The news is coming fast and furious out of Sanaa. Not much is known for certain and it will likely be a while before we have all the details, but here is the broad outline:
Today, following Friday Prayers, forces loyal to President Salih opened shelling directed in the general direction of Hamid al-Ahmar’s house in the wealthy Sanaa suburb of Hadda.
Making things more complicated is the fact that Ali Muhsin, the defected general and head of the 1st Armored Division, is Hamid’s next door neighbor. And given how inaccurate Yemeni troops can be at lobbying shells towards a target it is unclear which one of the two enemies of Salih they were aiming at. Maybe both.
Shortly after that two shells hit the mosque inside the presidential palace, reportedly wounding a number of top officials – although the information at this point is mostly contradictory rumors, so I’ll hold off speculating on the identities of the injured.
What I would like to do, instead, is to give a quick run down of the al-Ahmar family, particularly the four eldest.
The family is the head of the Hashid tribal confederation, the most powerful of Yemen’s two tribal confederations. The other is Bakil. It is important to remember that even though we in the west tend to talk about these as coherent groups, they are not monolithic blocs. There are numerous divisions – in fact both the al-Ahmar family and President Salih are part of the Hashid confederation.
Shaykh Abdullah al-Ahmar: The patriarch of the clan led Hashid from 1960 – when Imam Ahmad executed his father and older brother – until his death from cancer in late 2007. While never a great friend of President Salih, the two men worked together throughout much of Salih’s rule, with al-Ahmar supporting Salih in every presidential election.
The president in turn supported the shaykh as speaker of parliament, a post he held from 1993 (unified Yemen’s first election) until his death in 2007. Shaykh Abdullah also founded Yemen’s largest opposition party, Islah. (There is much more to say about Shaykh Abdullah, but other more skilled than me have already done that, and Shaykh Abullah published his memoirs shortly before he died.)
This delicate division of resources and power has not passed to the next generation. The descendants of al-Ahmar and Salih increasingly view each other as competitors for the same shrinking pie of political power. The contest for control of the state is now said to be, in a bit of an Arabic pun, one between the two Bayt al-Ahmars, House of al-Ahmar. The reference is to Shaykh Abdullah’s surname and the president’s home village, Bayt al-Ahmar.
THE TEN SONS
(A picture of Abdullah and his ten sons here)
Sadiq: Is the eldest son (born in 1956) and was named by his father as his replacement in his final will, a decision that was confirmed by the elders within the Hashid tribe. For a brief bio of Sadiq in Arabic, you can visit the al-Ahmar family website here.
As the head shaykh of Hashid, Sadiq has emerged as the figurehead in the fighting against President Salih. And it was near his massive compound in the suburb of Hasaba that fighting broke out nearly two weeks ago.
Himyar: Until recently he was the deputy speaker of parliament and a member of Salih’s GPC party, although he broke with the president earlier this year, throwing in his lot with the protesters.
Husayn: Also a member of parliament for Salih’s GPC party, he too broke with the president earlier this year, declaring his support for the revolution. There has often been tension between Husayn and the president, particularly after the presidential elections in 2006, when Husayn was a little too close to his brother Hamid, who campaigned strongly against Salih’s re-election, even getting to the point, where Yemen asked Egypt to deny Husayn entry to Cairo – an embarrassing slight Husayn vowed not to forget.
Hamid: has been a member of parliament since 1993, and is the most politically ambitious of the 10 sons. He is also a prominent businessman with holdings ranging from a telephone company, a television state (which forces loyal to Salih bombed days ago, knocking it off the air for a couple of days) and a bank.
I wrote about the upcoming struggle between the al-Ahmar family and President Salih, focusing on Hamid a year ago in the National. (This is the background of the conflict)
Hamid broke with his father in 2006, backing an opposition candidate for president, while Shaykh Abdullah continued to lobby for Salih. This led to a public dispute between the two and eventually there were consequences when Salih’s allies retaliated.
After the election, the military mouthpiece, 26th of September, published a poem it attributed to Muhammad Ahmad Mansur directed at Hamid and entitled The Famous Ignoramus. A mocking take on Hamid’s intelligence, the poem was a political hatchet job.
Ali Hasan al-Shatir, the military editor of the paper and one of Salih’s men, was deliberately vague on the details, refusing to deny Mansur’s accusations that the poem was fabricated.
Famously short-tempered, Hamid reacted in character, calling al-Shatir in a rage and threatening to kill him unless the paper published a full apology. Al-Shatir was ready for Hamid’s reaction, recording the conversation and posting it to the internet.
It was the perfect trap for an aggressive and inexperienced politician, a one-two punch that left Hamid reeling. Clearly outmatched by Salih’s political machine, Hamid had little choice but to retreat. It was an early lesson in patience that he would never forget.
Like the poem, the recording was soon the centerpiece of a national debate on Hamid’s character and suitability for public office. Handfuls of Yemenis e-mailed me attachments of the recording, often with their own commentary on what it meant for the future of national politics.
The Other Six Sons:
A couple of notes, two of these sons, once served on President Salih’s personal security detail – and one of those, Hashim, was recently featured in a you tube video from the compound in Hasaba directly the shelling against forces loyal to Salih. The six are: