In the northwest enclaves of this capital, a renegade general’s forces control the streets. In the southern reaches, Yemen’s former president exerts influence from his mansion. And in a neighborhood nestled in the middle, a powerful tribal family wields authority on the ground and in political circles.
A year after President Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down in a deal brokered by the United States and Yemen’s Arab neighbors, the country’s three most influential families continue to cast a large shadow over the political transition. Unlike leaders of other nations altered by the Arab Spring revolutions, Yemen’s elites were neither jailed nor exiled, and they have remained inside the country, free to operate as they will.
The continuity has helped prevent Yemen from descending into a Syria-like civil war or erupting into the violent political turmoil seen in Egypt and Tunisia. But the elites’ lingering influence has also impeded Yemen’s progress, say activists, analysts and Western diplomats.
“We don’t want to be pulled back to the past and its conflicts,” said Tawakkol Karman, Yemen’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
Yemen’s political stability is vital to the United States and its allies at a time when al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terror network’s most dangerous wing, continues to pose a threat to the West and Yemen’s government. The group, operating next to vital oil shipping lanes in one of the world’s most strategic regions, has asserted responsibility for several attempted attacks on the United States. The Obama administration has responded with a controversial drone war characterized by “kill lists” of terrorism suspects.
Today, Saleh and his family, Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and the influential al-Ahmar tribal family — which is not related to the general — are all seeking to dictate the path of this impoverished Middle Eastern country as it heads toward elections next year.
“The reason why Ali Abdullah Saleh and his family are still present in the political life is because the other sides, General Mohsen and the Ahmars, are still present,” said Ali al-Bukhaiti, 36, a youth activist leader who participated in Yemen’s 2011 uprising.
For more than three decades, Saleh and Mohsen controlled Yemen, the former as its omnipresent autocrat, the latter as its most powerful military leader. They watched each other’s backs, even as they became rivals. Mohsen was widely seen as Saleh’s successor until Saleh tried to anoint a son to the position.
In a nation where tribes make up the central social unit, Saleh also relied heavily on the Ahmar family to maintain his power. The family’s late patriarch headed the tribal federation to which Saleh’s tribe belongs.
In exchange for their support, Saleh allowed Mohsen and the Ahmars to “run their affairs with informal armies, courts and economic empires” and made “direct payments from the treasury to the . . . tribal and military constituencies,” then-U.S. Ambassador Thomas C. Krajeski wrote in a 2005 diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks.
The symbiotic relationship dramatically changed on March 18, 2011, after government-backed snipers killed dozens of protesters. Mohsen joined the populist uprising, triggering a wave of defections in the military, government and tribes. By then, many of the Ahmars were supporting the revolution, particularly Hamid al-Ahmar, a billionaire businessman. He is now a senior leader in al-Islah, the country’s most powerful Islamist party, which is part of the coalition government.
Saleh’s 33-year reign formally ended in February 2012, when his vice president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, succeeded him for a transitional period of at least two years. In return, Saleh and his family received immunity from prosecution for alleged crimes, according to the power transfer deal.
Many Yemenis hoped Saleh would live in exile outside Yemen. Instead, he has stayed in the capital and remained the head of his party, the General People’s Congress, now also part of the coalition government. Hadi remains Saleh’s deputy in the party.
“The jury is still out on whether Hadi’s government will bring significant change or whether his rule is Saleh-lite,” said Letta Tayler, Yemen researcher for Human Rights Watch, the watchdog group.
Saleh’s critics and Western diplomats say he is using his position, his connections and his vast wealth to influence ministers, parliament members and other officials of his party. Saleh and his loyalists have launched a television station to promote their views. Some critics accuse him of using thugs to cut electricity lines and destroy oil pipelines to make Hadi’s government appear ineffective.
“The ousted president is still playing a political role. He is still practicing games of revenge against the Yemeni people,” Karman said.
Saleh’s aides deny the allegations. They, in turn, accuse the Ahmars and Mohsen of trying to grab power by having political allies appoint al-Islah-affiliated governors and hire loyalists in the military and security forces.
“Ali Abdullah Saleh is not in control of everything,” said Yasser al-Awadhi, a senior official in the General People’s Congress. “He is not interfering. It’s the Ahmars, Ali Mohsen and the Islah party that are causing obstacles.”
The mistrust is visible everywhere. A long-delayed national conference to address issues critical to Yemen’s future, such as preparations for a draft constitution, is scheduled for next month. But already there are accusations that Saleh’s camp is stacking the summit with its supporters. Groups crucial to political progress, such as southern separatists, who have a long list of grievances against Yemen’s northern rulers, are considering not participating.
Reuniting the armed forces is also widely seen as essential, but they remain divided. Hadi has managed to remove Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, and other Saleh relatives from key security posts. But many security officials remain loyal to the family, said analysts and diplomats.
Mohsen’s forces remain in the northwest of the capital and control Sanaa University, near Change Square, the encampment erected by the protesters two years ago. Last week, local news reports said Saleh’s son addressed Republican Guard troops as if he were their leader, even though they are nominally under Hadi’s command. The Ahmars have positioned their tribal fighters in strongholds.
“The president does not have the power. He is not in control of the security of the country,” Karman said. “In reality, Ahmed Ali is still heading the Republican Guards, and Ali Mohsen is still in control of the 1st Armored Division.”
Even some members of al-Islah, dominated by the Ahmars and Mohsen, said all elites have to leave the political and military landscape for Yemen to progress.
“They should not participate,” said Saeed Shamsan, head of the political department of the party. “They have all been rejected by the Yemeni people.”