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South Yemen’s Independence Struggle, Generations of Resistance by Anne-Linda Amira Augustin & South Yemen: Gateway to the world? by Abdul Galil Shaif

Helen Lackner
Référence(s) :

South Yemen’s Independence Struggle, Generations of Resistance, Anne-Linda Amira Augustin, American University of Cairo Press, 2021, pp 306.

South Yemen: Gateway to the world?, Abdul Galil Shaif, Authorhouse UK, Bloomington USA, 2022, pp 195.

Texte intégral

1These two books are by South Yemenis who are committed to returning Yemen to the two states existing prior to unification in 1990. Both authors have strong European connections and their books have emerged, in part at least, from PhD theses. However, they are extremely different in scope, approach and style; the first retains an academic and analytical approach focused on the struggle of southerners for independence in the last decade; the second is a personal southern militant account of politics throughout Yemen since the People’s Democratic of Republic (PDRY) period. One interesting comparative aspect is the fact that these books represent the views of authors from generations decades apart.

2Augustin declares her political alignment at the outset, describing herself as ‘political advisor to the European Representative Office of the Southern Transitional Council’. Her book is an anthropological field study examining southern separatist perceptions, mainly among young people born after Yemeni unification in 1990, but also including the views of older people who lived through the PDRY period. Other than in the conclusion, she retains academic detachment in her description and analysis of the views of supporters of separatism. Each chapter discusses a different group of militants, covering in turn actors, the ideological content of their positions, the spaces where they are displayed and finally representation in the media and through its symbols. As should be the case for a work of social anthropology, she includes long quotes from her interviews with participants in which they expound their views, followed by her analysis framing their statements in the context of her overall argument.

3Her background as half East German enables her to usefully compare the different perceptions of the demise of socialism and the process of unification with a capitalist state, given that both Germany and Yemen simultaneous experienced this transformation. As she explains (p 6), her personal history and circumstances gave her access to supporters of separatism, but not to its opponents. So, as she points out, her study ‘should be considered an ethnography of the independence struggle’ (p7); her fieldwork was carried out in 2014-15 at a time when the separatist movement was fairly mature and played a significant role in the early months of the war which involved the liberation of Aden from Saleh-Huthi forces, but before the establishment of the Southern Transitional Council in 2017.

4Given these facts and focus, it is unsurprising that her interpretation of Yemeni history since unification explicitly favours southern separatist views and neglect aspects of the Saleh regime which do not fit into this narrative. She does not present any of the alternative interpretations of recent Yemeni history or political developments but presents the separatist perceptions as if they were unarguable. Among many issues, she repeatedly asserts that the Saleh regime oppressed, victimized and stigmatized southern citizens while privileging northerners, particularly focusing on the difficulties young southerners experienced in obtaining employment to which they considered themselves entitled due to their educational achievements. Alongside many southerners, she fails to recognise the fact that neglect was a phenomenon suffered by Yemenis throughout the country and that only Saleh’s close associates benefitted from his regime, including both northerners and southerners. This reflects, among other things, the widespread ignorance that most Yemenis have of other parts of their country and how few of them travel within Yemen to find out about conditions elsewhere. Defying reality, she makes no mention of southern beneficiaries of the Saleh regime.

5Her careful analysis of the presentation of Yemeni history and ‘civics’ in the Republic of Yemen’s textbooks is a particularly useful contribution to understanding southern views. The absence of discussion of either achievements or problems of the PDRY period in these textbooks ensures ignorance of this history by northerners and southerners alike and, indeed, among both supporters and opponents of separatism. This section also challenges the Saleh period narrative promoting him as the initiator of all social and economic achievements thanks to unification (p 86) and further helps understand why current beliefs are so lacking in historical perspective. The Saleh regime strategy was also often witnessed by this reviewer in the 1990s when visiting facilities from the socialist period and being told they were achievements of unification. Further, ignorance strengthens potential for the emergence of idealised narratives of the past, whether positive or negative. Such narratives clearly emerge in the memories of her older interviewees who mostly also focused on the positive elements of the PDRY period.

6There are other important facts which Augustin fails to address, probably because they challenge her argument of popular support for separatism: these include the widespread popular enthusiasm for unification in the 1980s and early years of unity, which she barely mentions. She also downplays the significance of factional fighting within the leadership of the National Liberation Front, later the Yemeni Socialist Party which undermined the regime’s popularity and contributed to its demise. Similarly, she neglects to mention the numerous southern exiles from different internal clashes within the PDRY who returned after unification and benefitted from Saleh’s unity regime at the expense of the majority; some of whom also participated in the civil war in 1994 on the Saleh side. Among the interesting questions which remain undiscussed is the widespread use of the socialist PDRY flag since the late 2000s by a movement which makes no claim of allegiance to socialism.

7Her discussion of the ‘glorious pre-unity South’ also addresses the issue of ‘post-socialist nostalgia’. She points out (p 99) that ‘concealment of the PDRY past [in the post unity Saleh era] fostered the establishment of a counternarrative strand fed by people’s nostalgia for the PDRY’s free health-care system, educational system, provision of state employment and social security, and promotion of citizens’ equality, including women’s empowerment.’ There is far less mention of nostalgia for the pre-PDRY days, ie the period of British colonialism. The main discussion refers to perceptions of younger people born after 1990 who perceive the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (1967-1990) period as ‘good old days’ when life was stable and secure (p 47) emphasising the PDRY’s ‘welfare state’ policies.

8Most of her interlocutors call for the revival of free provision of social services in a future independent southern state. In this context, it would have made sense to complement this by a discussion of the status of ‘welfare states’ in the contemporary world and regional context when neo-liberalism is the dominant philosophy. Therefore, were separation to take place southern leaders, whether STC or other, would be most unlikely to restore such policies. None of these leaders challenges neo-liberalism or promote welfarism, let alone socialism. This is particularly relevant as it means many supporters of separatism would be disappointed should it happen, given the influence of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Although, in recent decades both these states have provided among the best welfare services in the world for their own citizens thanks to high income from hydrocarbon exports, in the 2020s even they are reducing free state provision of services, and instead promote privatisation following a neo-liberal model. Neither has provided welfare provisions for its foreign labour, let alone for people beyond its borders.

9A few factual errors need to be mentioned: Augustin appears to have done little research on the history of the PDRY itself: for example, she describes the National Liberation Front as Marxist-Leninist in the early 1960s (p 91). With respect to more contemporary events, she wrongly states that Aden port also suffers from the coalition’s blockade (p 128), and appears to consider the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) as a ‘northern’ party, something which defies even the evidence she provides. Overall, this is a volume which identifies and outlines southern separatist perceptions of Yemen. It should be read by anyone who needs to understand this movement, not forgetting that it is one of many visions of Yemen from the southern part of the country. Complementary volumes presenting alternative perceptions of the southern Yemeni question would be welcome.

10By contrast, despite its title, Shaif’s book actually presents his vision of Yemeni politics in recent decades. Although it has a southern focus, it also includes his interpretations of the Saleh regime throughout the country. Its main contributions are a detailed description of the sequence of events and rationale of the fighting in the 1994 civil war and long quotes from some important recent agreements and documents. Unfortunately, there are too many factual errors to list them here, there is insufficient discussion of many important events, few of the quotes are referenced, and many of the illustrations are wrongly labelled. Chronologies are unclear and therefore this book will be useful only to those whose familiarity with recent Yemeni history enables them to reconstruct sequences and benefit from his insights into the details of some of the country’s internal factional struggles.

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Référence électronique

Helen Lackner, « South Yemen’s Independence Struggle, Generations of Resistance by Anne-Linda Amira Augustin & South Yemen: Gateway to the world? by Abdul Galil Shaif », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 16 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2022, consulté le 03 octobre 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cy/8383 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/cy.8383

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Helen Lackner

SOAS University of London

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