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Obituary: Abd al-Rahman al-Iryani

by Brian Whitaker 

Originally published in The Guardian, 25 March 1998

IN A COUNTRY where plots and intrigue were the norm, and political careers often provided a short cut to the cemetery, Abd al-Rahman al-Iryani, who has died aged 89, had the luck and astuteness to survive. After years of imprisonment and a narrow escape from the executioner's sword, he became the only civilian ever to hold the presidency of northern Yemen.

He was born in Iryan, a village among towering peaks at the head of Wadi Zabid, where narrow strips of soil perched on terraces provide fruit and vegetables. At times, the family home, a large house on a rock overlooking the village, would appear cut off from the world by the clouds below. Even today, it has no mains electricity and is reached by a precarious single-track road.

Despite this isolated rural setting, the Iryanis were a prominent qadi family - the class that by custom has produced judges versed in Islamic law.

After a traditional Islamic schooling in the capital, Sana'a, Abd al-Rahman joined al-Ahrar ('the free'), an organisation of educated young Yemenis committed to overthrowing the reactionary monarch, Imam Yahya.

But when tribesmen linked to al-Ahrar assassinated Yahya in 1948, success proved shortlived: within a month, Yahya's son, Ahmad, assumed the throne.

Several plotters were executed and al-Iryani, too, was eventually sentenced to death. Only minutes before he was due to lose his head, Imam Ahmad spared him.

Northern Yemen finally became a republic in 1962 - though civil war continued, with the monarchists supported by the Saudis and the republicans by Nasser's Egyptian forces. With the departure of the Egyptians in 1967, al-Iryani played a key role in the process of national reconciliation; despite his republicanism, his obvious piety made him more acceptable to the Saudis. Coming to power in an unusually bloodless coup in 1967, he found a government severely weakened by war and trapped between the irreconcilable demands of an urban population impatient for reform, the resistance of conservative tribal sheikhs, and the army's insatiable appetite for weapons.

These difficulties were exacerbated by an epic struggle to sack his prime minister, Abdullah al-Hajari, who had allowed inefficiency and corruption to flourish. By way of protest, President al-Iryani went into self-imposed exile until, in February 1974, he felt strong enough to replace al-Hajari with the more progressive Dr Hassan Makki. By then, though, it was too late.

A plot to oust al-Iryani was discovered; rather than resist, he resigned and went to live in Syria.

This unsatisfying end to his presidency belies the fact that al-Iryani was one of the key architects of modern Yemen, seeking to meld the conflicting interests of modernists and traditionalists into a workable system of government. He played a major part in drafting the 1970 constitution, which - unusually for a developing country - survived almost intact for 20 years.

Among its most important innovations was a large, mostly elected, consultative council - the first (indirect) elections in Yemeni history took place in April 1971.

However, since political parties were banned and council members generally lacked any coherent ideology, it became what one writer described as 'an assembly of notables, oligarchs grouped into small shifting factions and only tenuously linked to one another and to their constituents.' One of al-Iryani's main difficulties was that, in order to achieve a reconciliation between the royalists and republicans in the aftermath of the civil war, he had to expel the modernist left and give seats in the council to prominent traditionalist sheikhs - which resulted in a narrow, centre-right regime.

The British withdrawal from Aden in 1967 provided the first opportunity for north and south Yemen to unite - a goal which al-Iryani espoused, in the hope that it would reduce internal conflicts. Two unification agreements, signed in 1972, were thwarted mainly by the northern tribes during his presidency, but they provided the basis for eventual unification in 1990.

Despite his long absence in Damascus, al-Iryani remained a popular and respected figure, making occasional visits to his homeland. His nephew, Dr Abd al-Karim al-Iryani, is a former prime minister of north Yemen and currently foreign minister of the unified state. Only hours before his death, perhaps aware that the end was near, he called family and long-lost friends on the phone, then asked for a drive around the sights of his adopted city. It was a journey he did not quite complete.

Qadi Abd al-Rahman al-IRYANI, politician, born July 1909; died March 14, 1998.


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Last revised on 05 August, 2015