SANAA — When Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh ordered his military March 18 to fire on peaceful protesters calling for his resignation, he sealed his fate. A wave of military, government and diplomatic defections, led by his longtime ally First Armored Brigade Commander General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, rocked his regime.
Although al-Ahmar announced that he was appalled by the use of force and vowed to defend the constitution, his decision was anything but altruistic. The disgruntled general, who has long-standing ties to the type of jihadists that the United States is battling in Yemen, merely sought to settle a score with the president’s family.
The relationship between al-Ahmar and Saleh extends to their youth, with Saleh’s mother having had a second marriage to al-Ahmar’s uncle. Though they are not half-brothers, this frequent, if mistaken reference, indicates their closeness. Al-Ahmar has long been considered either Saleh’s right-hand man or the country’s hidden president.
When the Nasserite party attempted to overthrow Saleh less than 100 days into his presidency, al-Ahmar defended him and quashed the coup. In 1994, his units put down a secessionist movement in the south.
But as Saleh prepared the way for his son Ahmad — the head of the Presidential Guard — to succeed him, he began to marginalize al-Ahmar. In 2009, Saleh sacked al-Ahmar’s key backers, including Central Command Chief General al-Thahiri al-Shadadi and Lieutenant General Haydar al-Sanhani, from power.
Al-Ahmar has also not benefited from the military aid that the U.S. lavished on Yemen following al-Qaida’s failed Christmas Day plot in 2009 to down an American airliner. While the Central Security Service, led by Saleh’s nephew Yahya, has received millions of dollars to fight al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Ahmar has been left out of the economic bonanza.
At the same time, al-Ahmar’s dismal performance in spearheading the war against the Houthi-led sectarian rebellion in the north made him a convenient scapegoat for the regime’s failures. The regime’s desire to get al-Ahmar out of the picture became clear during the last round of fighting against the Houthis in 2009-2010, when Saudi Arabia began bombing the rebels. According to a U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, Yemeni officials gave the Saudis the coordinates for al-Ahmar’s command center, telling them that it was a Houthi camp. His relationship with Saleh frayed and his influence waning, al-Ahmar understood that his loyalty to Saleh had become a liability.
So al-Ahmar’s decision to abandon Saleh stemmed less from his love of the constitution and democracy than from his desire to even the score with the president and his son Ahmad Saleh, with whom he has long clashed. Their units skirmished during the Houthi campaign, and the two engaged in a power struggle over defense of the radio and television stations. Saleh won at the time, but today al-Ahmar’s troops have control.
Al-Ahmar’s relationship with jihadists is a source of serious concern. He is married to the sister of Tariq al-Fadhli, a Yemeni who fought alongside al-Qaida leader Osama bin Ladin in Afghanistan. When more than 4,000 Arabs returned from fighting the Soviets there, al-Ahmar organized them into units and deployed them in the 1994 civil war.
One jihadist who trained in al-Qaida’s camps, and met bin Ladin, told me that upon his return from Afghanistan, he was invited to meet al-Ahmar’s associates and was given a monthly stipend.
During a 1999 trial of Yemenis convicted of kidnapping 16 Europeans, it emerged that the group’s ringleader called al-Ahmar during the ordeal. Though his ties to jihadists may be expedient rather than ideological, they are deeply worrying.
Today, Saleh’s support among his top generals is dwindling. Of Yemen’s four regional commanders, only Southern Command Chief General Mahdi Maqwala still backs him. Lesser lieutenant generals have deserted the president in droves.
The fate of the country may not hinge on Saleh, a crafty veteran who knows that his career is over. But his son Ahmad, who is less politically astute, may yet seek to settle accounts with al-Ahmar. His forces have already clashed with rival units in Mukalla and surrounded the presidential palace in Aden. If the Salehs retain control of the air force, which remains under the control of Saleh’s half-brother, employing it against defecting military divisions would likely lead to a bloodbath.
Nevertheless, the doomsday scenarios predicting anarchy and chaos in the post-Saleh era are most likely exaggerated. Unlike in Egypt, the vacuum resulting from Saleh’s departure can be quickly filled, so the country need not fall back on a military oligarchy. The Yemeni opposition is not only organized, but also plays an active role in politics and has true grassroots support.
Unlike in Egypt, where the ruling party was detested and out of touch with the masses, Yemen’s General People’s Congress has some following in society. If Saleh leaves peacefully and represses the urge to unleash the last remaining loyal army units against protesters and defecting soldiers, the country can avert Libya-like mayhem. Indeed, the opposition parties have already organized a transitional council to take Saleh’s place.
With the sun quickly setting on the Saleh era, the president is out of options. The only decision before him and his thinning ranks of allies is whether to leave peacefully or go down fighting.
Barak Barfi is a research fellow with the New America Foundation. © 2011 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)