For the past 40 years, Yemenis have commemorated the anniversary of President Ibrahim al-Hamdi’s assassination and they are still demanding that the perpetrators be brought to justice. Although successive governments spent the years following his death trying to tarnish his image, al-Hamdi has become a martyr through the shared tales of his achievements.
The Struggle for Independence and Democracy
Al-Hamdi came to power after the 1962 revolution that overthrew the monarchy and gave birth to the Yemen Arab Republic (also known as North Yemen) before the North and South of Yemen united as the Republic of Yemen in 1990.
Al-Hamdi came to power after the 1962 revolution that overthrew the monarchy and gave birth to the Yemen Arab Republic (also known as North Yemen) before the North and South of Yemen united as the Republic of Yemen in 1990. North Yemen was on the brink of collapse, and tribesmen held significant power and influence. North Yemen’s transformation from a monarchy to a democratic republic continued to polarize the people of North Yemen until al-Hamdi came to power in 1974.
Before the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Shiite Imam Yahya bin Hamiduddin had taken power in the Northern Kingdom of Yemen in 1911. The south of Yemen, on the other hand, remained divided and ruled by local sultans—until the British established a southern colony which they named the Southern Arab Union. Eventually, the north of Yemen became a republic headed by Abdullah al-Salal while southern Yemen remained under British colonial rule until 1967.
In 1962, Marshal Abdullah al-Salal led a coup against Imam Mohammed al-Badr, the last king of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of North Yemen, who practiced an isolationist foreign policy. Al-Badr prevented embassies and diplomatic missions from entering North Yemen and denied entry to foreign visitors unless they had prior permission.
Al-Salal’s coup led to a civil war that lasted eight years from 1962 to 1970. During the conflict, Imam al-Badr sought Saudi Arabia’s support while the revolutionary forces led by al-Salal were backed by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
The main goals of al-Salal’s coup were to rid the country of the tyranny of the Mutawakkilite monarchy and British colonialism, grant the Yemeni people the right to self-determination and build a strong economy and military.
In South Yemen, Qahtan al-Sha’bi formed the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. The power struggle in the south went on until 1969 when the National Liberation Front seized power and formed a Marxist republic supported by the Soviet Union.
Years before Yemen’s unification in 1990, then Lieutenant Colonel Ibrahim Al-Hamdi, a key proponent of Yemeni unity, had successfully led a military coup against Qadi al-Iryani’s government in North Yemen in June 1974. Al-Hamdi soon managed to garner the trust and support of a large majority of North Yemenis.
During his short three-year tenure as the leader of North Yemen, al-Hamdi famously instilled the notion of the modern state and established a number of ambitious modernization plans to boost economic development.
Al-Hamdi’s Era of Progress
When al-Hamdi came to power in 1974, North Yemen lacked the most basic services and infrastructure. He created a five-year development plan supervised by a number of committees, which encouraged local communities to contribute “to road construction, school building, and water networks.”
In an unprecedented move, al-Hamdi allocated 31 percent of North Yemen’s annual budget to education. Believing that education was the cornerstone to development and progress, al-Hamdi implemented a free breakfast program for pupils in remote rural areas to increase access to basic schooling.
Moreover, Al-Hamdi made a number of executive decisions during his rule to increase the role of government and promote citizenship and equality. His efforts to eradicate tribal loyalty (including in the military) and establish the rule of law in a country devastated by years of civil conflict were ground-breaking in the Arab world during the 1970s.
Al-Hamdi abolished the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (a body he believed was an obstacle to the country’s economic and social advancement) and established the Ministry of Local Administration. He also restructured the North Yemen army and raised the salaries of military and civilian personnel.
During al-Hamdi’s rule, North Yemen witnessed remarkable economic growth, with the country’s GDP rising from 21.5 percent in 1974 to 56.1 percent in 1977. Its per capita income rose by 300 percent in the same period. Al-Hamdi was also planning to establish more democratic institutions in the country by founding what he called “popular conventions.” The purpose of these conventions was to “prepare the groundwork for eventual elections” in North Yemen, according to WikiLeaks documents.
However, the tribal forces that allegedly conspired with Saudi Arabia against al-Hamdi did not allow his plans for North Yemen to come to fruition. On October 11, 1977, he was assassinated, along with his brother, in his vice president’s house in Sana’a.
The Legacy of Yemen’s Tragic Hero
Al-Hamdi’s revolutionary agenda had made him several powerful enemies, most notably al-Ahmar, Yemen’s most influential tribal sheik and one of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent allies in the country.
Al-Hamdi’s revolutionary agenda had made him several powerful enemies, most notably al-Ahmar, Yemen’s most influential tribal sheik and one of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent allies in the country. The Nasserist Unionist People’s Organization would later accuse Saudi Arabia of plotting and carrying out the al-Hamdi assassination.
In one of the “most egregious assassinations of character ever attempted in the Arab world,” according to the Huffington Post, a gruesome cover-up story was told which involved killing two French women and placing their bodies alongside the bodies of al-Hamdi and his brother to imply an illicit affair. Photos of the fabricated scene were circulated in the media to tarnish al-Hamdi’s character, but the Yemeni public rejected the set-up and grieved the brutal death of their president.
Although al-Hamdi’s name and legacy were absent from public discourse for over 30 years, the events of the 2011 Arab Spring in Yemen prompted their return.
In May 2016, a year after the Saudi-led military intervention of Yemen, and a year before his death at the hands of the Houthi rebels, deposed Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh accused Saudi Arabia of being involved in the killing of al-Hamdi.
“Saudi Arabia killed al-Hamdi under the supervision of Saudi military attaché, Saleh al-Hiddian, because he was an opponent of Saudi Arabia and did not comply with its instructions and interventions in Yemen,” Saleh said in an interview with Russia Today TV, stressing that he had “evidence of the involvement of Saudi Arabia.”
The struggle to achieve a Yemeni nation-state was strongly linked to al-Hamdi’s assassination. His death was not just a political assassination. For many, it represented the killing of the collective dream of a unified Yemen.
The premature end of the pioneering spirit of 1970s North Yemen reversed al-Hamdi’s efforts to end tribalism, a failure that witnessed the reemergence of tribal influence and violence-laden loyalties. While the forces at play may have changed in nature, the integrity of the Yemeni state and people continue to be threatened today.
In the end, rather than quashing the Yemeni public’s admiration of al-Hamdi, as his killers had hoped, al-Hamdi’s assassination only made him more popular and further cemented his legacy in the country’s collective memory.