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Last updated: February 24, 2011 10:21 pm
When supporters of the embattled Yemeni government rallied in the capital this month, they handed out flyers showing a man in traditional head-dress and a sharp suit.
“He who speaks about corruption and change became a sheikh by inheritance,” the pamphlet fulminated, before listing his business interests, likening him to Leila Trabelsi, the wife of the deposed Tunisian president.
The sheikh in question is Hamid al-Ahmar, whose family heads the largest tribal confederation in Yemen. He is a leading figure in Yemen’s most powerful opposition party, a business tycoon who owns one of Yemen’s largest mobile phone companies and one of the government’s most outspoken critics.
In contrast to Egypt or Tunisia, where there was no heavyweight opposition to the autocrats, Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has been fighting a power struggle with Mr Ahmar for years.
Some analysts think this may now be coming to a head against a backdrop of unprecedented popular protest against Mr Saleh’s 32-year rule.
The al-Ahmar clan heads the Hashid tribal confederation, the largest in Yemen, to which Mr Saleh’s own tribe belongs. Hamid al-Ahmar’s father, Abdullah, maintained enough authority and independence that the president had to offer incentives to keep him on-side, but never allowed the relationship to become antagonistic.
By the time the old sheikh died in 2007, however, the relationship between Mr Saleh and the al-Ahmars had deteriorated.
Hamid assumed the political mantle and had several confrontations with the president, culminating in him urging Mr Saleh to step down during an al-Jazeera interview in 2009.
Although Mr Ahmar is an opposition figurehead, analysts say the clash has nothing to do with competing visions for the country. “Both use patriotic expressions against each other,” says Abdulghani al-Iryani, a political analyst based in Sana’a, “but it’s a pure political power struggle.”
According to Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert at Princeton university, since the protests began the al-Ahmars have, like Mr Saleh himself, been trying to buy the loyalty of smaller tribal leaders.
It is not clear whether Mr Ahmar is after the top job himself. Analysts say he is more likely to go for the behind-the-scenes role of kingmaker.
Whatever his ultimate aim, some analysts say that precisely because the stakes of tribal confrontation are so high, Mr Ahmar is unlikely to start one.
“Saleh and Hamid belong to the same tribal confederation. Yemen’s military is composed, mainly, of tribesmen from Hashid,” says Khaled Fattah, an expert in state-tribe relations. “Direct confrontation between the two men will lead to a massive tribal war in northern areas and clashes within the military.”
“[Bringing tribesman to fight] is just a threat, It’s part of the political negotiations to share more of interests in the country,” says Murad al-Azzani, a professor of political science at Sana’a university. “The al-Ahmars want to bring about a major change but mostly in terms of taking away high military positions from the family members of the president, so that they will have a more official role in the security of the country.”
In this reading of events, the tens of thousands of protesters who have gathered across Yemen to demand change are merely pawns in a power struggle among the elite. However, Mr Iryani thinks the protest movement may become a force to reckoned with.
“Real politics in the next few months will be skewed towards the youth and the people on the street,” he says, “and that will make [Mr Ahmar’s] role and the role of the opposition much less prominent.”
Moreover, people in the south, some of whom are demanding secession, have limited interest in making common cause with the al-Ahmars, according to Stephen Day, an independent expert on south Yemen, who says his impression is that “they see it as a game of musical chairs in Sana’a”.
Nonetheless, as Yemeni politics enters uncharted territory, it is likely that tribal heavyweights from the north, such as Mr Ahmar, will influence the outcome.
Few of the participants can have forgotten the name given to Mr Ahmar’s father: San’e al-ru’asa – the maker of presidents.
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