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All quiet on the Yemeni front

Tribal factions and local military powers increase their lingering prescence in Yemen

Abdullah Hamidaddin

Published: Updated:

Hundreds have been killed, maimed or injured in heavy fighting for the control of the small village of Dammaj in the upper North of Yemen. International observers see this as a threat to the future of Yemen and the region. The Group of Ten Ambassadors of the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council, the GCC and EU to Yemen, has expressed their concern and call upon all sides to “stop fighting immediately.” In the meantime it was leaked that the ousted President Ali Saleh may run in the 2014 presidential elections. Soon after that a senior member in the President’s Party the GPC (General People's Congress) announced that Saleh would not run even if all of the Yemeni people bade him to; though he did not exclude the possibility that Ahmad - the ex-President’s son - runs. Those two seemingly separate events are illustrative of the continuities and changes in Yemen politics since the Arab Spring.

When it comes to Yemen there is a pervasive sense of confusion and lack of outlook amongst players and observers alike. Some people explain this due to the unpredictable, contradictory, inconsistent and fluctuating positions that are taken by the main political actors. While that is true, I would add another reason which is that actors and observers alike tend to overlook the underlying stability in the Yemeni political regime of the past thirty years or so. There is so much movement going on, and it is analyzed as change, only to see it going in all directions, that it cannot be change. And that is the reality. There is no change. It is truly “all quiet on the ‘Yemeni’ front.”

This is not to undermine the colossal efforts being undertaken by President Hadi and the U.N. envoy Jamal bin Omar. Both of them, together with the help of the Americans and the Saudis, have kept the country from breaking apart and slipping into a civil war a la Somalia. It is sometimes difficult to appreciate that Yemen should have been fragmented given its internal situation. But it has not due to the efforts of the aforementioned. Nevertheless, as much as one can speak of the efforts to save Yemen from a civil war, they have not succeeded - or not wanted - to put Yemen in a course of fundamental structural change.

The persistence of military politics

The rules of the political game are, at their fundamental level, as they were before. Yemen is still a country where military politics rules; while civil politics is cosmetic, theatrical and subservient. The state is considered by Yemenis merely a power amongst equals. It is just another ‘tribe’ amongst many. Weak and unable to monopolize the legitimate use of violence it cannot effectively protect its citizens nor extend its authority to all corners of the country. Local communities - tribes - are taking up the role of protecting themselves and their interests and in the process undermining the authority of the state. What is changing, however, is the distribution of power as new actors have forced themselves into the scene and in their quest for recognition are eating away from the pie of the old actors.

Yemen is still a country where military politics rules; while civil politics is cosmetic, theatrical and subservient.

Abdullah Hamidaddin

Before the Arab Spring there was no state of Yemen, rather “states” of Yemen arranged around three “material powers”: the first is the state, lead at the time by ex-President Saleh who was himself supported by a strong tribal alliance. It is sometimes not clear where the line between Saleh and the state could have been drawn. Saleh and the state were infused in one another and depended on each other. The second power was The Ahmar brothers; leaders of the strong - and at the time unified – tribal confederation of Hashid. Their utmost source of power, however, was not their tribe, rather their special and historical alliance with Saudi Arabia.

A far second source of power was a strong alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood of Yemen. But it is important to note that their power was in decline. The third power in the arrangement of the states of Yemen was General Ali Muhsin Al-Ahmar (not related to the Ahmar brothers). His power was primarily based on his control of a strong army division and foreign financial support. Besides those three military powers there were various political parties, but they were as effective as the military power behind them. And there were only two parties with military backing: the ex-President’s party, the GPC, and Muslim Brotherhood ’s party The Islah supported by the Ahmar Brothers. Parties that had no military backing were important in the political wheeling and dealing; but the final word was determined by military might.

Musical chairs

Then came the Spring of 2011 and that distribution of power was disrupted by four events. The first was the ousting of President Saleh. This not only weakened Saleh, but also weakened the state which was - in many ways - Saleh! President Hadi does not have a strong tribal alliance to support him, and the Yemeni army had never been a game changer. If the United States had not stepped in to support the state it would have surely collapsed. The second event was the restructuring of the army. This stripped General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar from the only material power at his disposal.

There are questions about the extent to which the formal restructuring of the Army had actually been implemented; but nevertheless the grip of the old military leadership had weakened. The third event is the regional crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, above all the Saudi stand against them. The Ahmar Brothers and in particular Hameed al-Ahmar were required to take a stand; either with the Muslim Brotherhood or against it. If they stood with it they would lose Saudi Arabia, and if they stood against it they would lose much of their base. In better times they would not have cared losing much of their base as long as they had the Saudis. But these were tough times. The unity of their confederation was compromised. The brothers themselves were competing amongst each other for power and status. Their arch-enemies - the Huthis - were expanding at into their territories. And it seemed to them, that their only remaining strong base was the Muslim Brotherhood. So they gambled on the Muslim Brotherhood and lost.

The fourth event is the forceful entrance of the Huthi powers into the Yemen scene. By the end of 2010 the Huthis were already a formidable power, but they had not yet entered the entire Yemeni scene. After 2011 they were recognized as a political power and were making the effort to fill the vacuums of power in the northern regions of Yemen. And their relationship to Iran was only getting stronger. President Saleh once described his rule over Yemen as dancing on the heads of snakes. Had he described the political system of Yemen he may have said this was a game of musical chairs. And here I am only speaking about the north, had I included the south then more events and actors would have to be mentioned.

National ‘negotiation’

It does not need a Bismarck to know that such a configuration is a recipe for internal wars. A few weeks ago this took the form of an outright war between the Huthis and the Ahmars. This was the first time since the end of the Yemeni civil war when the Ahmars were attacked and this time it was in their own territory. To make it worse for the Ahmars those spearheading the attack were mainly disgruntled tribes from the Hashid confederation. Their unity had been broken. Something unthinkable two years ago. The Ahmars had to strike back and they decided to do it in Dammaj, which is a small village that is home to some of the most zealot Salafis in the world. Those zealots had already been at war with the Huthis in the past years and it was not difficult to trigger another one.

The Ahmars were hoping that this would weaken the grip of the Huthis on the Sa’dah region north of Yemen; that this would give them leverage on the Salafis in Yemen; and that they could regain the status they had with the Saudis by proving their effectiveness in undermining the Huthis and in influencing the Salafis. And while the war raged the state stood on the sides. And it is not only because of its lack of power. A Yemeni proverb says: “A wolf’s fang in a wolf’s head.”

The state considered this war an opportunity for it to consolidate power. In one shot this war is draining the resources of three wolves that are challenging its authority: The Ahmars, the Salafis and the Huthis.

For the past few months Yemen had had a national dialogue on the structure of civil politics. But what it really needs is a national negotiation between local military powers.

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Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1

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