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Middle east

Yemen torn between tribal politics and democratic hopes

Text by Sarah LEDUC

Latest update : 2011-06-08

The movement to topple the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh has won over Yemen’s powerful tribes, but their allegiance may ultimately prove to be a threat to real democratic change.

Yemen's long-standing President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been recovering from injuries in a Saudi hospital since his presidential palace was bombed on June 3. His exit from the country sparked scenes of jubilation in the streets of the capital, Sanaa, despite Saleh’s entourage insisting the president would soon be returning.

The protest movement that is threatening to end Saleh's 33-year reign broke out in mid-January, just two weeks after the start of Tunisia's revolution. Since then, more than 350 people are thought to have been killed in the ensuing violence. But Saleh has refused to give up power and the country has edged steadily closer to civil war.

Though relentless street protesters and the contagious power of the Internet were the first to carry the winds of revolution in Yemen, it is support from the country's powerful tribes that could yet topple Saleh’s government.

In late February, the leaders of the two main tribal confederations in northern Yemen, the Hashid and the Bakil, announced they would support the popular revolt, while in the south, Zaidi Shiite rebels said they would also throw their lot behind efforts to oust Saleh.

At the time, Hussein Al-Ahmar, the brother of the Hashid tribes’ leader, Sadiq Al-Ahmar, said he would step down from Yemen’s General People’s Congress “in protest at the repression against peaceful protesters”. As for Sheikh Amin al-Akaimi, the leader of the Bakil tribes, he said he would “support the youth revolution” and was “ready to protect them”.

The changing allegiance of the Hashid and Bakil tribes triggered a snowball effect, according to Frank Mermier, a French anthropologist and expert on Yemen. “By joining the protesters, the two main confederations have pushed many other tribal leaders [to switch sides]," Mermier said.

On May 22, gunmen supported by central security forces attacked the residence of Sadiq Al-Ahmar. The Hashid leader, who until then had been content with calling for Saleh’s resignation, reacted by urging his tribesmen to wage war against forces loyal to the government.

The tribes at the heart of the state

“Even though there are rivalries between tribes, there is a solidarity among them that supersedes individual interests,” explained Mermier. “By attacking the home of the Hashid leader Saleh committed an irreparable blunder."

According to the anthropologist, in losing the support of tribesmen, the Yemeni regime has effectively cut itself off from its base. The authority of the Yemeni state rests largely on tribal allegiances. As President Saleh himself put it in a 1986 interview, "the state is part of the tribes and our people are a collection of tribes."

Yemen's tribes reappeared as key actors on the political stage in the late 1970s, acting as a balance to the power of the central government. Another Al-Ahmar brother, Hamid, is a tycoon and the founder of the Islah opposition party.

Support from the Al-Ahmar family and from Bakil leaders has been crucial to President Saleh’s legitimacy during his 33-year rule. The northern tribesmen have allowed the authorities in Sanaa to keep a grip on all sectors of the army, local government administration, and prosperous businesses.

But their change of allegiance has decisively altered the balance of power, Mermier says. Even though tribes have only limited access to weapons, Saleh can do little to oppose their influence.

Stifling society

On Saturday, Sadiq Al-Ahmar agreed to a Saudi-brokered ceasefire, after 200 people were killed and thousands fled in two weeks of fighting.

The leading role that Yemen’s tribes are now playing in the latest chapter of the Arab Spring is unquestionable, but some analysts wonder whether they will move the country any closer to democracy.

Many observers are critical of the tribes and argue that the traditional system they oversee stifles social progress. "By their numbers, wealth and firepower, [the tribes] have infiltrated all of civil society, crowding government institutions, the army and the state in general" Abdelkrim Ghezali, the editor in chief of the Algerian daily La Tribune, has written.

Yemen is now the poorest country in the Middle East. With an average income of just 650 euros per year, about half the population lives below the poverty line.

Should Saleh fall, analysts do not exclude a power grab by powerful clans like the Al-Ahmar. The president has repeatedly warned that his fall would cause the country to slip into chaos.

According to Mermier, the country's youth and urbanised middle class are likely to oppose any attempt by powerful families to hijack Yemen's revolution. "The main question the country faces is how to ensure that the revolution is not usurped by those who profited most under Saleh’s regime,” he said.

Date created : 2011-06-08

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