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The Tribal Element of the protests: A Battle Between the Two Bayt al-Ahmars (Updated)

A year ago I wrote a piece in the National entitled “Yemen’s Coming Power Struggle.”*

Much of the article focuses on what I saw then as the coming battle between the two bayt al-Ahmars.  This is a bit of an Arabic pun, as Bayt al Ahmar refers to both Hamid’s surname and president Salih’s birthplace, a village called bayt al-Ahmar.  Don’t you just love Yemeni politics.

That struggle that many thought would wait for the 2013 presidential election now seems to be moving into high gear thanks to the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt.  I have a sense that Hamid believes now is the time, carried on the back of the popular protests, to strike. 

Hamid announced earlier today that the opposition would be with the protesters in the streets as soon as it became obvious to everyone that the regime wasn’t serious about reforms.  That may certainly be true and, as a leader in the JMP, Hamid can certainly say this.  But one thing that is going under-reported is that there is a bigger, much deeper opposition than political parties in Yemen.  In fact, the party system is quite weak in Yemen and doesn’t command the loyalty and allegiance of the tribes.

And this is where it gets interesting and potentially dangerous.  Worried by the protests in Sanaa, Aden, and Taizz – on al-Jazeera’s newcast this evening it talked about others in al-Baydha, Lahj, Shabwa, and Hudaydah – both of the Bayt al-Ahmars (the president’s and Hamid’s) are making a play for tribal allies.  

Salih held a meeting with tribal leaders today some of whom received new cars and others bags of cash.  (Ar.)  For their part the al-Ahmar brothers, led by Hamid, by assisted ably by his brothers Himyar (the deputy speaker of parliament) and the same guy who got in a dustup with the speaker of parliament over constitutional violations and the new communications bill earlier this week, are doing the same thing and Husayn: spreading around cash.  

Both Houses of al-Ahmar are essentially trying to do two things: shore up their own alliances and pick off as many tribal allies from that of the other as they can.  This is a deadly serious game and could have horrendous consequences in Yemen.  

(It should be pointed out at this point: that both houses (the president’s and Hamid’s) are within a single tribal confederation, Hashid, which is slightly smaller but better organized and more politically powerful than Yemen’s other major tribal confederation, Bakil.  Hamid’s family heads the confederation through his older brother Sadiq, but in all this and from my conversations with Yemenis (I sat down with Hamid for a long chat in late 2009) it seems that Hamid is now calling the shots.  Besides, Hamid, Himyar, Husayn, and Sadiq there are six other brothers in the family, many of whom are powerful and they all seem to be pitching in.)

The president meanwhile comes from what has traditionally been a weak tribe within Hashid, Sanhan, but over the course of 33 years in power he has built strong alliances not only within his own tribe – the military and intelligence command structures look like a Sanhan family tree – but also reaching out to, and utilizing other tribes in Yemen.  

There is a fascinating back story on the animosity between the president and Hamid that goes back years, but it really took off in 2006 when Hamid supported the JMP’s candidate for president instead of Salih.

First this led to Shaykh Abdullah, Hamid’s powerful father and then head of Hashid, to publicly reprimand his son from his hospital bed in Saudi Arabia, where he was slowly dying of cancer and then when that didn’t work and Hamid kept up his “too vocal” opposition to Salih’s continued rule, Salih’s men watched and waited. 

Shortly after the elections in October 2006, the head of the 26th of September newspaper, Ali al-Shatir, a close ally of Salih’s, published a mocking, inflammatory poem directed at Hamid, questioning his intelligence.  Initially, al-Shatir published it under the name of a well-known local poet, but when that poet denied having anything to do with it, calling the work “bad poetry,” al-Shatir sheepishly admitted it was a work of his own creation. 

Hamid, as you can imagine, was not amused.  In a fit of rage, he called up Ali al-Shatir and threatened him, demanding that he print a public apology or else.  Al-Shatir, of course, had been waiting for this and he recorded the phone conversation, eventually posting on to the web.  (Several Yemeni friends e-mailed me the audio file and I have since interviewed both al-Shatir and Hamid.)

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.

Salih sent another message to his upstart rival months after the forged poem.  In early January 2007, the government leaned on Egypt to deny entry to Husayn al-Ahmar, one of Hamid’s brothers who also sided with bin Shamlan during the election.  A member of parliament, Husayn was furious when Egypt told him that his name was on a list of individuals banned from entering the country. Together the two were the opening shots in a new political battle.

The al-Ahmar brothers, it seems, have learned a bit of patience as well and now when they sense blood in the water they are starting to make their move, attempting to put together a tribal alliance to potentially challenge Salih.  The old president, of course, is well aware of what they are doing as he is doing the same thing. 

At the moment both sides are still jockeying for position and reaching out to tribes, but I’m worried about what happens when the jockeying is done. 

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The protesters in Sanaa, Aden, and Taizz may have pushed this brewing battle forward a couple of years, but none of the people in the street have the guns or men to take over the state. 

In Yemen it is still shaping up as a battle between the two bayt al-Ahmars, which will be fought out against the background of popular protests.  Unfortunately, since most of the news stories will focus on the protests and not the tribal element – which in Yemen is key – we’re unlikely to hear much about it in the English-language press. 

Don’t forget, President Salih was just up in Amran last week meeting with tribal leaders and Amran is Hamid’s home territory.

This Mareb Press article (Ar.), which was published while I was writing the above, describes how Husayn al-Ahmar followed up the president’s visit to Amran with a tour of his own and, from what I hear, dispensing cash. (Anybody with a love for Yemen’s tribal geography can have fun tracing out his stops.)

Husayn said that Hashid stands by the protesters calling for change – this is inflammatory language (anyone remember how important it was that Hashid stood by Salih during the Huthi wars?  Right after Hamid went on al-Jazeera back in August 2009, Sadiq came out with a statement saying Hashid was with the president.)

The times, they’re a changin’

Update: I mistakenly conflated Himyar al-Ahmar with Husayn al-Ahmar at one point, that error has now been corrected.

*Note: This piece was orginally written for the London Review Books, who not only changed their mind about publishing it but never sent me the kill fee they promised.  (I’m still waiting for that check.)

Over the past couple of days as the international media has once again focused on the bloody fighting in Sanaa, they have invariably asked themselves, Yemenis, and outside observers the […]

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