A jubilant crowd in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, after the news broke President Saleh had left the country (photo: AP)
Power Struggle in Yemen

A Yemeni Tribal Affair

The power struggle in Yemen is primarily a conflict between two families: On the one hand that of President Saleh, who clearly has no plans to leave office quietly, and on the other the Ahmar family, which presides over the Hashed tribal confederation. By Rainer Hermann

Whatever happens in Saudi Arabia over the coming days will decide the course of the next chapter in the Yemeni power struggle: President Ali Abdullah Saleh, having received treatment in a hospital in Riyadh, has already announced plans to return to Yemen. In Sanaa, the deputy Yemeni Information Minister Abdu al Janadi said that Saleh was in good health and would return; "one day" he would leave office in a manner provided for by the constitution.

A Saudi government spokesman said that Saleh would be able to resume his official duties in two weeks' time. Although it is not at all certain that Saudi Arabia will allow the patient to return to Yemen as President in the coming weeks.

Saleh had over recent weeks repeatedly snubbed the Saudis by refusing to accept their proposals for a dignified exit from power. Saleh's future now lies in their hands. In any case, as the power struggle persists, the ones winning the upper hand have been those working closely together with Saudi Arabia: the Ahmar family for example, which presides over the Hashed tribal confederation, and General Ali Muhsin al Ahmar, who maintains close ties with the Saudi Crown Prince and Defence Minister Sultan Bin Abdalaziz Al Saud.

But Saleh is not about to relinquish his position of his own volition. The satellite news broadcaster al Arabiya reported that the Saudis and the Americans had tried on Saturday evening to persuade the President, before his departure for Saudi Arabia, to sign a decree transferring powers to his deputy Abdurrabbo Mansur Hadi during his absence. During the negotiations, which went on for hours, Saleh reportedly refused to do this and would only agree to issue a verbal assurance.

Hadi a transitional figure

Since then General Hadi, who was born in 1945 in the southern Yemeni province of Abyan, has been serving as president and supreme commander of the army. He ordered the army withdraw from contested districts of the capital, so that the ceasefire negotiated by Saudi Arabia could take effect. At the same time, Sheikh Sadiq al Ahmar pulled his tribal militia out of occupied government buildings and streets in Sanaa. The ceasefire remained mostly in place on Monday.

Yemen's nominal President Abdullah Saleh (photo: AP)
'Just a flesh wound': Still sure of victory and with no plans to step down – Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh

​​However the Saudis behave with regard to Saleh, Hadi is only a transitional figure. Even though he has been in office since 1994, he has never built up his own power base. He has also never displayed any ambition to ascend to the country's highest office. If Saudi Arabia again brings its mediation plan for a power transfer to the table – a plan that has been rejected three times by Saleh – Hadi would have to swiftly appoint a transitional government and hold new presidential elections within 60 days. Such a move would provide the first evidence that the Saleh era is indeed past.

Key candidates in any presidential race could be put up by three potential camps: the official alliance of opposition parties, the Ahmar family and the Saleh family. The oppositional alliance of the six "Joint Meeting Parties" will likely nominate a candidate from southern Yemen, a region recently marginalised by Saleh, in a gesture aimed at denoting a new beginning. One of the favourites is Yassin Numan, the chairman of the Socialist Party.

The race will meanwhile be dominated by the ongoing power struggle between the Ahmar and Saleh families. The victorious party will decide who becomes the nation's new president. Until the death of Abdullah al Ahmar in 2007 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the heads of both families met each other as partners and equals, even if the career soldier Ali Abdullah Saleh, who came from a very poor background, never played a role in the tribal hierarchy. He did however grant Abdullah al Ahmar economic benefits, in order that he could fulfil his role as generous sheikh, and allowed him to remain Yemen's second most powerful man.

The young activists' time has not yet come

However, Saleh despised Abdullah's ten sons. He gradually withdrew their powers, transferring them to his oldest son Ahmad, as well as his three nephews Yahya, Ammar and Tariq Salih. He created new units within the armed forces and security services especially for members of his own family. In doing so, he began a process of alienation between himself and his half brother General Ali Muhsin, who is four years his junior. The General had saved his life during an assassination attempt in 1979. He officially withdrew his loyalty to Saleh in March, aligning himself with the "sheikh of the sheikhs" within the Hashed tribe – positioning himself and his First Division alongside Sheikh Sadiq al Ahmar.

A jubilant crowd in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, after the news broke President Saleh had left the country (photo: AP)
Celebrations following Saleh's temporary departure to Saudi Arabia: Protests against the head of state have now been going on for more than two months. More than 100 people have been killed so far, and thousands more injured

​​There are as yet no indications as to whether the less charismatic Sadiq al Ahmar, whose political profile only began taking shape this year, has himself designs on the nation's highest office. He could also relinquish those ambitions to his younger brother Hamid, who displays a natural talent for politics. In any case they, the Ahmar family sheikhs and also General Ali Muhsin, will do all they can to prevent one of Saleh's sons or nephews from becoming president – for example as a candidate for Saleh's General People's Congress Party.

As for those young activists who have set this particular ball rolling in Yemen, their time has not yet come. Because a tribe affords more security and justice to the individual than the state, the tribes still retain their important status. But young people are shaking off these traditional moral concepts. Their voice will only have clout when they have played an effective role in a process of nation-building. For now, they can take credit for clocking up yet another success for the "Arab Spring" movement.

Rainer Hermann

© Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung/Qantarade. 2011

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Qantara.de editor: Lewis Gropp

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