An Analysis of the 14 October Revolution and the Contexts that Produced it

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Pre-revolution southern Yemen

On the eve of the revolution, southern Yemen was divided between approximately 23 sultanates, emirates and sheikhdoms in addition to the city of Aden, the administrative, commercial and military base for the British occupation. These independent political entities were grouped in a loose union established in 1959 with the blessing of the colonial administration. The political, social and economic conditions of these entities were starkly varied. While there were some features of civic life and some semblance of modern administrative, political and judicial institutions in some areas, such as Hadhramaut, Lahij and the sultanate of al-Fadhli, other areas were governed by tribal rulers who possessed nothing more than a superficial authority while inhabitants of their areas lived in a backward political and social state as well as experiencing poverty and harsh living conditions.

However, Aden witnessed noticeable developments in all areas despite being a British colony, having spent nearly a century forgotten, except in minor and limited ways, under a negligent colonial administration. These developments can be attributed to the flourishing of its commercial port, which became the third most important global port at the time. In this context, the manifestations of modern civic life flourished at all economic, social, cultural and civic levels. The first agencies for international trade and commercial chambers were established. Infrastructure, such as electricity, water, schools, hospitals, airports, urban planning, transportation, post, telegram, telephones, radio, television, the press, civilian parties and labor unions, were established. With all these attributes provided to Aden and its people, it became a ‘dream city’ for the people of the time, including the Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula. That is why people sing “Aden Aden, I wish Aden was a day’s walk away… I would have walked throughout the night and not lay down to sleep”.

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Regional context

National movements against occupation appeared in a historical and social context that was turbulent, with the regional and international Cold War tensions between the socialist bloc led by the USSR and NATO led by the USA and its allies, the escalation of the national liberation movements against Western hegemony in Egypt, Sudan, Libya and the Levant, as well as the eruption of the 26 September 1962 revolution in North Yemen between partisans of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom and supporters of the Yemen Arab Republic.

A number of popular movements aimed at resisting the British occupation appeared at different periods and were led by traditional (tribal) leaders. This resistance did not acquire a more organized and coherent approach or gain leadership from among the educated elite until the 1950s and 1960s. Resistance was catalyzed by the strong influence of the Arab Nationalist movement led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, which adopted and supported many liberation movements across several Arab countries. In this context, many movements demanded independence from the British and the establishment of an independent state in the south of Yemen. The most prominent of these were The National Movement and the Liberation Front, who acted as organizational incubators for a variety of forces and elites of different backgrounds united by the same goal. These elites included, for example, civil servants who held administrative positions, union members, and officers in the federal army, who were supervised by the British and traditional leaders.

The first spark of revolution

On the 13 and 14 October 1964 a confrontation took place in Radfan between crowds led by Sheikh Rageh Ben Ghaleb Labouza, a member of the National Front, and soldiers accompanying Mohamed Hassan al-Qutaibi, a representative in the Arab South Union. This led to the death of Sheikh Ghaleb Labouza, leading to a sharp divide among southern society, between those who preferred to continue cooperating with the British and others who insisted on expelling the occupiers from southern Yemen. This incident was seen as the first spark of the revolution from the mountains of Radfan.

This incident marked a shift in the forms of narratives coming out of the struggle against British colonial rule. For instance, a new unified front for the liberation of south Yemen was declared in Cairo in October 1964, consisting of al-Shaab Socialist Party, the League of the Sons of the Arab South, and the sultans. Subsequently, there was a split and the League and the sultans left the coalition. Due to pressure from the Egyptian authorities and the Arab League to unify the southern opposition, the Liberation Front was established in Cairo in January 1966 led by former Prime Minister Abdel Qawi Makawi. The Front was recognized by the Arab League as the only legitimate representative of the people in the south. Nevertheless, further splits took place within the Liberation Front, leading to the withdrawal of the nationalist front, which led the resistance against British colonial rule independently from other factions.

When the 14 October 1963 revolution erupted, southern society was not integrated socially and culturally, but was instead divided between around 23 traditional and extremely fragile entities; sultanates, emirates and sheikhdoms that were united under what became known as the Arab South. Despite the fragmented nature and the lack of traditional, strong authoritative entities rooted in the heart of the social and cultural structure, the revolution spread with extraordinary speed.

The social and cultural reality was very backward and harsh in most areas of the south, and divisions threatened the unity of the pioneering revolutionaries. The southern areas started falling into the hands of the National Front in August of 1967, and this continued throughout September and October. At the end of October and the beginning of November, the National Front and the Liberation Organization became embroiled a civil war in Lahij, al-Mansoura and Sheikh Othman; and on 6 November, the federal army in Aden announced that it recognized the National Front. Days later Britain recognized the authority of the National Front and entered into independence negotiations on 21–29 November in Geneva. The day of Southern Yemen’s independence from British colonialism was decided: 30 November 1967.


Artwork by Waleed Al-Ward

From revolution to governance

“Oh God, Oh men, the answer will only be through fire, canon and tank! Out, out, out to the occupation… from the land of the free, out. My movement is a volcano for humans… that lit the fires of the revolution in Radfan.”

This mood, inflamed by revolutionary enthusiasm, formed the features of the newly formed republic, from the womb of the armed revolutionary struggle. The dominant social actors – religious, civil, political organizational actors – have changed since 1967. As have their actions, relationships, identities, values, symbols, names and characteristics, and subsequently the classes and the class struggle, revolutionary violence and historic determinism. Revolutionary enthusiasm, with the romantic charm it emits, became captivating at the moment it was supposed to disappear. The moment a revolution turns into a state, it becomes an institution that must protect and guarantee all the social actors within it. However, the problem of violence is in the cultural values that transform into its patterns and habits of behavior, and the stands and directions of people through their direct or indirect involvement in its practice, and through cohabiting with it in the long run. The longer people cohabit with a phenomena, the more they adapt to it and internalize it in their minds, consciousness, selves, behavior, values and culture as a pattern that determines individuals’ behavior and their comprehensive view of themselves, others, their society, their life and their world.

Despite the violence that accompanied it, the revolution also had impressive, positive affects in changing southerners’ lives, and its effects are still visible today. The most important of these is the recognition that all individuals have merit as they are citizens, equal in their humanity and in their rights and duties, regardless of their background, traditional class identity or gender. No longer are there men and women, masters or slaves, and patron, nor sheikhs and tribes. If the revolution has changed tribes into a citizenry or a people in the South, then this is the most important social, cultural and anthropological achievement that was achieved, with its humanitarian and internationalist orientation. I still remember the famous slogan of the revolution: ‘I am a nationalist, son of my nation, and all the people are a nationality.’ Moreover, education, free medical care, the rule of law and order, justice and equality were also achieved.

Reformative Step, 22 June 1969

However, it paid a price for deviating from the regional political norms as it was the only revolution in the Arab region that had a left-wing nationalist and socialist course and regime. A violent struggle ensued between the revolutionary forces themselves, because of the backwardness of the context and the surrounding region being besieged. The conflict was between the Liberation Front and the Nationalist Front on one side and the Nationalists on the other, in what was to be called the Reformative Step of 22 June 1969, which toppled President Qahtan Mohamed al-Shabi. In this violent movement, several first-row leaders, including Vice President Faisal Abdel Latif al-Shabi were killed, and since then violence has replaced politics.

After the violent reformative movement coup d’état, President Salem Rabae Ali, whose origins go back to a rural , took the path of Chinese Maoist socialism. Agricultural cooperatives flourished during his governance, and the lands owned by ‘feudalists’ were divided among penniless farmers under the slogan, ‘The land belongs to those who farm it and not to those who own it’. Nationalization laws were issued in an attempt to bridge the growing gap between the new state’s essential needs and economic scarcity. Establishments, real estate, agencies, and economic and commercial interests formerly belonging to the British were nationalized and people living off them were killed as forces against the revolution – feudalists, comprador, and large and small bourgeoise – for the benefit of the state’s workers and farmers with a socialist orientation.

These operations were not sufficient to fulfil needs, so the authorities had to implement staunch austerity measures and marches were organized in Aden under the slogan ‘Reducing wages is a duty. Burning shizar (full body traditional veil) is a duty’. It was simultaneously a slogan for women’s liberation for equality with men. Progressive laws were issued, including the family law that banned taking a second wife and that gave women full rights. These new procedures however took place with the iron fist of the fearsome police state. The intellectual, technocratic elite were deposed in various way, including the bringing down of a diplomat’s plane in April 1974, in which a number of first tier leaders fell victim, in addition to those who were in several secretive ways. In the context of this atmosphere, charged with doubt, fear and violence, the revolution regressed into a devastating whirlwind of violence and counterviolence between the former comrades. In 1978 President Salem Rabae Ali was assassinated, and after only eight years, war erupted on 13 January 1986 between the comrades of the Yemeni Socialist Party.

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Unification and nostalgia

The rules of the game changed after that with the collapse of the socialist camp, which was the only backer of the Democratic Popular Yemeni Republic and which had enabled the reunification of Yemen, the most important role of its struggle. therefore took place in al-Tawahi tunnel between the two Alis, , with the stroke of a pen in 1990, only for a new series of crises to start. This included the two wars of 1994 and 2015, and the subsequent catastrophic results and tragic destiny for Yemen, in both its North and South, that is unprecedented, despite its long history.

Today, as we recall the memory of the 14 October revolution after more than half a century, it is natural for there to be different opinions and contradictory points of view about what happened throughout those turbulent decades. Whatever the case may be, it serves no purpose to seek vendettas or ridicule this past, but what concerns us is to reveal its different sides, multiple facts and hidden consequences, and to research its opportunities and potential. We are not at its start or finish, but in its midst, and we have to learn from our history that the civil, democratic, just, fair and stable state with the rules of peaceful competition has to be the target of every possible political revolution. Yes, the structure of the 14 October 1963 revolution was composed of the essential elements of a revolution: seriousness, change and modernity; but unfortunately, it has failed to achieve its final goal and ultimate ambition in realizing a civil, democratic state, and that is what makes us remember it with sorrow and longing. If it had fulfilled its institutional function, it Nostalgia is the pain of memory.



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Qasem Al-Mahbashi

A Professor of History and Civilization in the Faculty of Arts in the University of Aden. He received his PhD from the University of Baghdad in 2004. He was the Vice Dean of the Faculty of Arts for Academic Affairs and the Chairman of the Philosophy department at the University of Aden between 2007–2010. His published books include The Philosophy of History in Modern Western Thought and The Case of Arnold Toynbee, published by the General Book Authority in Sana’a in 2006. He has also published tens of research papers in peer reviewed periodicals, and local and international conferences and scientific conventions.

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