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Last updated: March 21, 2011 10:59 pm
At the makeshift protest camp around Sana’a university, protesters rejoiced at the news that General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the feared Islamist-allied commander, had sided with the anti-regime demonstrators.
“It’s game over,” said one protester.
Gen Ahmar is a pivotal figure – together with the tribal opposition figure Hamid al-Ahmar and radical cleric Abdul Majid al-Zindani – and is seen as a political heavyweight.
His rivalry with the president’s son, the Republican Guard commander Ahmad Ali, is widely thought to have been the reason behind an on-off war with rebels near the Saudi border in Saada. He is also seen as the scourge of the southern army, which tried to secede in 1994.
Analysts caution against reading Gen Ahmar’s statement on Monday as a declaration of war against Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president of Yemen. He is unlikely to seek office for himself, analysts say, and more likely to be a kingmaker if and when Mr Saleh goes.
“He will act the same way [Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein] Tantawi of Egypt acts,” says Murad al-Azzani, a professor at Sana’a university, referring to the head of Egypt’s higher military council who took over transitional authority after the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, president. “We will follow the same steps taken by the Egyptians.”
It remains far from clear that Yemen will have an orderly transition if Mr Saleh does go, though some analysts voiced cautious optimism.
Ginny Hill, an analyst at London’s Chatham house, says: “We’re going from partial chaos with a question mark over Saleh’s engagement with the west to a situation where there is potential for more chaos, but also potential to address the chaos.”
There are no obvious candidates for the next president and a transition of power is likely to favour the heavyweights who have made the pre-emptive strike against him. One way or another, Hamid al-Ahmar, Mr Zindani and Gen Ahmar will wield considerable influence over whatever happens next.
For the US, which fears attacks by militants trained by al-Qaeda in Yemen and has millions of dollars invested in a counter-terrorism programme with the security services under Mr Saleh’s control, his possible resignation as president could be tricky.
Although Hamid al-Ahmar is said to have good relations with Saudi Arabia, both Mr Zindani and Gen Ahmar are linked with the Sunni fundamentalist Salafist movement in Yemen, and Mr Zindani is a veteran of the Afghan jihad.
Analysts say the three figures could agree on a more democratic system, particularly as this would benefit the Islah party in which Hamid al-Ahmar is a senior official.
Although Yemen’s myriad economic problems and political divisions – an angry and marginalised south and an insurgency in the north – would make it difficult for anyone to govern, a more inclusive system could make it more stable than under Mr Saleh’s erratic survival politics. A reformed system could even address the grievances that have handed al-Qaeda fertile ground for recruitment.
However, many protesters fear change will be hijacked by the elite without producing a democratic transition.
The popular protest movement, which was originally led by students and activists aspiring to a better society built on ideals of citizenship, has become increasingly crowded out by the manoeuvrings of tribal and religious leaders.
“Ali Mohsen [al-Ahmar] represents a continuation of the system,” says Sarah Phillips, a Yemen expert at Sydney University Centre for International Security Studies.
“[The elite] are unlikely to genuinely push ahead with the reforms that desperately need to be done – that would cut to the heart of the regime’s business model, which would require a systemic shift on their part,” she added.
For all the jubilation at Gen Ahmar’s apparent defection, some are aware of the dangers ahead. “It’s good to divide the military,” says Adel, an engineer at the Sana’a sit-in.
“But as a person I wouldn’t like to see [Gen Ahmar] in our revolution. Him and the sheikhs, we have to keep them away if we want change.”
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