Saleh's death grip pulls Yemen's army into enemy camps
Khaled Al Hammadi
Apr 20, 2012
The showdown between Yemen's new president and its old air force chief has
created a dramatic challenge to the country's stability. Earlier this month,
President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi sacked air force commander Brigadier General
Mohammed Saleh Al Ahmer, who is the half-brother of former president Ali
When Gen Al Ahmer refused to leave, troops and tribesmen loyal to him seized
Sanaa's airport. They withdrew after a day but Gen Al Ahmer still refuses to
cede his position to Mr Hadi's man, Rashid Al Janad.
This is more than a struggle for a single military office. Gen Al Ahmer has
tacit or explicit backing from many relatives and supporters of Mr Saleh who
are still in prominent positions. Mr Hadi's power and stature are on the
line in this face-off, which was part of a wide-ranging personnel shuffle
intended to put the new president's mark on the government.
Ten days after the crisis began, Mr Hadi, who is supposed to be supreme
commander of the armed forces, gave Gen Al Ahmer 48 hours to hand over
power, warning that the alternative would be loss of rank and a military
trial. There was no response from the general, who is said to have been
urged by Mr Saleh to stand his ground.
The incident seems to be the first real test of Mr Hadi's ability to control
the country and to use his presidential powers - and the outcome is still
undetermined. The April 6 shuffle also included the dismissal of two other
Saleh family members from important army posts, spurring a broad stand-off
between Mr Hadi and Mr Saleh.
Negotiations between the two have reached a dead end, with each trying to
prove that he is the stronger. Mr Hadi even rejected a request to receive Mr
Saleh in his office.
In this struggle, the usually silent battle among Yemen's factions is
flaring up dramatically, with potentially disastrous consequences. Mr
Saleh's supporters are facing not only the pro-democracy movement that has
demanded his departure for years, but also Mr Hadi, the defence minister
Mohammed Nasser Ahmed, and many others.
But Mr Saleh is still supported by 24 army brigades, including the
Republican Guard commanded by his son Ahmed Ali Saleh, in addition to the
central security forces led by his nephew Yahya Saleh and the elite National
Security intelligence agency led by another nephew, Ammar Saleh.
The faction led by Mr Hadi is supported by 23 army brigades including the
first armoured division commanded by Gen Ali Mohsen Al Ahmar, who split with
Mr Saleh's regime last year. Mr Saleh's military support appears to include
about 60 per cent of the army, including those with the best, most modern
weapons. These units are loyal to the Saleh family, not to the state. Many
lower-level commanders have been bribed to keep this loyalty strong.
The other part of the army, supported by the pro-democracy movement and
under the leadership of Gen Mohsen, seems to be weak in term of weapons and
training but may well be stronger in its morale, which is based on religion
and on nationalist ideology.
Patching the divided army back together will obviously not be easy. Another
complication is that many commanders and soldiers are also loyal to their
own leaders in the Hashed, Bakil or other tribes, and also to religious and
Under local and international pressure, Mr Saleh agreed to step down through
a presidential election process in February. But he is plainly not yet ready
to give up power. Mr Hadi and the transitional government have power in
theory, but Mr Saleh is still the dominant political force, using his
influence throughout the country to rule Yemen through the security forces.
By remaining in Yemen, Mr Saleh has not only blocked the army restructuring,
but has interfered with every single move towards reform. The result has
been a paralysed government and parliament, leaving Mr Hadi essentially
Mr Saleh may be trying to buy time to further weaken Mr Hadi and the new
government. Stalling the army reshuffle means he can keep his family members
in top security positions, while Mr Hadi must deal with other problems,
including terrorist groups in Abyan province and tribal conflicts in Mareb
If, as some predict, Mr Saleh agrees to a conditional, limited army
restructuring, he will be able to create trouble for the new commanders, and
he could use loyalist units to punish his opponents. Further instability
serves his purposes, demonstrating that his regime provided more security
than its successor.
Mr Hadi's goal was to finish the army reorganisation before the National
Dialogue Conference scheduled for late May, but it is still not clear how he
will accomplish that, or if he will be able to integrate his hard-line
opponents. Even if Mr Hadi tries to impose his will by force, he will need
longer than expected, and there is little guarantee that he can succeed.
Khaled Al Hammadi is the president of Freedom Foundation - Yemen and the
winner of the International Press Freedom Award 2011 from the Canadian
Journalists for Free Expression
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Received on Fri Apr 20 2012 - 09:40:56 EDT