Sunday, 27 February 2011

Yemen powerful tribal leaders support President Saleh

Source: The Wall Street Journal, By OLIVER HOLMES

SAN'A, Yemen—Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh rallied tribes to his support after a prominent tribal leader said he would join the opposition, as the president moved to shore up his regime amid fears that other tribal chiefs will follow suit.

At least 11 tribal sheikhs publicly pledged their allegiance to the president on Sunday, in an attempt to quash rumors that the resignation of Sheikh Hussein al Ahmar, a powerful Yemeni chief, was speaking on behalf of his tribe, the Hashid. Tribesmen across the country are now feeling the pressure to take sides, after staying quiet as the unrest escalated over the past two weeks.

A protester holds up a piece of bread with the word "Leave!" on it as he shouts slogans during an antigovernment rally outside San'a University.

The president, facing protests against his 32-year reign, has been up and down the country meeting tribal sheikhs, opposition leaders and youth activists all weekend, rebutting claims that he should step down.

"There is a conspiracy against Yemen's unity and territorial integrity and we, in the armed forces, have served to preserve the republican regime with every drop of blood we have," Mr. Saleh was quoted as saying by state-run press on Sunday.

"Our nation has been passing through difficult times for four years," he added. "We are trying in every way possible to deal with and overcome these difficulties democratically, through dialogue with all political leaders, but in vain."

Mohammed al-Qadhi, a member of Parliament and tribal sheikh, handed in his resignation last week from the president's ruling party along with a few other tribal chieftains. Mr. Ahmar's resignation holds more weight, as he is a leading figure in the Hashid, the largest confederation of tribes in Yemen. President Saleh himself is a member of the Hashid confederation, which consists of members supporting both ruling and opposition parties.

A ruling party official said reports that Yemen's two largest tribes, the Hashid and the Bakil, had vowed to oppose the regime are "ridiculous." But he also conceded that there is now a split within the tribes.

"In 2005, [Sheikh Ahmar] lost a senior position he was strongly seeking in the ruling party elections, and since then he froze all his party activities," the official wrote in an email to the Wall Street Journal. "Also, Mohammed al-Qadhi, joined forces a while ago with [Sheikh Ahmar] and created a political-tribal movement. Both continued to be vocal against the ruling party and their resignations were not a surprise but merely a media stunt," he added.

Sheikh Ahmar on Saturday stood in front of a crowd of around 10,000 in the northern province of Amran to announce his support for antigovernment protestors and denounce violence used by riot police in the south. "We call on all those loyal to Yemen to stand with the revolution until this regime falls," he told the crowd. "The Yemeni people will not stay quiet on the blood that was spilled in Aden and we will avenge them," he added.

According to London-based Amnesty International, the death toll of recent protests has now reached 27, with an average of nearly three people killed every day since the 16th of February. The majority of casualties have been in the once-independent southern city of Aden, a longstanding hotbed for antigovernment sentiment.

Demonstrations have rapidly escalated in numbers in Yemen, with over 100,000 people attending rallies across the country on Friday to mourn the deaths of protestors killed by police and government loyalists.

Sheikh Ahmar quit the ruling party before, in 2009, but rejoined in December last year. Tribal support is known to ebb and flow as the president allocates inducements for party loyalty. With depleting oil reserves, there are fears here that the president can't continue to pay off tribal sheikhs for their allegiance.

In Yemen, where tribal alliances and politics are interwoven, the move has the potential to cause a domino effect, and analysts say more leaders are expected to resign from the president's party over the coming week.

Critics say Sheikh Ahmar's speech was a political move, as his brother, Hamid al-Ahmar—who is believed to be grooming himself for the presidency—possibly ordered his brother to take this moment to act. Until recently, when protest numbers soared, the president has appeared relatively secure, compared to his counterparts in North Africa.

Now, many low-level tribesmen around the country have started joining the protestors. In San'a, tribes from the eastern provinces of Marib and Khowlan have pitched tents at the demonstrations, complaining of marginalization and demanding the president flee the country.

Opposition groups held a meeting Saturday to discuss the increased violence against protestors over the past two weeks. The coalition of political parties released a statement late Saturday night saying they condemn all violence and call "on all supporters to take to the streets for a demonstration on Tuesday." However, they haven't officially joined the protestors and are still open to dialogue with the president.

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