Islamist Groups In Yemen From 1978 to 1989 [Archives:1998/47/Focus]

November 23 1998

This is an OPINION page.
Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue! 

By Dr. Adel Al-Sharjabi
Sociology Department, Sanaa University

When the then Lieutenant Colonel, Ali Abdullah Saleh, assumed authority, the northern part of Yemen was unstable. This was due mainly to opposition activities by the National Democratic Front and the Nasserites – supporters of the late President Ibrahim Al-Hamdi.
The Nasserites made a coup attempt against President Saleh less than three months after being elected president by the People’s Founding Council. Relations between the two former parts of Yemen were quite strained then. Sanaa then accused the Aden ruling authority of involvement in assassinating the late President Ahmed Al-Ghashmi. Tension later erupted into the February-March war of 1979.

These factors led to an escalation in the struggle between the ruling authority and the underground leftist and Arab nationalist opposition groups, which became active through civil society organizations. Large-scale campaigns of arrests ensued.
These developments created a special climate conducive to a rapprochement between the authority and the Muslim Brotherhood group. The latter was able, during Al-Hamdi’s rule, to establish strong bases among students and tribesmen in the northern and central regions.
The ruling authority and Islamist movement sought to form a pact, assisting the former in its struggle against leftist opposition groups and the authorities in the south. In return the Islamist movement was able to utilize the state’s establishments for spreading its ideology and be politically active.
The Muslim Brotherhood entered its pact with the authority as an organization. Previously, the ruling authority would forge alliances with individual figures from the Islamist movement. This time the Muslim Brotherhood went into the alliance through the Islamic Front, which was formed in 1979 in cooperation with tribal leaders and other prominent social and religious figures. The aim was to combat the armed activity waged by the National Democratic Front.
Ties were established between the army and security, on the one hand, and the Islamist movement – represented by the Islamic Front, on the other hand. Through these ties, which became quite strong during 1979-83, the Islamist movement was able to successfully infiltrate the army and security apparatuses.
The ruling authority worked on incorporating Islamist elements into its establishments. Four of the 15 members of the advisory council, formed by President Ali Abdullah Saleh on May 8, 1979, were from the Islamist movement. Moreover, the authority facilitated the Islamists control of the General Yemeni Students Union following its third general conference on April 19, 1981.
When the ‘National Dialogue Committee’ was formed on May 27, 1980, seven of its 51 members were Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood played an active part in establishing the People’s General Congress in 1982. They had a majority in the committee formulating the National Accord, which contained the basic principles of the political trends that made it. Words and phrases used in the National Accord struck a cord with the Islamist political phraseology. Generally speaking, the National Accord can be regarded as a political and economic program of action, which inclines to advocating developmental capitalist policies. It also tries to rectify some of the capitalist system’s shortcomings through Islamic principles.
Al-Sahwa weekly – mouthpiece of the Islamist movement – was licensed on April 11, 1985. 
Scholastic institutes, controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, were encouraged by the ruling authority. Primary education within these institutes rose from 220 institutes in 1981-82 to 354 in 1987. The number of students rose from 33,762 to 81,611 during the same period. Preparatory education in the scholastic institute expanded to include 2,939 students, both male and female. The same expansion also applies to secondary education.
During the 1980s, the Muslim Brotherhood’s organizational structure expanded and gained a huge popularity, never enjoyed before. Its close ties with the ruling authority allowed it to be the most politically active group. Thus the Islamist movement occupied the top position among underground political parties in the Shourah Council elections of 1988.
However, the ruling authority at the time was adopting the policy of containment. Thus the official support enjoyed by the Muslim Brotherhood during the 1980s made it easy for the ruling authority to contain the movement. Also official policy at the time was characterized by being balanced, middle-of-the-road and pragmatic. It never reached complete hostility to the opposing political powers, nor did it lose its independence by its alliances. It always had the initiative.
Although the leftist movement was waging a guerrilla war against the government in the central regions of the country and ties between the former parts of Yemen were tense to the point of war, President Ali Abdullah Saleh entered into negotiations with both sides during the first three years of 1980s. He was able during the first half of that decade to contain a large number of Nasserite leaders. This actually divided the Nasserite movement into several splinter groups accusing each other of treason and contacts with the authority.
In view of these strategic policies, the ruling authority worked on weakening the Islamist movement and stinting its development so as not to become a political alternative. The first step taken in this direction was to form the People’s General Congress. At the beginning, Islamists welcomed the PGC’s establishment, considering it a useful tool helping them, and the authority, in their struggle against leftist groups. Thus the Islamist movement played an active role in the PGC formation, supplying its grass-roots and leaderships with some of its activists. However, the authority’s undeclared goal behind the PGC establishment was to contain the rising popularity of the Islamist movement.
A number of Islamist activists won the PGC membership elections in 1982, especially in major cities such Sanaa and Taiz. Therefore, when President Saleh was keen to appoint in August, 1982, 309 PGC members representing more liberal trends the aim, it seems, was not to tip the balance for the rightists’ advantage, especially the Muslim Brotherhood.
The idea to form a ruling political organization, applying popular legitimacy to the ruling authority, was pondered by all presidents of the north. Some of them made few practical steps to realize that idea, but failed for two main reasons. First, the former authorities made their decisions to form such umbrella organization from the top of echelons of power. Now elections were held to form the basic structures and leaderships of these organizations.
President Abdullah Al-Sallal announced the formation of the founding committee of the ‘People’s Revolutionary Organization in December, 1966. He did not take any steps to hold elections to form the bases of this organization. The same thing was done by the Chairman of the Republican Council, Qadhi Abdulrahman Al-Iryani in February, 1973, when he announced the appointment of members of the Yemeni Union’s political bureau.
The second reason for the failure of organizations prior to the PGC was that the decisions to form them came rather belatedly. Al-Sallal formed the People’s Revolutionary Organization four years after assuming power. While Al-Iryani started with his organization five years after coming to power. Ibrahim Al-Hamdi thought about establishing the People’s Congress three years after being at the helm of authority.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh benefited from these failed attempts. Less than two year after being in power, he initiated the establishment of the PGC. Starting in 1980, President Saleh held a series of meetings with former President Ali Nasser Mohammed of southern Yemen. A number of unification agreements were signed by both sides, and unification committees became more active. This inclination to achieve unity was one of the major points of contention between the Islamist movement and the ruling authority, since the independence of the south.
The meeting of Ali Abdullah Saleh and Ali Nasser Mohammed in February, 1984 in Aden was quite disconcerting to the Islamist movement. It came soon after the National Democratic Front announced the stopping of its military activity. In actual fact it became unable to carry out effective military operation following a series of debilitating defeats. Meetings between the two heads of state indicated a true desire to achieve unity, or at least closer ties between the two governments. This made the alliance with the Islamist movement in the north less important. Therefore, the Muslim Brotherhood opposed any form of rapprochement with the south.
In 1989, the governments of the former parts of Yemen put the unified state’s constitution to a general referendum. This step actually made it easier for the Islamist movement. Instead of being seen as anti-unity, the Islamists could now oppose the unification constitution, claiming it to be secular.
The Muslim Brotherhood was able to rally the clergy against the unity constitution. A Fatwa (religious edict) was issued by 200 Muslim scholars slamming the draft constitution as secular and against Islam. The Fatwa was accompanied by memorandum outlining the constitution’s shortcomings and loopholes, which was widely distributed in towns and in the countryside. The government was able to issue a “counter-Fatwa” by the founding committee of the Yemeni Scholars Association.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s success in proceeding with Yemeni unification and throwing away the restraints of the Islamist movement can be attributed to several factors:
— The stopping of military activity by the National Democratic Front reduced the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, which used to pressurize the ruling authority by virtue of its participation in combating the insurgency.
— The military establishment was drastically modernized during the 1980s, making the authority less reliant on Islamist and tribal paramilitary formations. The weakening of the military establishment in the south following the events of January, 1986, consolidated that.
— Since 1982, the Muslim Brotherhood suffered from internal divisions and organizational dissolution. The struggle to gain leadership of the organization resulted in several leaders being expelled and the membership of others frozen.
— The Islamist movement was not unified. Differences in opinion came to the fore at times of major national events.
This article is part of a Ph.D. thesis by Dr. Al-Sharjabi