ISSN 2330-717X

Yemen: A Complex Struggle For Power – Analysis


Since January last, Yemen has been going through a complex power struggle with Yemeni characteristics, resulting in an almost civil war situation which has already seen the death of over 350 people.

An inter-tribal armed struggle for power and a peaceful struggle of the youth for political reforms and a genuine democracy have been going on side by side with the democratic youth finding themselves increasingly marginalised.

Even the interest of the US and other Western countries has been not in helping the pro-democracy forces win their struggle for political reforms, but in helping to bring about an agreement among the tribal leaders that could pave the way for the exit of President Ali Abdullah Saleh from power and the formation of an interim Government which could pave the way for a new political set-up.

The six-power Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), with Saudi Arabia in the forefront, is being encouraged by the West to bring about such an inter-tribal agreement. The fact that the pro-democracy youth has no role in the GCC-initiated attempts to reach such an agreement is an indication that the objective of the West is not democracy — at least not in the immediate future — but internal stability based on a new inter-tribal equation which would be favourable to Saudi Arabia and the West.


In emulation of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia and Egypt, large numbers of youth started a movement for political reforms and genuine democracy. It has since been totally overshadowed by the inter-tribal power struggle, with the pro-democracy youth being increasingly marginalised.

It has consequently lost its jasmine flavour and has become a violent struggle for power involving different tribal clans. Hashem Nidal, of the Independent Movement for Change, has said in an interview: “They (the tribal leaders) wanted to push the revolution towards violence and we refuse this completely. All our protests across the country were peaceful and we want it to be away from this violence. We are co-ordinating with many protesters across the country to make sure they don’t fall into the trap of violence. After three months of great efforts in raising awareness among people to avoid violence, we managed to reach a level of understanding that refuses violence. We are looking to build our identity and to topple this regime by peaceful means.”

The dramatis personae involved in the inter-tribal power struggle are the very forces responsible for Yemen remaining a poor Arab country ruled by a ruthless dictatorship. These forces are determined to see that Yemen remains that way with power passing from one tribal group to another. They are making opportunistic use of the youth movement without letting it pose a threat to the tribal domination of power.

On the one side of the power struggle are Saleh, a Zaydi Shia in a predominantly Sunni country, who became the President of North Yemen in 1978 and took over leadership of the Republic of Yemen in 1990 following unification with the south and his sons and nephews. His eldest son Ahmed Ali Abdallah Saleh was appointed as the head of the Republican Guard in 2000. Another influential son Ali Saleh al-Ahmar was the Military Attache in the Yemeni Embassy in Washington, and was subsequently Director in the office of the head of the military. Nephews Tarik, Yahya and Amar command elite security and intelligence units, trained and funded by Western Governments .

Fighting on the other side for the exit of Saleh from power and for he and his sons going into political exile are Sheikh Sadeq al-Ahmar, the leader of the Hashid tribal confederation, who succeeded his father Abdullah Bin Hussein al-Ahmar when he died in 2007. His father was the founder of the Islamist Islah opposition party. He is supported by his brother Hamid al-Ahmar, who is a prominent businessman, and another brother, Sheikh Hussein Bin Abdullah al- Ahmar.

The inter-tribal clan conflict has been aggravated by the defection from the ranks of Saleh of one of his kinsmen army commander Gen Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, who commanded the 1st armoured tank division and headed the north-west military region. Gen Mohsin is not related to the al-Ahmar family. Reported personal differences with Saleh’s eldest son Ahmed Ali led to Mohsin’s defection in March. His defection has weakened the President without necessarily adding strength to the opposition tribal camp.

The GCC has been exercising pressure on Saleh to hand over power to an interim national unity Government and go into political exile along with his sons and nephews. He is not prepared to do so unless the leaders of the Al-Ahmar clan are also made to leave the country. The pro-democracy youth, on the other hand, want that Saleh should not be allowed to leave the country, but should be arrested and prosecuted on various charges.

The violent clashes between the Saleh and Al-Ahmar clans led to an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Saleh on June 3. He escaped with injuries — reportedly to his head — when a shell fell on a mosque inside the Presidential compound during the Friday prayers. The shell explosion killed three officers of the elite Republican Guard. Deputy Prime Minister Gen.Rashad al-Alimi was reportedly seriously injured. Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Mujawar suffered burns to his face. Among others injured were Parliament Speaker Yahya al-Raie, Abdulaziz Abdulghani, head of Yemen’s consultative council, Member of Parliament Yasser al-Awadi, and Sanaa Governor Noman Duweik.

In an audio message, Saleh has blamed sons of Al-Ahmar for the attempt to kill him. If there is a consequent fight to the finish between the rival clans, the pro-democracy forces may be further handicapped and Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP), which operates from the remote areas of Yemen, may be the ultimate beneficiary. Saleh was co-operating with the US in its counter- terrorism operations against Al Qaeda. This co-operation may be affected by his preoccupation with the internal fighting and consequent instability. Even if he is forced to leave by the West and the GCC, it is doubtful whether the successor interim Government may be able to act effectively against AQAP.

B. Raman

B. Raman (August 14, 1936 – June 16, 2013) was Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai and Associate, Chennai Centre For China Studies.

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