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
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
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
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
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.