With protesters continuing to gather in the streets demanding the removal of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Yemeni leader is facing what could be the end of his 32-year political reign. The two main factors to watch in determining Saleh’s staying power are the army and the tribes. While Saleh appears to have retained significant army support so far, his tribal loyalties are coming under increasing strain. Saleh’s ability to maintain tribal support will in many ways depend on the view in Riyadh, which has cultivated strong links across Yemen’s landscape and will play a major role in determining whether Saleh has become too big a liability for Persian Gulf stability.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has attempted a variety of tactics to defuse widespread street protests, with little to no avail. Meanwhile, other groups in the country — from southern separatists to northern al-Houthi rebels to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) — are working to exploit the current chaos.
However, while Saleh is coming under increasing pressure, his opposition, be it political, tribal, separatist or jihadist, has not been able to coalesce enough — yet — to pose a unified threat to the regime. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, which has strong links to the tribal forces inYemen’s north, may still see Saleh’s removal as more upsetting to regional stability than his continued rule. Thus, even though Saleh seems to be losing what little control he had over his country, the end of his reign may not be imminent.
The Political Opposition
It is important to understand the makeup of Yemen’s multifaceted opposition landscape. Those who have taken to the streets demanding Saleh’s ouster have been concentrated in Sanaa in the north, the central provinces of Dhamar and Al Bayda and the southern provinces of Ibb, Taiz, Aden, Abyan, Shabwa, Lahij and Hadramout. The street protesters are mostly a mix of youth, university professors, attorneys and politicians of varying ideologies, some socialists, some Islamists and others calling for greater democracy without any particular political affiliation.
The political opposition has been at the forefront of the demonstrations, consolidated under the umbrella Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) coalition. This coalition, a hodgepodge of prominent tribesman, Islamists and socialists, are all opposed to Saleh’s permanent rule, but has fluctuated between insisting on Saleh’s immediate ouster and allowing him to finish his term through 2013 but immediately give up his posts in the army and finance ministry. The JMP is led by the main opposition Islah party, which currently holds roughly 20 percent of the country’s legislature and consists of three different strands: tribal, moderate Islamist and Salafist.
The JMP-led opposition is gaining strength as Saleh has offered one concession after the other, each doing more to expose his vulnerability than to placate the protesters. While Saleh’s friend, deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, was fighting for his political survival in early February, Saleh tried to pre-empt the already simmering opposition byvowing to step down in 2013 and by canceling plans to abolish term limits and hand the reins to his son. These concessions emboldened the opposition, and demonstrations subsequently grew from the hundreds to the thousands. Saleh then resorted to extreme force beginning Feb. 16, with pro-Saleh activists and riot police shooting live ammunition at protesters, resulting in 24 reported deaths over the course of the two subsequent weeks. This prompted the head of Egyptian Defense Minister Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, leader of the country’s newly created military government the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, to privately instruct Saleh to back down from extreme force and appear more conciliatory. After this, Saleh made a statement saying he had ordered his security forces to protect the protesters.
This only emboldened the opposition, which rejected Saleh’s second call for a national dialogue Feb. 28. The proposal, which included the formation of a coalition government, the cessation of demonstrations, the release of prisoners held without trial and the start of corruption investigations, has failed to generate enthusiasm or support among the demonstrators who seem to be increasingly unified in their call for Saleh’s removal — even if they are divided on practically everything else.
Then, on March 1, Saleh fired the governors of Lahij, Abyan, Aden, Hadramout and al-Hudaydah provinces, where violent clashes had broken out during protest crackdowns — then subsequently rehired them to positions in the Cabinet and Shura council to the ire of the opposition. Saleh also attempted on March 1 to blame the regional unrest, including in his own country, on Israel and the United States. This, too, backfired after the White House condemned him for trying to scapegoat, and he issued an apology the next day. The Yemeni Defense Ministry reported March 1 that Saleh would postpone forming a unity government until it reached a reconciliation agreement with the opposition, but given the opposition’s rejection of the offer, there was nothing to postpone in the first place.
The Tribal Factor
While Saleh has experience in maneuvering around his political opposition, he cannot sustain himself without the support of the tribes. Around mid-February, STRATFOR began hearing from Yemeni sources tied to the regime that the political crisis was turning tribal. The apparent blow to Saleh came Feb. 26, when prominent tribal leader Sheikh Hussein al-Ahmar delivered a speech in front of some 10,000 tribesman in the city of Amran about 50 kilometers north of Sanaa, during which he resigned from Saleh’s ruling General People’s Congress and called for the president’s removal.
To understand the significance of al-Ahmar’s move, some background is needed. Yemen at its core is a tribal society, but tribal power and religious sentiment is strongest in the north and in the eastern hinterland. Tribal forces in the south were weakened by years of British colonialism and a Soviet-backed Marxist tradition, which has resulted in the region becoming heavily socialist. This has kept the country split for most of its history.
The largest tribes in the country fall under the Hashid and Bakil confederations, which are rivals and are concentrated in the north. The wealthy and prominent al-Ahmar family leads the Hashid confederation; Saleh is from the village of Sanhan, which falls under the Hashids. Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar, Hussein’s father, was a very prominent figure in Yemen, a leader of the revolution that came close to becoming president post-unification. Instead, he formed the Islah party in 1990, now the main opposition party in the country. Knowing the power of the tribe, Saleh made sure to keep on good terms with the tribal chieftain, but when he died of cancer in 2007, Saleh had two problems on his hands: the al-Ahmar sons.
Hussein and Sadeq al-Ahmar, both politically ambitious, have had a much rockier relationship with Saleh. Sadeq has lambasted Saleh publicly a number of times, but Hussein’s Feb. 27 resignation and rally for Saleh’s ouster was the first major public break between the al-Ahmars and the president. Since a number of Bakil tribesman were also in the crowd to hear Hussein speak, a number of media outlets rushed to the conclusion that Saleh had lost support of Yemen’s two key tribes.
The reality is much more nuanced, however. While tribal politics are the foundation of any power base centered in northern Yemen, the country’s tribal structure has produced a number of strongmen in the state, like the al-Ahmar brothers, who have grown increasingly distant from their tribal constituencies. This trend was illustrated March 1, when a number of tribes within the Hashid and Bakil confederations came out in support of Saleh, claiming that the al-Ahmar brother did not speak for them. Those pledging support for Saleh included the al Dharahin tribes who belong to the Himyar tribes of Taizz, Amran, Hashid, Lahji, Al Dali, Hajja and Al Bayda, the Wailah tribe, the Jabal Iyal Yazid chieftains of Amran and the Hamdan tribes in Al Jawf. The Bakil tribesmen are also likely reluctant to fully back the call for Saleh’s ouster, not wanting to hand power to their al-Ahmar rivals.
The Saudi Stake
Saudi Arabia is watching the developments in Yemen closely, evaluating Saleh’s staying power. The Saudis have long preferred to work with Yemen’s tribes, rather than the state. Indeed, throughout much of the 20th century, whether the threat to the monarchy emanating from Yemen drew its roots from Nasserism or Marxism, Riyadh worked deliberately to keep the Yemeni state weak. As a result, a number of Yemeni tribes, particularly in the north, benefit from Saudi Arabia’s largesse. In the 21st century, Saudi Arabia has relied on these tribal linkages in trying to prevent the threat of AQAP and al-Houthi unrest from moving northward.
AQAP activity in the country continues to simmer, with low-level ambushes on Yemeni security forces in the south threatening to escalate into more significant attacks. The southern separatist movement is trying to use Sanaa’s distraction to spin up attacks in the south against army forces, but the movement as a whole remains divided. Some leaders are calling for the south to drop the secessionist slogan for now and throw their lot in with the political protesters. Others are calling for a referendum for southern secession while Saleh is weak.
With the situation in Yemen in flux and with unrest spreading rapidly across the Persian Gulf, it does not appear that the Saudi royals have come to a consensus yet on whether Saleh has become too big a liability for Yemen. Riyadh’s primary interest is regional stability, including preventing Iran from fueling a destabilization campaign. Saleh himself is not a particularly vital Arab leader from the Saudi point of view, but his removal would create a very messy situation that the Saudis may not have the resources to clean up. In trying to insulate his power base, Saleh has strategically lined his security apparatus with his own bloodline and tribesmen:
Col. Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president’s son, is the commander of the Republican Guards and Yemeni special forces. The president originally had planned to have his son succeed him.
Col. Yahya Mohamed Abdullah Saleh, commander of the Central Security Forces, is Saleh’s nephew.
Col. Tareq Mohammed Abdullah Saleh, commander of the Presidential Guard, is Saleh’s nephew.
Col. Ammar Mohammed Abdullah Saleh, commander of the National Security Bureau, is Saleh’s nephew.
Brig. Gen. Mohamed Saleh Al-Ahmar, commander of the air force, is Saleh’s half-brother.
Brig. Gen. Ali Saleh Al-Ahmar, chief of staff of the general command, is Saleh’s half-brother.
Brig. Gen. Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, commander of the first tank division and commander of the northwestern military zone, is Saleh’s half-brother.
Brig. Gen. Mehdi Makwala, commander of the southern military zone in Aden, is a Hashid tribesman from Saleh’s village, Sanhan.
Brig. Gen. Mohammed Ali Mohsen, commander of the Eastern Military Zone in Hadramout, is a Hashid tribesman from Sanhan.
Brig. Gen. Saleh Al-Dhaneen, commander of Khaled Forces, is a Hashid tribesman from Sanhan.
With loyalists inserted in every key organ of the country’s security apparatus, Saleh so far has maintained support of his armed forces. The mid- and lower ranks of Yemen’s security forces, such as the Political Security Organization and the National Security Agency, both of which are believed to be heavily penetrated by jihadist sympathizers, could pose a threat to the president’s command, but so far, no obvious fissures can be seen among the security forces.
Saleh may be on a downward spiral, but his fall does not appear imminent just yet. Unless major fissures in the army and massive tribal defections occur (which would also be indicative of a shift in Saudi Arabia’s attitude), the embattled president will have an ever-shrinking amount of room to maneuver.