Weakening Web of Tribal Support Softens Yemen Leader’s Grip
By Laura Kasinof
The New York Times
March 23, 2011
SANA, Yemen — About 20 men were crammed into a corner of a large green tent at the protesters’ encampment here in the capital. Sitting on foam mattresses, they leaned on one another in a Yemeni sign of affinity, despite coming from two dueling tribes back in their home province.
One told how they discovered that the longtime president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was manipulating them. A member of the Abida tribe and one from the rival Morad “ran into each other at an arms warehouse to pick up their government-issued weapons,” said the man, Nejem al-Gurdae. “They realized that they both were receiving weapons to fight each other from the same source.”
Mr. Saleh’s political base appears to have started to give way, with the defection of numerous government officials and army commanders to the protesters’ cause after dozens were killed last week. His opponents have ceased working through point-by-point deals and on Wednesday dismissed his proffered agreement to step down by the end of the year. At the same time, the embattled president’s grip on hundreds of unruly northern tribes in this fractured nation is also loosening, leaving him more vulnerable than ever to the protesters’ pressure — not to mention the threat from rebels in the north, secessionists in the south, and a branch of Al Qaeda in the southeast.
For years, Mr. Saleh managed tribal-dominated Yemen by propping up scores of carefully chosen tribal leaders, giving them money and weapons and placing them in important positions in government. The loyalty of these empowered sheiks largely guaranteed the loyalty of their followers. But it also undermined other sheiks in the same tribe, and in other tribes as well, spreading envy and dissent.
It’s a method of rule that the wily Mr. Saleh has likened to “dancing on the heads of snakes.”
But tribesmen from rural areas now make up the majority of the tens of thousands spending day and night at the demonstration in Sana. Many say that they are fed up with the dance. Their mobilization built gradually, spread by word of mouth and — to those with electricity — opposition television broadcasts. Few had access to the Internet or social networking sites.
With large numbers of them unemployed, their vow to stay at Sana’s encampment until Mr. Saleh steps down carries weight.
“He gives money to the sheik who rules the people, but it’s not for the people,” said Majid Mohagary, a shy man in tattered clothes from Mr. Saleh’s own tribe, Sinhan, whose members are found in villages close to the capital.
Mr. Mohagary, like many of the rebellious tribesmen here from northern and central Yemen, broke with his sheik over the sheik’s continued loyalty to the president. Analysts say that such tribal fracturing — with members acting independently of sheiks, or even against their will — started emerging about 10 years ago, under the pressure of urbanization and broader education. The cracks widened along with the gap between rich sheiks with multiples homes and S.U.V.’s and the impoverishment of those they ruled. Now, with political unrest shaking the power structure, the tribal breakdown is self-evident.
“This is what surprised us all,” said Mohamed Qadhi, a powerful Sinhan and member of Parliament who recently resigned from the governing party over the violence against protesters. “Usually the tribesmen are following their sheiks, and that’s what the president believed would happen. But what’s happening now is that most of the people have their own opinion.”
Many are forgoing the longstanding tribal grievances that left the countryside in a perpetual state of conflict, in favor of focusing on larger issues.
“When people are busy with their fighting and problems then they aren’t aware of the corruption of Ali Saleh so his family can control everything like oil,” said Mujahid al-Wahaby, who broke with his own father, a sheik loyal to the president.
Tribesmen who once fought the war against Houthi rebels in northern Yemen now sit with Houthis at the encampment. Tribes in Marib Province, east of the capital, including the Morad and Abida, signed a contract when they joined the demonstration stipulating that “the revenge killings between us would end and we all focus on bringing down the regime,” according to Adel al-Salahy, a Marib.
Nadwa al-Dawsari, who works in tribal mediation for a nongovernmental organization, said the shift was striking. “What’s very significant is that tribesmen are talking about rights, freedoms, about why the emergency law is unconstitutional,” she said. “They are not retaliating when violence is used against them because there is a shift of consciousness. They saw it happen in Tunisia, and they saw it happen in Egypt. There is an awareness that this can happen here and now.”
He might have been speaking of Mohamed al-Shadady, a qat farmer from Hamdan, just outside the capital, who has joined the protesters. The president’s divisive strategy with the tribesmen “was successful because they were all illiterate and poor,” he said.
“But now,” he said hopefully, “the people are more educated and understand, and they know all the games.”
Mr. Gurdae, back in the green tent with the 20 tribesmen, concurred. “The government paints a picture that we think like Bedouins and that we are ignorant, but it is not true,” said Mr. Gurdae. “We understand.”