By: Dr. Abdul Hamid al-Bakri
Assistant Professor of Modern History
The Republic of Yemen has been ruled by many presidents since the eruption of revolutions in September 1962 and October 1963 – revolutions which saw the overthrow of the ruling Imamate in North Yemen and the end of British colonialism in the south; more recently, Yemen witnessed the 2011 Youth Revolution. While President Abdulkareem Al-Arashi’s period was the shortest, as he ruled Yemen for less than a month, Ali Abdullah Saleh’s period of rulewas the longest, as he ruled over Yemen for 33 years.
It is notable that all those who ruled the northern portion of Yemen were military figures except for Judge Abdurrahman Al-Iriani and Judge Abdulkareem Al-Arashi. The constitution at the time stated that the chairman of the people’s assembly could fill the position of Yemeni president until a new president occupied the seat. In contrast, but for Ali Salem Al-Beidh, presidents in the south were all civilians.
What follows is a brief biography for each of Yemen’s presidents – and the stamp each left on Yemeni life.
President Abdullah Al-Salal:
He was born in Sanhan, Sana’a in 1917 and graduated from the Iraqi Military Academy in 1939 as a lieutenant. President Al-Salal participated in the revolution of 1948 when Imam Yahiya was killed. When the revolution failed, he was jailed in Haja for seven years. During the monarchy era, he occupied many positions, including principal of the Military College and commander of Imam Al-Badr’s private guard.
He was chosen by the organization of free officers – who initiated the revolution of September 26th – 1962, to be Yemen’s first president. His period of rule was mostly characterized by instability, as the civil war continued between the Republican side supported by Cairo and the monarchy supported by Riyadh; in addition, there was control and interference by Egyptian forces in Yemeni affairs. All these factors weakened the sovereignty of President Al-Salal, who was left holding nothing in his hand. His weak rule resulted in the emergence of the November 1967 Movement, which led to his being overthrown. He then lived in Egypt and Syria and returned to Yemen in 1981. He died in Sana’a in 1994.
President Abdurrahman Al-Iriani
Al-Iriani was born in Ibb’s Irian directorate in 1910 and was considered one of Yemen’s top scholars and most prominent politicians. He was called “The Wise man of Yemen” and was considered one of the top leaders of the 1984 Revolution. He also had an important role in the movements which overthrew Yemen’s royal regime. Al-Iriani led the 5th of November Movement in 1967 which overthrew the rule of Al-Salal; he consequently became the Chairman of the Republican Council (President of the Republic). He continued in that position until 1974 and was the first Yemeni president to willingly resign from his position to avert the shedding of blood. In his era, the Shura Council was established and there was reconciliation between the Republicans and Monarchists. In addition, in this era, the first discussion on unity between north and south was conducted. President Al-Iriani died on March 14th, 1998 in the Syrian capital of Damascus.
President Qahtan Al-Sha’aby:
He was born in Toor Al-Baha in Lahj province in 1923. He received his primary and secondary education in Aden and then Sudan before graduating from University of Jordan in Khartoum’s Department of Agricultural Engineering. He led the National Front to Liberate Occupied Southern Yemen, which was established in 1963. Al-Sha’aby participated in the revolution of that year against British occupiers.
When the British occupiers left Yemen, he became the first president of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in 1969. He was later forced to leave his position by the left wing of the National Front and was kept in detention until he died in 1981.
President Salem Ali:
He was born in Abyan in 1935 and received his education in Aden. He later worked in the field of education and became a lawyer. He was one of the most prominent figures in the National Front and became president of the Democratic Republic of Yemen in 1969. During his period of rule, he tried to strengthen relations between south and north and conducted daring steps with President Al-Hamdy towards the achievement of unity between the two parts. He also improved relations between South Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the U.S.A. after only having relations with the Soviet Union.
President Salem was accused of being the hidden factor behind the assassination of President Al-Ghashmi in revenge for the assassination of President Al-Hamdy. In addition, because of his good relations with western nations, he was accused by left hardliner communists of forming a conspiracy to monopolize power and was then thrown out of power and executed in 1978.
President Ibrahim Al-Hamdy:
President Ibrahim Al-Hamdy was born in Amran governorate in 1943. He enrolled in the army as a soldier and later joined the Aviation College. During the era of Al-Salal’s rule, he led the Thunderbolt Forces and then became a leader of the western, eastern and central governorates. He was appointed Vice Prime Minister in 1972 and then Vice Higher Commander of the armed forces.
In 1974, he led the June 13th movement. President Al-Iriani resigned and Al-Hamdy became Yemen’s president. He continued in his position until he was mysteriously assassinated on October 11th, 1977. President Ahmed Al-Ghashmi was accused of planning his assassination.
Even though his period of rule was brief, he left a significant imprint on Yemenis, the result of earnest efforts undertaken to improve the country’s general situation. To mention some, he worked hard towards achieving unity and establishing cooperation councils which, in turn, launched a number of educational and health projects. They also made wide roads and conducted the first five-year development plan for Yemen. Yemenis in general loved him; his assassination translated into the death of many peoples’ dreams and wishes.
President Ahmed Al-Ghashmi:
He was born in Dhela’a Hamdan, Sana’a in 1941 and enrolled in the army after the September 26th Revolution in 1962. He led the eastern axis, the western axis and then the First Armored Division. Al-Ghashmi played a significant role in the June 13th Movement. When Al-Hamdy was President of Yemen, he was the Chief of Staff and Vice President of the Leadership Council.
After Al-Hamdy’s assassination, he became the President of Yemen (President of the Leadership Council), but didn’t hold the position for more than seven months’ time. He was assassinated in his office after an explosive device was brought by President Salem Ali’s envoy in June 1978. Some people say that opponents of President Salem Ali switched his bag with one carrying an explosive at Aden Airport.
President Abdulkareem Al-Arashi:
He was born in Sana’a in 1934 and was Chairman of the People’s Council. Consequently, when President Al-Ghashmi was assassinated, he was appointed President of Yemen until another president would be elected within forty days’ time. He refused to hold onto his position and departed from the presidency when Ali Abdullah Saleh was chosen to be the President of Yemen on July 17th, 1978.
President Abdulfatah Ismaeel:
Ismaeel was born in Taiz province in 1938 and received his education in Aden. He attended a school for training workers for British oil refineries. He then joined the Yemeni Leftist Movement and led this liberation movement against British occupation as part of the National Front, of which he was one of its most prominent figures.
He emerged as a politician and leftist thinker who maintained a deep-seated socialist philosophy.
Ismaeel worked as Secretary General of the Yemeni Socialist Party, which he himself founded. Besides the position of Chairman of the People’s Council’s Presidential Board, in 1978, his was the most important position in the entire republic.
He resigned from his position as Secretary General of the Socialist Party and from the People’s Council’s Presidential Board 1980 in response to pressures from his opponents. However, he stated that he resigned because of health problems; he lived in the Soviet Union until 1985. He was among those who were killed in the events of January 13th, 1986.
President Ali Nasser Mohammed:
He was born in Abyan governorate in 1939, graduated from the Teachers Institute, and worked in the field of education. He occupied various positions, including governor of Lahj governorate, Defense Minister and Prime Minister. When Salem Ali was chosen to be the President of Yemen, and following the resignation of President Abdulfatah Ismaeel, he was appointed to President of the Democratic Republic of Yemen, and Prime Minister and Secretary General of the Socialist Party.
He played a positive role in strengthening relations between South and North Yemen and achieved balance between east and west in southern foreign policy. During his rule, a number of development projects were successfully launched.
He was President of the Yemeni Republic until the eruption of the events of January 13th in 1986, of which he was accused of being behind. Consequently, he departed for Sana’a and then for Syria. At present, he is Chairman of the Arabic Center for Strategic Studies in Damascus.
President Ali Salem Al-Beidh:
Al-Beidh was born in 1939 in Hadhramout province. He became President of Southern Yemen after serving as Secretary General of the ruling Yemeni Socialist Party from 1986 through 1990. He signed the unity contract with President Ali Abdullah Saleh as a step towards the establishment of the Yemeni Republic on May 22nd, 1990. Both raised the flag of unity in Al-Tawahi city in Aden on the same day.
Early on, he joined the Arab Nationalist Movement and was one a key figure in the organization of the National Front. He led military operations in the east against the British occupation. He also took a number of military courses in Egypt during the 1960s.
President Ali Salem was appointed Defense Minister during the first government of the Public Democratic Republic following independence and until 1969.
He provoked Abdulfatah Ismaeel’s alienation from Ali Nasser Mohammed and barely survived death in the Political Office Massacre incident which essentially targeted political leaders at the time, an event which also resulted in the death of innocent people. He seized power following the death of Abdulfatah Ismaeel and Ali Nasser’s escape.
He moved to Europe on May 21st, 2009 in response to calls by the Peaceful Southern Movement. There, he announced intentions to break unity with Northern Yemen and re-establish the Public Democratic Republic.
President Haidar Abu-Bakr Al-Attas:
He was born in Hadhramout in 1939. Al-Attas was Chairman of the Higher People’s Council (President of the Republic) following the events of January 13th. Discussions about unity between the two parts of Yemen continued, and intensely so, during his period of rule.
Al-Attas was President of the Republic until the announcement of unity on May 22nd, 1990, when he formed a presidential council headed by Ali Abdullah Saleh, with Ali Salem as his vice. He was considered the strongest Prime Minister before he joined other southern political leaders who went into exile abroad.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh:
Saleh was born in Sanhan city, Sana’a in 1942. He joined the military and was promoted until he became commander of the Taiz Brigade during Al-Hamdy’s rule. When Al-Ghashmy was killed, he was chosen to be a member of the Presidential Council; in July of 1978, he was chosen to be the President of the Yemeni Republic, which made him the sixth president of northern Yemen. Following the announcement of unity, he became the first president of a united Yemeni Republic.
In his era, much was achieved, including the extraction of oil in 1984, the announcement of unity and the establishment of a unified constitution. Saleh allowed for political pluralism and the introduction of the principles behind parliamentary and presidential elections.
Even though his period of rule was the longest at 33 years, Yemen did not witness many palpable developments, as most Yemenis did not benefit from oil and gas revenues. His regime did not work to strengthen unity between Yemenis, which resulted in the announcement of the dismissal of unity and the eruption of war in 1994. The democratic processes he introduced did not result in political change, as Saleh held onto his position as president and his General People’s Congress continued to be the ruling party despite the holding of a number of presidential and parliamentary elections.
Saleh did not work to establish state institutions and the later portion of his rule saw instability and security imbalances. A number of wars happened, including the 1994 war, the Sa’ada wars; in-country Al-Qaeda expansion took place, and there was rampant financial and administrational corruption. More than 60% of Yemenis lived below the poverty line. Such widespread problems in the lives of Yemenis resulted in the eruption of the 2011 Youth Revolution, which saw his overthrow.
President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi:
Hadi was born in Abyan governorate in 1945 and had a significant role in the 1994 war. He helped foil attempts to break national unity and was appointed vice president in 1994.
He has played a key role in the peaceful transition process which was provided by the GCC initiative and which essentially assigned him to be the President of Yemen. On February 21st, 2012, he was elected by more than six million citizens to be the first Yemeni president to receive such a high number of votes. The process of voting in Hadi more closely resembled a referendum than an election with several candidates. The results reflected a desire for change on the part of Yemen’s citizens. Hadi’s election represented a peaceful political means to prevent the country from sliding into devastating civil war.