On Sunday, as Yemenis in the southeast coast and the beautiful island of Socotra prepared to face the second of two cyclones that brought more rain than what Yemen gets in a decade, news emerged that Dr Abdul Karim al-Iryani had died in a hospital in Germany.
A former prime minister and foreign minister, Iryani was one of, if not the most, well-respected Yemeni political figures of the old generation. He was among various modernist Yemeni politicians who studied abroad between the late 1940s and 1960s, in his case in the United States, from where he returned to Yemen in 1968 after finishing a PhD in biochemical genetics at Yale University.
These politicians educated abroad led the opposition to the autocratic rule of the Zaydi imams in northern Yemen, known as the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen. In Sept. 1962, under the leadership of Abdullah al-Sallal, a pro-republican Zaydi inspired by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, an army rebellion overthrew Imam Muhammad al-Badr.
Yemen has suffered a severe brain drain, and is in desperate need of a renewed generation of politicians and public servants who can place the public interest ahead of factional goals.Manuel Almeida
A six-year civil war ensued between republicans supported by Egypt and the Soviet Union, and royalists backed by Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Britain. In 1967, the Zaydi royalists gathered the tribes of northern Yemen and laid siege to the capital, in an attempt to re-conquer it from the republicans.
For those familiar with Yemen’s modern history, the takeover of the capital Sanaa in September last year by the northern Houthi rebels echoed this episode of the North Yemen civil war, but contrary to the Houthis, the Zaydi royalists failed to re-conquer the capital.
The siege was lifted in 1968 and the war ended in 1970, the same year Saudi Arabia recognized the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR). Among the leaders of the YAR was an uncle of Iryani, Abdul Rahman Iryani, who would be the second YAR president, from 1967 to 1974.
Iryani and Saleh
For most of his political career, Dr Iryani served under the guise of the powerful man who ruled Yemen for 33 years: Ali Abdullah Saleh. Since Saleh became president of the YAR in 1978, and later president of unified Yemen, Iryani was prime minister between 1980 and 1983, deputy prime minister and foreign minister between 1984 and 1990, and prime minister again between 1998 and 2001. He was also minister of development and minister of education before Saleh came to power.
The fact that Iryani worked with and advised Saleh for so many years until the 2011 revolution has led a few voices to criticize his supposed role in reinforcing Saleh’s grip on power. However, his collaboration with Saleh should not be allowed to tarnish his image.
Iryani displayed a sense of public duty and service to the country that is increasingly rare among Yemen’s most influential figures. Plus, Saleh and the Yemeni state became almost indissociable over time.
Even while he was an adviser to Saleh, he was not afraid to speak his mind and express positions that would counter Saleh’s take on things. In the various media interviews he gave, Iryani recalled the need to listen to the voices of southerners and push for their inclusion in the political process. He spoke adversely about the possibility of Saleh’s son Ahmed succeeding his father as president.
Iryani also warned that the Houthis’ belligerence would not bring anything good for Yemen, and noted years ago with irony Iranian support for the Houthis and the resources they had access to in a poor country such as Yemen.
Ties between Saleh and Iryani were severed with the 2011 revolution. Iryani played an important role in setting up the U.N.-backed, Gulf-brokered transition deal that forced Saleh to transfer power, which he eventually accepted.
However, Saleh would return to Yemen determined to undermine the transition process, a goal that led him to encourage the Houthis to overthrow the government. For Saleh, Iryani was now an enemy, and thus fearing for his own security Iryani was forced to move from Yemen to Cairo.
Stuck in the past
Especially in the current context of war and deep divisions, Iryani’s liberalism, rationality and sense of public duty will be greatly missed. What was particularly striking about him is that he combined an enthusiastic modern outlook with a deep sense of pride about Yemen and its rich history and culture.
In contrast, many of Yemen’s most influential individuals remain stuck in the past, and the country is hostage to this. After 33 years in power, Saleh tried to prolong his control at any cost. Southern leaders persist on supporting the idea of a separate southern state that is impossible to realize, instead of embracing the promising plan for a federation. And Houthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi has transformed Zaydi revivalism into a senseless and highly costly military adventure.
The same attachment to bad old habits applies to others within Yemen’s long-time ruling party, the General People’s Congress, as well as important tribal leaders.
In the last two decades, Yemen has suffered a severe brain drain, and is in desperate need of a renewed generation of politicians and public servants who can place the public interest ahead of factional goals.
In the absence of statesmen such as Iryani, many Yemenis look at Prime Minister and Vice President Khaled Baha as the best hope to return a modicum of stability. It would be unfair and unrealistic, however, to place the responsibility for such a task on one man’s shoulders.
Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant on the Middle East. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science and was an editor at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.