the Nasirists and hand the initiative to the most radical currents in the NLF. The British had to flee, and by 29 November 1967 their troops had vacated. At midnight, the People's Republic of South Yemen was created.
The NLF left wanted to take the struggle much futher. They wanted a new kind of state, in which the army was a popular militia, and in which political power rested on popular committees in each locality, which in turn would elect officials to higher bodies. Abdullah Fatah Ismail, writing for the NLF left, maintained that the new state could either be dominated by the petty bourgeoisie and become a capitalist state using socialist phrases, or it could be a state of workers, poor peasants and partisans. Eventually, the NLF left mobilised to defeat the relatively right-wing leadership in June 1969, and the country was renamed the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen.
Thus, the north and south of Yemen were divided along political and geopolitical lines. They embodied, appaarently, competing social systems, the former pro-capitalist and pro-Western, the latter aspiring toward socialism and pro-USSR. But that division notwithstanding, the majority favoured Yemen unity, and such unity was nominally sought by both northern and southern states. However, that usually took the form of one side trying to impose its version of unity on the other. Thus, in 1972, the north invaded the south with Saudi support. Then, in 1979, the south invaded the north. No dice either way. The southern state was never to achieve any of its radical aims - it was a poor state, its leadership fractious, its politics expressed increasingly in the dogmatic canards of 'Marxism-Leninism'. In 1990, after the collapse of the USSR, it agreed to unity with the north's military leader, Field Marshall Ali Abdullah al-Saleh, who it agreed would by head of the new state.
But, again, the northern elite ought unity on its own terms. The south's oil riches were there to be exploited only by the northern bourgeoisie. So in 1994, when the south looked like seceding, al-Saleh embarked on a preemptive civil war against the former rulers of the south, the Yemeni Socialist Party, purging them and pillaging Aden at the end of a ruthless seventy day assault. Al-Saleh, himself a member of the Zeidi Shi'a sect, did not hesitate to use right-wing Sunni Islamists such as the 'Aden-Abyan Islamic Army' in order to win that war. (It was they who were later supposed to have organised the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, and it is groups like this who are often referred to as 'Al Qaida'. It was supposedly a group like this that trained that numpty who didn't quite blow up an airplane in Detroit). Even following that victory, however, the northern ruling class could not prevent the emergence of regional, tribal and confessional challenges, often taking the form of armed insurgency.
This brings us to the present impasse. The model of Yemen unity that has been imposed since 1994 clearly isn't sustainable, nor does it have the remotest resemblance to the democratic and egalitarian promise of the 1960s. And where the old left and nationalist currents have failed, Islamist currents - often right-wing ones - sometimes took their place. And these in turn intersect with regional disaffection, as the geography of capital accumulation favours a central ruling class, while leaving substantial territories impoverished. That is what has happened in Yemen. The current stale regime, having encouraged Islamist currents in order to purge the left, now finds itself on the receiving end of their fire. Certainly, Sunni Islamists have some support in Yemen, and their numbers may be augmented by support from some refugees from the Somalian civil war, and US aggression there. However, while their ability to act speaks to the weakeness of the regime, they do not pose a serious threat to the state, and nor are they the targets of the Saudi bombings. That would be the Houthi rebellion, which is led by the Shabab al Moumineen group, whose members are Zeidi, and which calls for a Shi'a state in Yemen. They are also hostile to US and Israeli domination, and especially to the state's over-dependence on Saudi Arabia. Far from representing a localised insurgency centred on a single family, as the Yemeni authorities prefer to maintain, they do pose a comprehensive challenge to the authority of the state.
At the same time, a secessionist movement in the south has resumed, as southerners claim - with some justice - that they are subject to severe discrimination by the current rulers. The fact that they have been butchered while holding peaceful protests (eg) has tended to deepen their conviction. The Southern Movement is not an armed insurgency but, with a state in fiscal crisis and with unemployment at 40%, its success would certainly deprive the northern rulers of revenue (notably oil revenue) that they intend to keep. They are not Islamists, but nor are they exactly leftists, though they do have support from exiled leaders of the Yemen Socialist Party. Now, the US is committing $70m to upholding the present Yemen regime, and while its back-up artillery might take out some groupuscule leader deemed 'Al Qaida'. the basic aim of its funding and military intervention is to defend the incumbent regime against far more cohesive opponents. The result will be to encourage the regime to continue to brutalise and slaughter its opponents - indeed, help them to do so - rather than attempting any reforms that might be necessary to integrate them. The US doesn't care, of course. Suffice to say they don't have an alternative to the present model of Yemen unity, any more than al-Saleh does. They want to conserve a pro-American regime in Yemen as a de facto Saudi sattelite, and can't be expected to worry about the petty grievances of these little people with their absurd ideas about self-government and autonomy.