BEHIND the turmoil and killings of the past few days in South Yemen lie not only contemporary rivalries between Marxist factions but age-old tribal loyalties and animosities. Westerners often peer through the prism of their own experience and environment in a developed nation when looking at unsettling events in developing countries, whether they lie in Asia, Latin America, or the Middle East. This is more apt to obscure than to illuminate the origins of trouble.
South Yemen, for example, is a rugged area inhabited by small pockets of people whose first allegiance is to their families, and whose second is to their tribes. Lower in their priorities is allegiance to their country, independent only since 1967 after more than 120 years as a British colony.
Its nearly 19 years of independence, under Marxist rule, have not alleviated South Yemen's deep poverty. In recent years the now-embattled President Ali Nasir Muhammad Hasani has been perceived as turning more toward the West for economic aid, in view of his inability to get sufficient help from Moscow.
The coup attempt of last week probably stemmed from dissatisfaction with the President's policies by more hard-line Marxists. Yet once there was no quick resolution of the coup, the conflict substantially changed into fighting among tribal groups acting out of loyalties and conflicts that go back hundreds of years. Some tribes evidently entered urban areas from the hinterlands to enter the fray.
The Soviet Union is believed to be as surprised as other nations by the coup, though students of the area had been aware of dissension. That the coup could occur within a Soviet client, and degenerate into widespread killing which the Soviets could not quickly stop, tarnishes the aura in some Arab eyes of Soviet invulnerability in the Middle East.
The United States has recently had its own highly visible difficulties in the Middle East: the pullout from Lebanon; inability thus far to broaden the Camp David accord into a wider Middle East agreement; and declining US credibility among Arab nations.
The Soviet Union had seemed impervious to Middle East defeats despite problems elsewhere, as in Afghanistan.
Now the perception may change. Ultimately the Soviets will force an end to South Yemen's conflict, and it will remain in the Soviet camp. Moscow cannot afford to let South Yemen slip away, given its twin importance as the strongest Soviet foothold in the Middle East and a strategic location by the mouth of the Red Sea.
No end appears in sight, however, for reconciling South Yemen's centuries-old tribalism with the dictates of Marxism.