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  Book review

The Workers’ Movement and Its role in the Development of the Nationalist Movement in Aden 1945–1963 (al-harakah al-ummaliyah fi adan wa dawroha fi tatawar al-harakah al-wataniyah)

by Saleh Ahmed Eisa, published in Aden in Arabic for the Yemen Workers’ Trade Union Federation and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, ca.2010. Pp. 265. References and Appendices. Pb.

Aden was significant in Britain’s economy, global trade and military strategy. Its port, then the third busiest in the world, was the birth place of its labour movement. Typically it was seen either as an outgrowth of British colonial rule and state-building and/or as a tool of proletarian opposition to British politics in the region. The author subscribes to the latter view and sees the growing tide of labour unrest in the 1950s and early 1960s, characterised by mass mobilisation, recurrent demonstrations and crippling strikes, as part of the wider Arab nationalist movement of the period.

Eisa’s book is based on a dissertation which won him an MA from Aden University in 2001. As a former member (1969–74) of PDRY’s Labour Organisation and a former General Secretary (1970–4) of the Transport and Communications Union, he is well qualified to chronicle the emergence, development and growth of trade unionism in Aden. He does this in three chapters, preceded by a prologue, in flowing jargon-free Arabic. The narrative ends with very helpful point summaries in Arabic and English marred only by the mal-positioning of scanned documents and the loss of words at the edges. A more serious loss of text arises from the fact that pages 46–64 and 69–72 are missing! 

Why the brief period of study (1945–1963) and why the abrupt ending four years before independence are not explained.

Eisa utilised Arabic primary sources, Colonial Annual Reports and interviews which he conducted with five men who contributed to the early years of workers’ union formation. On British policy he used secondary sources, predominantly translated from English into Arabic.

Apart from its officially-sponsored links to the UK’s own labour movement, two major factors catalysed the development and growth of the workers’ movement in Aden: the Colony’s port and British Petroleum’s refinery which brought new technology, economic prosperity and a commensurate rise in the territory’s skilled and unskilled (mostly imported) work force. Higher education produced Arab intellectual and political leadership and engendered heightened aspirations and an awareness of an independent destiny.

A young educated elite created and led the workers’ trade unions and labour movement in Aden. The few named leaders (Abdallah Fadhil Fare’, Ali Abdul-Rahman al-Aswadi, Muhsin al-‘Aini, Ali Abdul-Razaq and Mohammad Saeed Muswat) drafted its 1960 constitution and created an active cohesive front. In 1960 eight conglomerate unions joined and formed the Worker’s Congress. Muswat headed the Executive Board whilst Abdulla al-Asnag was General Secretary. All of the executives were Aden- based; the majority had strong links with North (Imamate) Yemen. One of the strengths of this book lies in its identification by name of leading members of the labour movement.

Despite the absence of a sister movement or political parties in Imamate Yemen, the notion of an indivisible Yemen is reflected in the composition of the movement’s leadership. Many originally hailed or had recently taken refuge in Aden from Imamate rule. The constitution of the People’s Socialist Party (PSP), the political arm of the labour movement, also considered Yemen as one. A few Aden labour executives such as al-Asnag and Muhsin al-‘Aini, went on to hold senior government posts in post- Imamate Yemen.

In solidarity with other Arab and international labour movements Aden’s unions supported demands for freedom by other Arab nations, particularly by Algeria and the Arab Maghreb. Strikes and boycotts of shipping directed against the economic interests of US and European powers were also seen as victories on the road to freedom. Yet, Eisa does not analyse the short or long-term effects they may have had on Aden and the area’s economic prosperity.

Eisa outlines the growing array of other contenders for political power in the post-colonial era. Almost all were associated with the wider Arab nationalist movement but were divided in ideology and their strategies for winning power. A few, however, preferred to retain a direct connection with Britain with no declared aspiration to form a united Yemen.

The author does not explore the role, if any, of the movement or its individual members in the armed anti-colonial struggle or the bitter internecine conflicts of the period up to 1967. Neither does he discuss the movement’s equally interesting metamorphosis into an instrument of the post-colonial socialist establishment of which he was a senior member.

Since the workers’ movement described by Eisa reflected Adeni society of the day, not surprisingly its leadership, membership and narrative were male-dominated. The story is bereft of detail of women’s role in the independence movement, despite their active involvement in strikes, demonstrations, and in membership of the Peoples Socialist Party (PSP) and the ATUC. For enlightenment, the reader will need to turn to Asmahan Aqlan al-Alas’ The state of Yemeni Women in Aden under British administration 1937–67, Aden University Press, 2005 (pp.184–190).