Key Tribal Chief Wants Yemen Leader to Quit
By Laura Kasinof and Neil MacFarquhar
The New York Times
February 26, 2011
SANA, Yemen — One of Yemen’s most prominent tribal sheiks resigned from the ruling party on Saturday and called for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down, posing one of the most significant challenges yet to the Yemeni leader, an American ally who has struggled for more than two weeks to quell a popular revolt.
The defection of Sheik Hussein al-Ahmar ratcheted up concerns that the antigovernment protests, which started mainly as a youth movement against the president’s 32-year rule, could take a more violent and unpredictable turn.
“Many worry that tribal leaders will try to hijack what is now a peaceful and civilian-led protest movement and will turn the struggle into a tribal conflict instead,” said Robert Malley, the head of the Middle East and North Africa group at the International Crisis Group. “We are not there yet.”
A few tribal chieftains had already weighed in against Mr. Saleh, but Sheik Ahmar comes from a different branch of the same northern tribal confederation, the Hashids, as Mr. Saleh, so his decision to turn on the president is likely to be more destabilizing.
“The president is in a very tenuous position; I don’t think he has ever faced a crisis like he is now,” one senior Yemeni official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his post.
The official noted that tribal support can go to the highest bidder — and that issues like the fighting by breakaway groups in the north and south were far more serious. But each layer of opposition makes it harder for Mr. Saleh to maneuver in the charged atmosphere after the toppling of two other Middle East strongmen. “I call on all noble Yemenis to overthrow the regime,” Sheik Ahmar told a huge rally of tribesmen in northern Amran Province, according to local news reports. As the crowd shouted antigovernment chants, he said, “The Yemeni people would not keep silent on the blood of martyrs shed in Aden and will avenge it.”
The government crackdown of the unrest appears to have been fiercest in Aden, in the south, where there is an active secessionist movement.
In Washington, Obama administration officials say that of all the Arab countries now in chaos, they worry most about the fate of Mr. Saleh, who has been crucial to American efforts to combat Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. That fight has become more urgent as Yemen — particularly its strife-torn lawless hinterlands — has emerged as a base for attempted Qaeda attacks on the United States.
In one such attempt, explosives in courier packages bound for Jewish centers in the United Sates were shipped from Yemen.
Those facts have complicated the administration’s response to the escalating unrest in Yemen. The administration has been urging Mr. Saleh to make democratic changes, and he recently said that he would step down in 2013. But he has not come close to addressing the concerns of the crowds that have faced off against his security forces.
“Obviously, we want to see President Saleh take the same steps which we’ve asked of other leaders, and that is to be responsive to the aspirations of his people,” said one official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The resignation comes a day after the largest protests yet, with tens of thousands participating in pivotal cities including Sana and Taiz. A sit-in that started last weekend in front of Sana University continued Saturday.
Mr. Saleh has long been considered a master of manipulating Yemen’s powerful tribes, buying off some with a vast patronage network and playing them against each other. But the sheiks he cultivated over four decades in power are dying off.
“Saleh has had a real problem creating alliances with the sons of tribal leaders in the same way he created alliances with their fathers,” said Gregory Johnsen, a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University who has been studying Yemen’s tribes for eight years.
Since the protests gained momentum, the president has been doling out cars, favors and other largess to tribal leaders. But defections raise questions about his effectiveness. “For the past couple weeks, Saleh has been making a play to bolster his tribal alliances,” Mr. Johnsen said. “If the president loses his tribal support, that puts him in a precarious position.”
Sheik Ahmar is a prominent leader in Yemen’s most important confederation of tribes, one of 10 sons of a legendary tribal sheik who died in 2007. The family has hedged its political bets, with sons playing important roles in either the ruling party or the main Islamist-oriented opposition group. One of Sheik Ahmar’s brothers is the deputy speaker of Parliament, while another has been a longtime critic of the president. Sheik Ahmar himself quit the ruling party once before.
His rift with Mr. Saleh follows the resignation of 10 Parliament members with the ruling party earlier this week, including Mohammad Abdel Illah al-Qadi, an important tribal leader of Mr. Saleh’s own Sanhan tribe, an affiliate of the Hashid.
An increasing number of tribesmen have joined the antigovernment protest in Sana, complaining that the president had kept certain northern tribes weak for years in order to stay in power. “He makes war between the tribes by giving certain people money,” said Faisal Gerayi from the impoverished northern Jawf Province, who was sitting under a tent with other tribesmen from outside the capital.
On Friday, at least one person was fatally shot in the southern port city of Aden. But some local reports placed the number of the dead much higher, and it is difficult to confirm their legitimacy.
Human Rights Watch quoted a witness as saying that at least one security officer, wearing the gray uniform of the National Security Bureau, opened fire with an assault weapon with no warning. The police then joined the fray, shooting both in the air and at the crowd, as well as unleashing tear gas, the organization quoted the witness as saying.
There are accounts of snipers being used against demonstrators, and gunfire was heard late into the night in some districts of Aden. Residents complain that the city is in lockdown and that they cannot move from one district to another.
After fatal clashes in the past week, protests in Sana and Taiz have been relatively calm in recent days after Mr. Saleh announced that security forces should protect protesters.
The Yemeni government denied that security forces shot a demonstrator, blaming Yemen’s southern separatist movement for the killing. “An armed group of separatists who belong to what is called ‘the movement,’ fired aimlessly from some buildings at the protesters, security men, electricity office’s employers and citizens,” said a statement from Yemen’s official news agency.
Laura Kasinof reported from Sana, and Neil MacFarquhar from Cairo. Helene Cooper contributed reporting from Washington.