Tribal and national politics are inseperable in Yemen by Shoestring
Hamid al-Ahmar, son of the late Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar, is a name that the international media will need to become familiar with in the coming months. A prominent businessman, Hamid al-Ahmar is a leading member of Yemen's Islamist political party, Islah. The Islah party led protests on Feb. 3 in Sana'a calling for the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Salih. Matched by similar numbers of Salih supporters, the protests failed to incite the same revolutionary fervor being seen in Egypt and Tunisia. However, what Hamid was unable to do with words he may be beginning to do with force.
Tribal politics and national politics are inseparable in Yemen. Following the fall of the Imamate in 1962, the two largest tribal confederations left in northern Yemen were the Hashid and Bakil confederations. President Salih is from Sanhan, one of the most beloved and influential tribes in the Hashid confederation. Since taking power in 1978, Salih has adeptly co-opted members from the rival Bakil confederation into prominent government and party positions to further consolidate his power.
One such instance is Nu'man Duwaid, governor of Sana'a province. Duwaid is from one of northern Yemen's most power Bakil tribes. During pro-government demonstrations on Feb. 3, Duwaid condemned Hamid al-Ahmar as a thief, accumulating wealth by "the looting of public property", sending Khowlan into crisis mode. They promptly apologized to the Hashid confederation, but for Hamid, the damage was done.
The following Saturday night, Duwaid's home was attacked by a group of gunmen riding in four vehicles. One bystander was killed in the attack and three others were injured. When Duwaid's security detail returned fire on the vehicles, they shot a tire of one of the vehicles, immobilizing it. Much to Hamid's chagrin, he seemed to have overlooked the "use a pasty's car when attacking Khowlanis" section in the Hashid handbook. Dowaid's men determined that the car did indeed belong to Hamid after looking up the license plate.
Coincidently, following the attack, a statement was posted on Hamid al-Ahmar's website claiming that his men were attacked earlier that evening. In the statement, Hamid claims that three of his body guards were attacked by thirty men using government vehicles. The statement is a bit fishy considering that no property damage or injuries were reported as a result of the 30 man onslaught. However unlikely, it's not impossible, but if the GPC wanted to off a political rival, they would be smart enough not to use government vehicles to do it.
The implications of the attacks are staggering. A tribal conflict in Yemen is a de facto political conflict.
In a surprise move, the GPC actually condemned the attacks and expressed condolences for Dowain and his family, pledging to bring those involved to justice. Another example of Salih's deft political acumen, the statement serves to distance him from the conflicts tribal implications. While Hamid al-Ahmar is clearly Salih's political enemy, he makes it clear that he is willing to protect Khowlani members of the government against what is seen as Hashid aggression. Considering that a huge number of pro Salih demonstrators last Friday were brought in from Khowlan, it's a message that that is imperative for the GPC to maintain power when (and if) Salih steps down in 2013, as he has pledged to do.
In a post Salih era, if anyone outside of the GPC is elected to the presidency they must take careful note to maintain the same tribal-political institutions that were put in place by Salih to maintain power. This creates problems for the Islah party in a bid for the presidency. While there are many different elements of Yemeni society inside the party, the al-Ahmar family and tribes in the Hashid confederation that are loyal to them make up one of the biggest wings. If Hamid has his eyes on the presidency, and by all accounts he absolutely does, he must begin showing a willingness to put the needs of the party and of the nation above tribal rivalries. The Dowaid shooting is the absolute opposite of what Hamid wants to do if Islah is going to make a real bid for the presidency in 2013, again, provided that Salih doesn't make up a reason to extend his term.
Last Wednesday, a tribal mediation was held at Dowaid's home where Hashid sheikhs gave the Khowlani delegation a gift a two cars and ten machine guns. Known as a guarantee in tribal politics, the gesture is made to show Khowlan Hashid's regret for the incident and pledge that there will be no further escalation of violence. The Khowlani leadership accepted the guarantees and promised to reach a decision as to whether the tribe will agree to peace. If Khowlan is not satisfied, violence could break out between Hashid and Bakil as well as between opposition party members loyal to Ahmar and the GPC. Even if peace is maintained between the tribal confederations, without Salih to hold it together, it may be torn asunder upon his exit.