A New Yemeni State Falters Amid Saleh’s Holdouts

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Yemenis ride a truck to the site of a rally marking the birth anniversary of the Prophet Mohamed in Sanaa on 24 January 2013. (Photo: Khaled Abdullah - Reuters)

By: Nabil Subaye

Published Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Since his February 2012 election, Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi has spent half of his two-year transitional term trying to unfasten his predecessor's grip on the Yemeni state. The latest obstacle to change is Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar who, with the backing of Riyadh, has thrown a monkey wrench into Hadi’s plans to restructure the army.

Sanaa – Former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh may have left office, but he did not leave power. Saleh continues to live in Yemen and remains the chair of his party, which theoretically controls half of the transitional process.

Saleh’s role is a controversial and confusing issue for the country and the international community. It is difficult to predict how long this muddled situation will continue, even under sustained international pressure on him to leave Yemen and step down as leader of the General People’s Congress Party (GPC).

Meanwhile, it should be noted that Saleh would not have had this level of confidence were it not for the GCC-brokered agreement that failed to bring about comprehensive change. Saleh might’ve been replaced by current President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, but his influence is sustained by his wide network of family members that continue to control state institutions.

Dismantling Saleh’s Influence

On 1 March 2012, just a week after his election, President Hadi issued his first set of decisions that would restructure state institutions. At the top of his list was the Yemeni army, which control the country’s five military regions: Southern, Eastern, Central, and Northwestern, and Central Command. Hadi fired the commander of the Southern region, Gen. Mahdi Maqoula, one of the most prominent pro-Saleh army commanders.

Hadi made his next move on 7 April 2012 with a new set of decisions to dismiss several commanders affiliated with Saleh’s family, including his half-brother Mohammed Saleh al-Ahmar, who was fired from the Air Force Command, and his nephew Tariq Mohammed Abdullah Saleh, who was released from the command of the Third Republican Guard Brigade.

Though Saleh’s eldest son, Brig. Gen. Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, remains the commander of the Republican Guard, Saleh’s other son Khaled Abdullah Saleh was dismissed from the newly-formed Mountain Infantry Division.

The decrees also released generals who had defected under Saleh and supported the revolution, most notably Eastern region commander Maj. Gen. Mohammed Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and Central region commander Brig. Gen. Mohammed Ali Ahmed al-Magdashi.

The decrees dealt a major blow to Saleh’s clout within the armed forces, prompting mutinous reactions. The commander of the Air Force rejected the decrees and shut down the airport for a whole day before eventually standing down on 24 April 2012. Following the dismissal of Saleh’s nephew from the command of the Republican Guard Brigade, a similar rebellion ensued.

The third round of decrees, issued on 21 May 21 2012, extended to the security services, dismissing Saleh’s nephew Brig. Gen. Ammar Mohammed Abdullah Saleh from his post as deputy head of the National Security Organization.

The web of Saleh’s influence woven by the former president’s family was extensive. From in-laws to distant relatives, the security services to state institutions, a Saleh family outpost was erected in nearly every node of the Yemeni state.

For example, Saleh’s nephew Tawfik Saleh Abdullah Saleh headed the Tobacco and Sulfur Company. Hafez Meyad, a relative of the Saleh family, was the chairperson of the Yemeni Economic Corporation, one of the top grossing state-owned companies in the country.

Both men, Tawfik and Meyad, were dismissed from their posts following the May 2012 decrees. Though this round of decrees was not met with mutiny, the same cannot be said of the next round of decrees issued on 19 August 2012.

The August 2012 decrees disbanded a number of brigades under the command of Saleh's son Ahmed, such as the Second Mountain Infantry Brigade in Abyan. Members of the brigade mounted a rebellion of sorts, attempting to take over the Ministry of Defense. This marked the most serious revolt against President Hadi’s decrees.

In September and December 2012, the last two rounds of presidential decrees were issued to strip Saleh of his influence. The latter set was crucial for restructuring the army: President Hadi relieved Saleh’s son Ahmed as commander of the Special Forces and dismissed the former president’s nephew Brig. Gen. Yahya Saleh as commander of the Central Security Forces.

Interestingly, both commanders complied with President Hadi’s decision, indicating that international pressure, as well as legal proceedings against the Ministry of Defense assailants, may have been effective.

With the final set of decrees, it became clear that Saleh had now come to terms with his family’s dwindling influence. Still, the door had been opened to more obstacles at the behest of some of Saleh’s old associates who had defected and endorsed the revolution in early 2011.

Chief among these is First Armored Division commander Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar. Ahmar is currently preventing the issuance of decisions which would unequivocally determine the fate of Ahmed Abdullah Saleh’s tenure as commander of the Republican Guard.

Hadi Confronts Ahmar’s Mutiny

The crisis of the sixth round of presidential decrees revolves around Ahmar’s objection to the disbanding of his division, as well as the partitioning of his Northwestern Region into two separate regions.

The crisis between Hadi and Ahmar goes beyond these two points of contention, and also involves the latter’s insistence on interfering in the powers of the president, who is otherwise his commander in chief by virtue of his post.

Ahmar believes himself to be above or at least on par with President Hadi. The former’s supporters believe that the commander, due to his backing of the revolution, should be given preferential treatment.

But Ahmar is deploying more than his “revolutionary credentials” in his bid to overshadow the president. Locally, Ahmar enjoys a solid and historic alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, which has formed the bulk of his support base during and after the revolution. Despite the importance of this decades-long relationship, it may not be the trump card that is crucial to his political survival. That lies in his regional backing.

For instance, Qatari support for Ahmar has been especially significant during the revolution, both financially and politically. Doha has expressed public support for Ahmar via numerous invitations to visit with Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. Yet more crucial than Qatar’s support is that of Saudi Arabia.

To be sure, Ahmar is one of Saudi’s men in Yemen, if not the most important one. A cable leaked by WikiLeaks referred to him as “Saudi’s strategic reserve” in Yemen.

Although Riyadh has yet to announce a clear position on Ahmar’s obstruction of the most recent round of presidential decrees, the Saudi position is ever present at the heart of the Yemeni political landscape. According to the Yemeni newspaper al-Shari, an unnamed senior Gulf official in Riyadh advised Hadi to retain Ahmar in his post, arguing that his country still desperately needs him.

In the view of many, Ahmar remaining in his post detracts from Hadi’s powers, and weakens the president’s credibility. For one thing, Ahmar was a major accomplice in Saleh’s wars and corruption. Many Yemenis partially blame him for this tumultuous history, with some even considering him worse than Saleh.

While Ahmar may not favored in Yemen, the opposite is true for Saudi. Ahmar has presented himself to Riyadh as an important ally against the Houthis and Iranian influence in Yemen.

It is doubtful that the Saudi position in support of the general remaining in his post in Sanaa and the Northwestern region – which includes Saada and the border with Saudi – will change.

Riyadh’s attitudes help to reveal the nature of the change it is sponsoring in the country: a limited transition that would guarantee a fragile and unstable Yemen. Equally, it shines a light on the role of President Hadi in a future Yemen. Will he ever occupy center stage as actual president, or will he remain a hypothetical president, existing in the shadow of a general who acts like one?

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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