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.
Power and connections
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.