Foreign Policy Blogs

The Death of Sheik al-Ahmar

(Apologies for the delay in posting- have been out of town)

A leader dies in a Muslim country, one in which chaos always seems a possible destiny, in a time of frail uncertainty, leaving the country in a new and vertiginous and dangerous world.   This is case in Pakistan, with the unsolved murder of Benazir Bhutto, but it is also the story in Yemen.

In Yemen it is the death of Sheik Abdullah bin-Hussein al-Ahmar, the speaker of Parliament, the founder an head of the Islah opposition party- which is Islamic but not Islamist- and the second most powerful man in Yemen.   Al-Ahmar was the leader of the Hashid tribal federation, Yemen's largest and most powerful- the tribe to which President Ali Abdullah Saleh belongs.

This death is important for a number of reasons.  The most immediate and obvious of course is that in a country as fragile as Yemen any tear in the established order can send things out of control.    Yemen is lucky- something I am not sure I have ever said before- in that al-Ahmar's death won't lead to a sudden loss in power for the Hashid federation, thus lowering the chance for revolt.

To say that tribes play an important part in Yemeni politics is basically saying the the media plays a large role in US elections- that is, it is something that doesn't need to be said.  And what al-Ahmar could do is unite and rally tribes under his flag.   Politics in Yemen involve the constant art of negotiation and alliance-building  between tribes and other groups (the north is far more tribal than the south).   In the ongoing revolt in Sa’ada Saleh has been constantly bargaining with the tribal leaders to aid him in his war.

Al-Ahmar was a genius in this.  The way tribal allegiances work one can see al-Ahmar, analogous to a ward boss in Daley's Chicago or during Tammany Hall days.  He wasn't delivering votes, per se, but backing.  And though Islah was an opposition party, on the highest levels it worked in tandem with Saleh.

Perhaps most importantly, al-Ahmar was the main go-between Yemen had with its most important relationship, that of Saudi Arabia.  We tend to think that every country's most important relationship is with the US, but that is rarely the case.  Yemen has a difficult history with the rich giant to its north, with Saleh and the House of Saud enjoying mutual acrimony.   Al-Ahmar was the bridge between them.  Indeed, he died in a Riyadh hospital.

So he was many things to his country. We will see if his son is as well.    Saba is reporting that

The Son of the late parliament speaker, Hamid al-Ahmar has called on all Yemeni tribes to sign a one-year truce agreement during which they can put an end to revenge cases and tribal conflicts throughout the country, the independent al-Ghad newspaper reported on Wednesday. 

Whether or not the tribes listen to Hamid's call- or whether they do anything beside fluff it off with the merest lip services, will go a long way to determining if anyone can even partly fill the shoes of the old man.   If the Hashid federation doesn't retain even an element of stability, neither will Yemen.

Which brings us to perhaps the most crucial point- al-Ahmar was old and Saleh is getting up there himself.  Al-Ahmar has been grooming his son as Saleh is grooming his.   Ignoring the nepotism, the plain fact is that Yemen is beginning to see a shift in the two personalities that have dominated its public life for decades, and who are largely responsible for giving it whatever element of stability it has.

Yemen, in the next few years will face a raft of problems, from running out of water to seeing a huge population explosion.   Both of these will exacerbate Yemen's problems with development, and in a worst-case though not-unlikely scenario even destroy their chances.   These multiple challenges, which would challenge even the most stable states, will also be a gigantic boon for al-Qaeda, which thrives in chaos.

And that is the problem: it is not only al-Qaeda which is undergoing a generational shift– the leadership of the country is as well.  The question is not only if the new leaders, be they the sons or anyone else, are capable of handling the challenges, it is whether or not they will even be allowed to.   Yemen has made attempts at democracy, and the public is irritated when the young Ahmad bin-Ali Abdullah Saleh is touted as the next President.  Whether by allegiance,raw power, or actual democratic transition, it will be very difficult for the next generation of leaders to consolidate legitimate and actual power.  And this instability and uncertainty is the last thing Yemen needs as it tries to face its myriad catastrophes growling behind the next bend.



Brian O'Neill

Brian O'Neill is a freelance writer currently based out of Chicago. He has lived in Egypt and in Yemen, and worked as a writer and editor for the Yemen Observer publishing company. He currently is an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation.