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The Big Defection in Yemen

March 21, 2011, 6:03 AM

At the end of my post on Saturday, I mentioned what I saw at the beginning moves of a potential break between Salih's immediate family and the rest of his supporters in the military. 

This morning in Sanna that break became official when Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar the head of the 1st Armored Division and the commander of the Northwest Military District (Yemen is divided into four military districts) announced his support for the peaceful revolution and said soldiers under his command would protect the protesters in the Square of Change. (Incidentally, the 1st Armored Division has a camp not far from the square.)

Ali Muhsin is by far the most powerful figure in the military and his announcement opened the floodgates, as officer after officer has now come out supporting the revolution.  Included in this is the Muhammad Ali Muhsin, commander of the Eastern Military district.  By day's end I expect a number of more announcements from the military.

Also, today Himyar al-Ahmar, the deputy speaker of parliament, announced his resignation.  This wasn't really a surprise, but he chose a politically astute time to get his name back in the news. 

Also, Yemen's ambassadors to Japan, Jordan, Syria, and the Czech Republic also resigned today.  All of this news follows yesterday's move by President Salih in which he sacked his entire cabinet in an apparent move to avoid the embarrassment of mass resignations. There will be more before the day is over.

So that is where we are, at least at the moment.  But what does it all mean?

First, many Yemenis are worries about Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, he is a member of the president's Sanhan tribe, and has been a big backer of the president for years.  Although more recently cracks have appeared in the inner-circle, which I alluded to in this piece for Foreign Policy last year

There was also the news last year, that President Salih tried to have him knocked off by giving Saudi pilots bombing coordinates, which were supposed to be the location of a Huthi encampment but turned out to be Ali Muhsin's headquarters in Sa'dah.

That, of course, didn't sit well with the general, and Salih's explanation that is was all a mistake made in the fog of war didn't pass muster.

Some Yemenis on twitter are already suggesting that this is calculated move by Salih, who is using Ali Muhsin as some sort of a trojan horse, designed to split the protesters. 

Two things on that.  1.  This speaks to mindset of politics in Yemen and how Salih has conducted himself for 32 years and 2. there is some accuracy to this given how Ali Muhsin, in much the same way as Salih, has stolen land and been involved in criminal undertakings and has also been conducting the war against the Huthis who are also calling for the overthrow of the regime.

But in spite of all of that, I don't think this was a move orchestrated by Salih in that it will, in the end, hurt him much more than it will divide his enemies. 

What Ali Muhsin is doing is setting himself up for a post-Salih future and further limiting who will have to go.  His statement today - and it is important to note that he didn't say he was joining the protesters, only supporting and protecting them - puts him in position to head the military or military council under the next government.  This is something a number of prominent Yemenis were waiting for.  Not because they liked Ali Muhsin, they don't.  But because he commands so much loyalty within the army. 

Now, it will only be Salih his sons and nephews that have to go, or at least that is what Ali Muhsin is attempting to insure.  The rest of the Sanhan clan in the military and intelligence command structure will, if Ali Muhsin's move is successful, be able to maintain their lucrative positions in a post-Salih Yemen.

I was also going to talk about the tribal clashes against the army in al-Jawf and Marib and the plane crash in al-Jawf, but that will have to wait for another post. 


The Big Defection in Yemen

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