In Yemen, Civil War Comes to Saleh's Door

Article excerpt

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose compound was attacked today, appears unable to shut down the unprecedented challenge to his 32-year rule.

Yemen slipped closer to a full-blown civil war today as opposition tribesmen attacked the compound of President Ali Abdullah Saleh for the first time. While the president appears to have narrowly escaped serious injury, the escalating fighting represents an unprecedented challenge to his 32-year rule.

Mr. Saleh has long faced down opposition to his rule from disparate groups, spending vast amounts of blood and treasure to placate tribal leaders, northern rebels, and southern secessionists. But now Saleh's diverse rivals have coalesced around the nonviolent youth protest movement inspired by Egypt, presenting a more unified challenge to his grip on power.

"We are all one in demanding that Saleh leave power," says Nuha Jamal, a youth activist in the southern port city of Aden. "All of Yemen is united in this cause."

How Saleh courted tribal leaders

Saleh's fragile hold over the country first began breaking down when hundreds of student protesters took to the streets minutes after the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. "After Mubarak, it's Ali," they chanted, until riot police stormed the relatively small crowd and broke up the march.

Since that day, Saleh's hold over Yemen has been crumbling. Now, his forces are fighting one of Yemen's most prestigious tribal confederations in a gang-style street war in the capital, which has been shaken by artillery barrages and pitched battles for more than 10 days.

Saleh, learning from centuries of Ottoman failures, knew from the outset of his reign that any attempt to subjugate the tribes would end in disaster. After all, it was Yemen's most beloved and powerful tribal figure, the late Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar, who led the parliamentary vote that made Saleh president of the Yemen Arab Republic in 1978.

From that day, he made allies of northern Yemen's two most powerful tribal confederations, the Hashid confederation of which his own Sanhan tribe is a part, and the Bakil confederation.

Saleh has not held onto power solely through brute force and terror but through the patronage of tribal leaders - giving them money and political positions in exchange for loyalty.

But Saleh's hold over the tribes has completely disintegrated since the youth uprising began. Sheikh Hamid-al-Ahmar - an opposition politician, millionaire businessman, and son of Abdullah al-Ahmar - immediately expressed his support for the revolution and joined those calling for an end to Saleh's rule.

In March, his eldest brother - Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, the titular head of the Hashid confederation - voiced his support for the youth revolution as well. Two other brothers also defected that month: Hussein bin Abdullah al-Ahmar, who was a member of Saleh's ruling party, and Himywar al-Ahmar, deputy speaker of parliament.

Now the Ahmar family is leading battles against government military units, resulting in the worst fighting seen in the capital since the 1960s. …