February 26, 2013
There is something sacred about the streets of Harlem, something that no other neighborhood possesses. Harlem has a soul. It is the holy ground for some of the most critical forces to shape Black America. Known by its moniker the Mecca of Black culture, Harlem is where men and women went to find their footing and experience spiritual and intellectual growth. Once the capital of Black America, it played a pivotal role in shaping the African American narrative and produced some of the nation’s most important icons. Malcolm X preached from 125th Street, Langston Hughes read poetry from his Harlem home, Billie Holiday sang at the legendary Apollo. Black America experienced a cultural awakening and found its voice in Harlem. This is the legacy Harlem has given to the world.
Critics of gentrification argue it is this legacy that newcomers and urban developers fail to preserve and appreciate. Gentrification has become an inescapable reality for many urbanites, some calling it a nightmare, others welcoming the changes with open arms. The film Changing Face of Harlem explores the great ambivalence surrounding gentrification in one of the world’s most well known neighborhoods. Featured in the 60 minute documentary are both champions and critics of gentrification. As evidenced through interviews and footage spanning over a decade, the issue is not so black and white. When gentrification came to Harlem, the consequences were especially bittersweet for residents and lovers of Harlem worldwide. Construction cranes, an early symptom of gentrification, have become a normal part of the landscape here, converting blocks into trendy cafes, high-end restaurants, and luxury condos.
Many Harlemites are cautious and apprehensive about these changes, seeing it as a slow and steady erosion of the Black community and culture. For them, gentrification has come to signify greedy developers and wealthier residents crowding out Harlem’s lower-income residents, as rent goes up and costs of living increases. In their view, urban developers and newcomers fail to appreciate Harlem’s rich history and are oblivious to the realities of residents that inhabit Harlem. They argue that while investors, developers and city officials plan the future of Harlem, its longtime residents are being left out of the conversation.
Proponents of gentrification however see it as a powerful force that takes a long neglected community and rehabilitates it. Old dilapidated buildings and abandoned blocks are transformed into new shops, offices, and homes. They argue that gentrification brings with it cleaner streets, lower crime rates, and other quality of life improvements.
The film explores these argument and more and highlights how a community deals with the challenge of maintaining identity while accepting change.
*Stay tuned for more info on the film’s progress and release.
July 20, 2011
Originally published in AJE.
Various factions make plans after the injured president makes a shaky televised address from Saudi Arabia.
For the first time since the attack against the presidential compound which left him injured, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s beleaguered president, made an appearance on Thursday in a prerecorded speech that aired on state television.
His face appeared darkened from burns sustained in the attack, and he had trouble speaking. His bandaged arms did not move during the course of his seven minute speech. Speaking from Riyadh, the Saudi Arabian capital, where he is recovering from injuries, a defiant Saleh said that he would “confront a challenge with a challenge”.
After 33-years of rule and six months of protests calling for him to step down, Saleh appeared as obstinate as ever, stating that his regime welcomes dialogue with all political parties within the framework of the constitution. His supporters dubbed the event as “proof of life” and took to the streets, opening fire into the air to celebrate.
Abdullah M Hamiddadin, a political analyst based in Jeddah, says the speech gave an important boost to his supporters and deflated much of the confidence of his major contenders. It sent a clear message: not only is he alive, but that he is still a relevant player. Hamidaddin – a direct descendent of the Yemeni imamate who was overthrown by a military coup in 1962 – describes Saleh as a genuine survivor. “He’s – relatively speaking – still the strongest man in Yemen, or at least his team is. He has been a liability for the Saudis for a very long while, but a liability that they recognise they have to live with.”
Hamidaddin believes the Saudis gambled on the Ahmar family, the head of Yemen’s most powerful tribe – the Hashid confederation – as possible contenders for power. Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar came out in support of the opposition in March and many believe the Ahmars were simply using the youth protest movement as a stepping stone to power. “The Ahmars had their chance but they proved to be incapable of rallying enough support to tip the power in their favour,” Hamidaddin said.
He argues that Saleh’s own accumulated strength as manifested in the military, the enemies of his contenders, the absence of institutions, and the keenness of Saleh’s tribe, Sanhan, to stay in power – are all factors that make Saleh a formidable opponent.
Others analysts however are unconvinced. “He appeared in incredibly bad shape and you have to wonder what the motivation was to have him speak in that kind of condition,” says Grant Hopkins, a former political consultant in Yemen and founder of ICEX, a geopolitical consulting firm. Hopkins argues that the speech fails to accomplish anything and believes that with no resolution in sight, the Saudis are forced to keep Saleh in the equation.
“You have a robust secessionist movement operating in Aden coupled with the government’s inability to enforce its authority against militants in southern Yemen. There’s also the problem of the collapsing economy and a humanitarian crisis that’s unfolding,” Hopkins said. “‘Proof of life’ doesn’t signal a comeback. In an age of instantaneous communication, a seven minute speech prerecorded in a Saudi military hospital just seems like a last ditch effort to prop up a leader of a government which can no longer offer a sense of political legitimacy or security to the people being governed.”
Members of the youth-led uprising also debate possible motives behind Saleh’s recent speech. Activist and organiser Izzedin Al-Sharabi believes that the speech will not have any effect on their movement. “We still want an end to this regime. Our problem is not with Saleh alone, it is with the entire regime. We seek an end to the corruption and our revolution will continue against the JMP and regime,” said the activist, who also criticised the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), a broad opposition coalition of Islamists, socialists and tribal elements.
Freelance reporter and activist Fares Shamsan says the speech served to show his supporters and opponents that he is still alive. “He seemed confused. He didn’t mention anything about returning to Yemen and focused on solutions related to the GCC. All this indicates he won’t be returning to power.” But whether he returns or not does not matter anyway, argus Shamsan. “Our problem now is not with him, but with the JMP.” Formed in 2005, the JMP threw its weight behind the youth movement early on in the revolution. Many accuse its members of hijacking the revolution for their own political interests.
Sidelining young protesters
Shamsan is less optimistic about the fate of the five month-old uprising, currently the longest-running series of protests in the Arab Spring. He is not alone in his feelings and many other youth in Change Square share his disheartenment. “Many believe if negotiations between the JMP and ruling party succeed, the youth will go on to accept the final agreement. The US and Saudis are still pushing for the GCC plan, which only seeks to divide power among the elites. We don’t support negotiations with the regime, but it’s no longer in the hands of the youth. The opposition proved to be weak in the weeks after Saleh’s injury. We sat here for five weeks and did nothing.”
Many demonstrators blame the movement’s stagnation on the JMP and General Ali Muhsin, who are believed to be collaborating against the youth. “We believe the JMP used our movement to pressure the regime into negotiations. Once Saleh left, they turned against us,” Shamsan said. “Any time we tried to demonstrate, the JMP would send Ali Muhsin’s soldiers to push us back. The independent youth here feel like no one is supporting them. My view is the revolution will start to die once negotiations begin.”
Haykal Bafana, an investment banker and attorney residing in the capital Sanaa, argues that Saleh’s departure helped to solidify his position in Yemen. “The attack on Saleh caught the opposition unprepared – whether it’s the escalation they promised, or some sort of structure for transition governance, nothing came about. It caused the movement to self-destruct and lose momentum, as infighting began and differing political aims surfaced.”
Bafana says under the cover of the attack’s aftermath, the regime adopted a wide range of counter revolutionary measures. “In Saleh’s absence, electricity was curtailed, diesel and petrol supplies dried up, security went downhill, water became more scarce, Abyan and Shabwa experienced conflict, there was the al-Qaeda prison escape, and so forth. Within two weeks, the Yemeni public was largely blaming the opposition youth and JMP for the tense situation.” On top of the accusations, Bafana says throughout the period, the opposition were kept off balance by repeated rumors from the regime of Saleh’s health and return.
Notably absent from Saleh’s speech was the subject of al-Qaeda. Saleh’s opponents accuse the regime of cynically allowing Islamic fighters to seize towns in southern Yemen in an attempt to make Saleh appear indispensible to the war on terror. The United States recently began launching drone strikes to deal with the problem. According to Hamidaddin, the threat of al-Qaeda is greatly inflated. “It’s more a tribal issue than one of militancy. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is not a legitimate threat. It’s a burden; a hassle. It cannot sustain itself.”
Hamidaddin argues that various tribes have always fought against the government and resisted its authority. With AQAP he says, it is no different. “Peripheral events in Yemen haven’t mattered for the past 40 years, no matter how violent and massive they are. Such events have been happening all the time. The flavour of militancy doesn’t change its underlying reality: a power struggle between local communities and a central authority that they don’t recognise as legitimate. But all parties have begun to realise that they cannot exclude each other. There is a serious quest towards a resolution.”
In the short term, Hamidaddin argues that the situation in Yemen is so volatile that only gradual transfer of power can keep the situation intact. “Imagine what a sudden exit of Saleh would mean to the 50,000-plus US trained personnel in the special forces. Or to their elite security apparatus. This is not a country of institutions where you can take away the general, bring in another, and all goes as before. There is a lot of political activity behind the scenes working to create a resolution.”
Ultimately, Hamidaddin believes that these efforts will lead to some form of coalition government. As for the youth-led movement, Hamiddadin says they were never serious contenders to begin with. “They ought to organise in political parties, but their influence will only come in the space which the main powers will leave to them.”
Many analysts and observers believe the greatest threat to Yemen is not AQAP but its collapsing economy and the current humanitarian crisis. According to a report released this month by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the economic situation has deteriorated even further and if the currency continues to plunge, an additional 15 per cent of Yemenis will be pushed below the poverty line.
As the most impoverished Arab country, statistics show that one in three Yemenis is already food insecure and under-nourished. The prices of certain commodities have increased substantially since the start of the unrest and the cost of bread has risen by 50 per cent in the past few months.
A UN mission visiting Yemen released a statement this past Wednesday warning that Yemen needs urgent international aid to stave off a humanitarian crisis. “We remind everyone, whether government or non-government parties, that civilians should not fall as victims of collective punishment because of the power struggle,” the statement said. “The absence of security, the spread of outlaws, obstacles preventing free movement, and the many outcomes of oil and power shortages have greatly influenced the economy and means of transporting food from cities to countryside.”
Hopkins, the analyst, believes the longer Yemen is kept in political limbo, the increased likelihood of civil war. “There’s a fuel shortage, people are starving, it’s quickly turning to absolute chaos – Saleh’s speech doesn’t change that. The story that quite frankly no one is interested in, is the ensuing humanitarian crisis. Everyone is focused on Saleh and there is little interest in the suffering of the people as this political contest thrashes itself out.”
July 3, 2011
For background on divisions within the opposition, read Yemen’s Splintered Opposition.
June 29, 2011
originally published at AJE
Since President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s departure immediately after the presidential palace was attacked June 3, tensions within Change Square have become more visible. Many demonstrators in Sana’a are now turning their attention towards their leadership, which is comprised of twenty individuals collectively known as the organising committee. The committee handles the logistics and coordinates demonstrations on behalf of demonstrators. Its critics accuse it of marginalising the voice of the youth while monopolising the decision making. Salah al-Sharafi, founder of the Union of Movements for Independent Youth, says that many of the youth have tried to voice their concerns to the committee, but to no avail.
Sharafi, along with other protesters, accuse organisers of patronising for the religiously conservative Islah party. “They aren’t trying to solve problem because they are getting their orders from people on top, from men like Hamid Ahmar.” A successful businessman, Hamid al-Ahmar heads Islah and comes from one of the most powerful tribes in Yemen, the Hashid confederation. Hamid’s older brother, Sadiq al-Ahmar, heads the tribe and came out in support of the opposition this past March. Many believe the Ahmar family is simply using the youth movement as a stepping stone to power.
Demonstrators have begun to publicly dissent by holding daily sit-ins. According to Sharafi, participants are routinely beaten by members of Islah and the security committee, which handles security matters within the Square. “Islah wants to silence us and to co-opt our movement so they can lead negotiations,” says Sharafi. Although tensions between opposition youth and organisers have existed for some time, the tipping point came when a few demonstrators organised a sit-in near Vice President Abd al Rab Mansur al Hadi’s home on June 8. Hadi took over as acting president after Saleh’s departure. Demonstrators were beaten and chased away by soldiers from General Ali Muhsin’s 1st Armored Division. Muhsin defected in March and pledged to protect demonstrators within the Square. Sharafi says that soldiers called demonstrators thugs and accused them of working for the regime. He continued, “they beat us with sticks but we refused to leave. So they opened fire into the air and people began running out of fear.”
Troublemakers are the real problem
Freelance reporter and activist Fares Shamsan says the soldiers were sent by the organising committee because they did not approve of the sit-in. The committee, however, denies involvement. According to their spokesman Wasim al-Qureishi, “We did not support the sit-in because it placed the lives of demonstrators in danger. But we had nothing to do with the soldiers being there.” Al-Qureishi says the area is considered a danger zone by the committee because Ahmed Ali- the son of President Saleh and commander of the elite Republican Guard- is engaged in a current power struggle with Hadi. He points to an incident on June 6, when a small force from the Republican Guard attacked Hadi’s home with gunfire. “Muhsin’s soldiers did not feel it was safe for demonstrators to be there and did not want to be drawn into violent confrontation with the Republican Guard. We had nothing to do with their decision to attack protesters and were very upset when we found out.” Sharafi says this is not the first time that the organising committee has rejected a youth-organised demonstration. According to him, the difference now is that soldiers show up to forcibly disperse demonstrators. Al-Qureishi however says the accusations are false. “We told them to provide us with names of organisers giving out these orders. We asked for evidence. They never provided it.” Al-Qureishi says that the real problem lies with troublemakers sent by the regime to sow divisions within the Square. “They were sent to weaken the revolution. They encourage the youth to go into these dangerous areas. We ask them to reconsider, but they refuse. We can’t stop them; they do what they want in the end.”
However, Shamsan says the idea of submitting names of specific individuals is absurd and says that organisers are using the same line of argument as President Saleh. “During the start of protests, Saleh would also claim his soldiers were guarding demonstrators. Whenever we were attacked, he would tell us to provide him names of those responsible. At the same time, he and his supporters would accuse us of being spies. What is he doing protecting spies then? Does this make much sense? And now the committee is starting to sound more and more like the regime. It’s very troubling.”
In another incident a week after the sit-in, Sharafi and a few other demonstrators attempted to get on stage to condemn organisers and the security committee. “The security committee stopped us before we could get on stage,” says Sharafi. “They asked us why we spoke bad of the organisers and I told them because you do not represent the revolutionaries. You work for Islah.” Sharafi says he was then beaten and detained by the men. “They control the stage. They are stealing our voice.” When Sharafi’s friends, including Shamsan, went to look for him at the security committee’s office, they were told by its head Nabil Gerbani that he was detained because he had stabbed two soldiers. According to Shamsan, they did not believe the accusation and decided to look into it by visiting the makeshift hospital and nearby Science and Technology hospital to see if any stab victims had recently been admitted. The doctors from both facilities told them that no one had come in recently with any stab wounds. “We returned to the security committee and demanded they release Salah, but Nabil told us to get a lawyer. We then approached an attorney in the Square and asked him to come with us. When we headed back, Nabil Gerbani had left and someone else took over his shift.” Shamsan says they demanded the release of their friend and decided to remain in the office until he was released. The committee eventually released him at two in the morning.
Harassment is nothing new
When asked about the incident, al-Qureishi says the security committee was attempting to keep order and decorum within the Square. “Some young people were calling for members in the committee to step down and be replaced. We’ve already replaced members several times since the start of the revolution. But when you have thousands of people in the Square, you can’t please everyone. The security committee asked them to get off the stage but they refused, so they were arrested.”
Salah, who himself used to be a member of Islah, says that he left the party because he realised he did not share their views. “Islah is filled with fundamentalists. They do not respect the rights of others and threaten people who disagree with them.” According to Izzedin Ayadi, a demonstrator, members of Islah routinely threaten and harass people inside the Square. In a recent incident, Ayadi says three young men were beaten by members of Islah for dancing under the stage. “They were told that it is a sin to dance in the presence of women.”
Demonstrators say that the harassment is nothing new and that Islah has been attempting to assert control since the start of the revolution. Ihsan al-Dugaysh, 33, says that members from Islah began threatening her when she set up a tent and began to offer daily lessons to children staying in the square with their families. She taught a co-ed class and students ranged in age from five to ten. About a month into the lessons in late February, Ihsan was warned to stop giving the lessons. “They demanded I stop teaching both boys and girls in the same setting. I refused. They sent their thugs to take apart the tent that I used as a makeshift classroom and I was forced to stop teaching.” Ihsan warns that Islah is filled with extremists and says that they pose a danger to the movement and the future of Yemen. “They are given too much power in the square. If we don’t stop them now, extremists will be running this country. They don’t want progress for Yemen, especially for its women.”
According to political analyst Abdullah M Hamidaddin, the Ahmar family and Ali Muhsin are primarily to blame for the rift in the square. “Today I think it’s more an aggregate of decision makers, with no one central in command. But overall I believe the Ahmars are the main driving force behind this all.” Khaled al-Anesi, human rights attorney and one of the main organisers in Change Square, says he handed in his resignation to the organising committee two months ago. “I saw that they were not taking the demands of the youth seriously. They were taking their cues from political parties and those involved with the GCC-mediated initiative. The youth on the other hand want a new script. They seek the immediate establishment of a transitional council.” Al-Anesi believes that the Joint Meeting Parties, the official opposition, is influencing decisions in the Square. “I think the organising committee should be completely independent of these interests and develop a plan of its own that is more in line with the demands of the youth.”
The JMP was formed in 2005 by five opposition parties seeking political and economic reform. It threw its weight behind the youth movement early on in the revolution. According to Hamidaddin, Islah is the main party in the coalition. Unlike the opposition youth, the JMP supported the GCC plan. As a result, many within the opposition do not believe the JMP is after their best interests. According to Hamidaddeen, “Their stated goals are the same, except the JMP is more willing to make concessions. Take the GCC initiative, the JMP was for it. Many youth voices were against it. The JMP has its own agenda.” According to Hamidaddin, since Saleh’s departure, the JMP has been holding meetings with Hadi. “This means they recognise his authority. The only thing JMP is interested in is sharing power in government.” Sharafi says that for their part, the youth did not support the GCC initiative because it would not change the regime. “We don’t recognise Hadi’s rule. We want a transition government established immediately and we want to begin prosecuting all criminals. We don’t believe in negotiating with a regime that has blood on its hands.” He goes on to say that the organising committee is an arm of the JMP. “JMP is composed of many parties but Islah is the party in control. It’s the same with the organising committee.”
Al-Qureishi disagrees with the characterisation and insists that party affiliations of individual members do not influence decision making. “We are a diverse group, Islah does not even make up the majority.” Hamidaddin however says that although other parties are involved, they are not as organised as Islah and lack financial backing. “Plus they are not given enough space to stand out. Islah itself is not a monolithic group. It is a coalition with different power centers but I think the main trend in them uses democracy as a stepping stone towards power.” Hamiddadin accuses their spiritual leader, Sheikh Zindani, of being an extreme opportunist. “The Muslim brotherhood in general is shrewd and opportunistic,” In March, Zindani made controversial remarks in a speech during a demonstration. “He called for the reestablishment of the caliphate,” according to al-Sharafi. “Many of us were surprised and concerned with his remarks. The youth want a democratic, secular government that respects the rights of its citizens. But this is the sort of dangerous mentality we are dealing with among organisers.”
According to Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen and expert witness on the country to the US Congress, “Islah and the rest of the official opposition didn’t launch the protests – only the youth had the manpower to do that. But the youth are, broadly speaking political novices, and they don’t know how best to use the power they have. Islah sees an opportunity to co-opt the movement for its own goals and it is trying to do that. Islah didn’t launch these protests but they are trying to ride them as far as they can.
For their part, the youth continue to assert their claims but now find themselves battling opponents on two fronts. Hamidaddin says that fear is guiding the decisions of the JMP and the organising committee and believes that the youth will ultimately be sidelined if they do not organise for the next phase. “The JMP knows the power Saleh’s team has. They were hoping his absence would help. But it hasn’t. Despite everything, the other party is holding strong. They don’t want to escalate matters further. And they are looking for a resolution which takes into considerations the material hard existing balance of power. The youth are not strong enough nor are they able nor want to resort to violence.”
Demonstrators are now taking matters into their hands and along with sit-ins against both the regime and their leadership, many of the youth have begun documenting evidence of Islah’s maltreatment of demonstrators. Sharafi says that the head of the security committee, Nabil Gerbani, threatened to hand them over to Muhsin’s soldiers if they continued to collect evidence of the harassment. “We are not afraid. We will continue to protest both the regime and our leadership. They will not steal this revolution from us. If it comes down to it, we will remain here until the last drop of blood.”
This video was taken by a local freelance journalist by the name of Feras Shamsan. He was attempting to film the sit-in occurring within Change Square when he was approached by three members claiming to be members of the security committee, who demanded that he stop filming. The security committee is charged with security inside the square and is an arm of the organizing committee. Demonstrators were protesting against what they perceive is religiously conservative Islah’s dangerous influence within the movement. Many feel that the committees are tools of Islah, whose spiritual head has called for the return of the caliphate. For several days now, the youth have been holding silent sit-ins within the square. They place tape across their mouths to symbolize Islah’s attempt to silence the youth movement and co-opt the movement for itself. Some of the footage here incorporates footage taken by demonstrators who were filming Feras’ exchange from below.
June 11, 2011
originally published in Al Jazeera English.
President Saleh once compared his rule to “dancing on the heads of snakes”.
Earlier this year, Saleh appeared to stumble as protests engulfed the nation and succeeded in bringing together formerly disparate groups of military officials, politicians, tribal chiefs and demonstrators. The 69-year-old leader – who has reportedly maintained power through a network of patrimony and cronyism – seemed to have been caught off guard when, inspired by the Arab Spring, hundreds of thousands of Yemenis took to the streets to demand an end to his 33-year rule.
Now in its fourth month – one of the longest uprisings of the Arab Spring thus far – it is a testimony to both the protesters’ determination and Saleh’s elusive style and stubborn politics. Although the demonstrations turned the tables of power on Saleh, he did not change his modus operandi, opting instead to treat the crisis as if it were a minor impasse. He attempted to bargain his way out and coupled empty promises with brute force.
Saleh initially offered not to run for re-election in 2013 and stated that his son, Ahmed Ali, head of the elite Republican Guard, would also not stand. It was the same promise he made in 2005, announcing he would not be a candidate in the 2006 election. He reneged on his word just three months before polls opened.
This time round, the nation would reject his offer. Demonstrators wanted nothing less than an immediate transfer of power and settled in for the long haul. Protests soon spread to other cities and Saleh began to respond with violence, particularly in the city of Taiz, where demonstrators were hit hardest.
The watershed moment that would mark a major turning point in the conflict was the March 18 attack against protesters. Known as “Bloody Friday”, 52 demonstrators were killed when they were fired upon by government-controlled gunmen.
The incident resulted in mass defections and resignations from top military and civilian officials, including several Yemeni ambassadors. To spare himself of the embarrassment of further political losses, Saleh sacked his entire cabinet on March 20.
Just one day later, General Ali Mohsen, Saleh’s former chief military advisor, defected – pledging to protect the demonstrators in Change Square – and signalling the first major blow to the regime. According to Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen and expert witness on the country to the US Congress, the defection indicated a break between Saleh’s immediate family and the rest of his supporters in the military.
“Ali Mohsen is by far the most powerful figure in the military and his announcement opened the floodgates, as officer after officer has now come out supporting the revolution,” he said.
Mohsen’s break with the regime is looked at with cynicism by demonstrators and experts alike. According to Johnson: “What Ali Mohsen is doing is setting himself up for a post-Saleh future. His announcement put him in position to head the military or military council under the next government. This is something a number of prominent Yemenis were waiting for. Not because they liked Ali Mohsen, they don’t. But because he commands so much loyalty within the army.”
Along with Mohsen’s defection, Saleh’s own tribe, the Hashid confederation, issued a statement a few days following the attacks, asking Saleh to leave peacefully. The Hashids, Yemen’s most powerful tribe, are headed by the Ahmar brothers, who, according to political analyst Abdullah M Hamidaddin, have long been encroaching on Saleh’s authority:
“They’ve been challenging Saleh’s access to more power for some time now. They had a score to settle with Saleh but they did not dare to confront him directly until the youth took to the streets. This is a power struggle between Saleh, Ali Mohsen, and the Ahmar brothers. The youth were the playing field.”
Competing for power
Click here for more in-depth coverage of Yemen’s uprising
The ten brothers inherited leadership of the Hashid tribe in 2007, after the death of their father, Sheikh Abdullah. Sheikh Abdullah founded Yemen’s largest opposition party, the religious conservative Islah. He was considered Saudi’s main ally in Yemen and his sons maintain strong ties with the country.
According to Johnson: “The descendants of al Ahmar and Saleh increasingly view each other as competitors for the same shrinking pie of political power. The contest for control of the state is now said to be, in a bit of an Arabic pun, one between the two Bayt (house of) al Ahmars. The reference is to Sheikh Abdullah’s surname and the president’s home village, Bayt al Ahmar.”
The power struggle between the families centres around Hamid al Ahmar. A successful businessman, he heads the Islah party and is considered the most politically ambitious of the brothers. The party threw its weight behind the opposition early on, setting up tents in Change Square and providing financial support to the opposition.
The pan-Arab daily Al Quds al Arabi named Hamid al Ahmar as one of three candidates most likely to succeed Saleh. The other two were the president’s son, Ahmad, and his nephew, Yahya.
According to Johnson: “The list is suggestive of the centralisation of politics in Yemen over the past three decades. The contest for control of the state is now said to be one between two families. This process of consolidating power has morphed to the point where the military and intelligence command structure – the true power of the state – resembles the family tree of Saleh’s own tribe.”
Like Ali Mohsen, the Ahmar clan is also looked upon with much suspicion. Their influence stretches deep, to the chagrin of many activists and organisers at the square. Even more troubling is Islah’s close alliance with Ali Muhsin’s First Armoured Division. According to Salah al Sharafi, founder of the Union of Movements for Independent Youth, Islah is attempting to control the movement.
“They think they can buy this revolution. We don’t trust them. They were for the GCC agreement when many of us weren’t and they’re still trying to force us to support the plan,” he said.
Sharafi’s sentiments are shared by many of the revolutionaries, who believe the plan is nothing more than a means for Saudi to control Yemen through proxy leadership.
“We want a Yemen-initiated plan with no outside interference. The Saudis will work hard to place their strongman Hamid al Ahmar in power, but we will work hard to prevent this,” said al Sharafi. “If Ahmar continues to try to control the movement through his agents in Islah, we expect violence. We are here, we are independent, we are not afraid of Islah. We will make our own alliances with tribes.”
On May 23, one day after Saleh refused to sign the GCC-backed initiative for the third time, Sheikh Sadiq al Ahmar, the eldest son and official head of the Hashid tribal federation, announced his support for the opposition. It signalled the second major blow to Saleh’s regime. Violent clashes ensued between Ahmar fighters and security forces in the suburb of Hasaba, home to Sheikh al Ahmar. The violence would leave Hasaba in ruins and at least 120 dead.
The third and most recent blow to the regime came on June 3, when Saleh and several top officials were injured during an attack against the presidential palace. As details begin to emerge into the public sphere, many are pointing to it being “an inside job”.
Medical sources in Saudi Arabia, where Saleh is being treated, say he suffered from burns on 40 per cent of his body and a collapsed lung. The day after the attack, Vice President Abd al Rab Mansur al Hadi took over as acting president. While crowds in Change Square celebrated Saleh’s departure, Yemeni officials insisted on state television that Saleh’s absence was temporary. However, some experts believe a return to power is highly unlikely.
“He is heavily sedated and quite disfigured, as I understand things,” said Grant Hopkins, a former political consultant in Yemen and founder of ICEX, a geopolitical consulting firm. “Even with a full recovery it will take at least a year to heal. I doubt that he will ever return. The real issue is what his son is doing.”
Just exactly who’s running the country now depends on who you ask.
Vice President Joe Biden reportedly phoned al Hadi to say that the US would recognise his authority. However, Yemen experts and much of the local press believe that Saleh’s son Ahmed Ali is the de facto ruler. Saleh’s son and his three nephews control important sectors of the military and security apparatus.
In an interesting move, Ahmed Ali moved into the presidential palace soon after his father’s departure – while al Hadi continued to work out of his office. According to Johnsen, al Hadi is not seen as a strong player.
“When Saleh needed a southerner for balance, he chose Hadi, who was everything he was looking for: loyal, weak, and from the south,” said Johnsen.
Ali Mohsen’s division now stands guard outside al Hadi’s home, purportedly protecting him from the military arm of the regime he now leads. According to Abdul Ghani al Iryani, a political analyst in Yemen and co-founder of the Democratic Awakening Movement, the extent of Ahmed Ali’s authority is limited.
“Saleh’s son and nephews assume very critical positions in the security and military apparatuses. However, they cannot defy the political leadership, especially given the fact that the acting president is quite respected by all parties. And the fact of the matter is, the political protest is the only option for everyone now,” said al Iryani.
“The resort to violence did not work for the president, in his full capacity, and with all the top lieutenants beside them. Now they’re gone. The prime minister is badly injured. The speaker of parliament is injured. Two deputy prime ministers are injured. So, how could the son and the nephews continue the violent confrontation without the support of a political arm?”
Filling the gulf in political authority
With the current power vacuum, of utmost concern to the West is the threat of al-Qaeda. Political consultant Hopkins believes the US will use this time to selectively target suspected al-Qaeda targets in a unilateral campaign. “It makes sense. In a political vacuum it has been my experience that going on the attack is the best defence,” he said.
Indeed, this week the US stepped up its covert campaign in the south of Yemen and targeted armed groups understood to be linked with al-Qaeda with remotely controlled drone aircraft and fighter jets. Strikes reportedly killed al-Qaeda operative Abu Ali al-Harithi and several other suspects. Four civilians were also understood to have been killed.
According to Prof Clive Jones, Chair of Middle East Studies and International Politics at Leeds University, Saleh inflated the threat of al-Qaeda to make his rule appear indispensible to the West. “Playing on primordial fears of jihadi threats determines a hierarchy of values that inevitably links the fate of Yemen’s president to wider western security interests. It is, in effect, a dependency relationship – but one perhaps where inflation of the threat is realised in the political capital that Saleh has accrued externally.”
Saleh depended on this capital to help him survive the latest impasse. He continued to play “the terrorism card” and many accuse him of orchestrating the recent conflict in the southern Yemeni city of Zinjibar. Hundreds of armed militants reportedly belonging to al-Qaeda took control of the city on May 27, after military posts were abandoned. Several top defected generals accused Saleh of intentionally ceding territory to the militants. Saleh would later send in troops to resolve a problem he created, according to a statement released by nine former generals. In the same statement, they called on other officers to defect and support the opposition.
“In reality, Saleh has not been all that cooperative in the war on terror,”says Iryani. “Saleh has only given lip service to fighting terrorism, which is why the US was forced to use the drones to pursue extremists.” According to Iryani, “A democratically elected president would do a more efficient job in eradicating the few hundred al-Qaeda members in a way that is sensitive to the people of Yemen.”
According to Hopkins, the real wild card is the Houthis, a Zaidi Shia rebel group based in Saada, a city in Northern Yemen. The Houthis have been engaged in violent clashes with the state since 2004 and claim that they are defending their community against state aggression and discrimination. In late 2009, clashes broke out between Houthi rebels and Saudi forces along their common border. Both the Saudi and Yemeni governments accuse Iran of aiding the rebels, a claim that Iran denies.
Hopkins believes their role will be critical and integral to a future Yemen state. “They were dealt a near lethal blow in 2009-10, bought and paid for by the [Saudi] Kingdom. They survived. The Saudis fear them but this may not be a time for resurrecting new hostilities in Saada,” says Hopkins. “The kingdom, no doubt, will see the hidden hand of Tehran and will shout that message to the rooftops. But unless the US is in agreement, that will be a hollow cri de couer. I would hope that Washington would not misread the politics of this a second time.”
Enter the youth movement
Where does this messy, convoluted equation leave the opposition youth? According to Jones, the political field is still determined by tribal allegiances. “This ultimately will determine the dispensation of power in Yemen in the short to medium term future at least. Even the rifts in the military hierarchy that have so rattled Saleh have tribal context.”
Khaled al-Anesi, human rights attorney and one of the main organisers in Change Square, is more optimistic and believes that the ball is now in the opposition’s court: “In this equation, the opposition has the upper hand and should ask for something more.”
Specifically, the opposition has two demands. The first is the establishment of a presidential council composed of five to seven people who will lead Yemen in a transitional government until elections. The second demand is the establishment of a national council, composed of 100-150 members who will be charged with promoting dialogue among the different factions and creating a new constitution. Its members, according to al-Anesi, will be selected from different tribes, parties, and experts.
The GCC stipulates that elections should occur two months after the transfer of power. Opposition organisers however, want to hold off on elections for a few months longer. “Two months is too soon for elections. We need to rebuild our country and create a new constitution,” says al-Anesi.
The Gulf countries are attempting to rush the process because they want to change the face of the system only. We want to change the entire system. The youth will continue the revolution for as long as need be. It’s not an easy mission. We expect a power struggle. The tribe will try to claim power but the youth know what they want and will not rest until they attain all their rights.
Iryani is more optimistic, believing the youth movement will not stand in the way if the general political community comes to a resolution. “I think what they are doing – the sit-ins and marches – is a healthy thing; it keeps them vigilant and prevents the process from being hijacked. They are the safeguard of the revolution. They will not allow the Ahmars or the ruling party to strike a deal at their expense.”
Despite the past few violent weeks, Iryani believes the youth are still in charge of the uprising and maintains that the military wing is limited in its authority. “The military, tribal, religious elites are not the masters of the Square. If we’re talking about firepower, then the tribe and military have a monopoly – but they’ve been proven irrelevant in advancing this peaceful revolution. I do not think the youth will be dominated or intimidated by these tribal and military forces.”
With Saleh now out of the country, the nation is fast approaching a peaceful transfer of power, says Iryani. For their part, the youth have succeeded in bringing together different factions under one banner, something that Saleh, Yemen’s only leader in modern history, has never succeeded in doing – without feeling like he was “dancing on the heads of snakes”.
Whether that unity will survive through this latest volatile phase in Yemen’s history remains to be seen.
June 11, 2011
General Ali Muhsin, commander of the 1st armored division and President Saleh’s half-brother, defected in March to support the opposition. Although never officially announcing he was joining the opposition, he vowed that he and his soldiers would protect demonstrators in Change Square. His move however was widely seen as self-motivated and many speculate he is preparing himself for a post-Saleh future.
On June 3, President Saleh was attacked at the presidential compound along with several top officials. They were flown to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. Vice President Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi took over leadership of the country.
Ahmed Ali, Saleh’s son and head of the elite Republican Guard, appeared to challenge Hadi’s new authority when he moved into the presidential palace. Hadi meanwhile continued to work out of his office at the Ministry of Defense.
In a seemingly contradictory move, Ali Muhsin’s soldiers were ordered to stand guard outside of VP Hadi’s home, allegedly protecting him from both Ahmed Ali and demonstrators. This week, demonstrators marched toward Hadi’s home and held a 24 hour sit-in. During the demonstration, they were attacked by Mushin’s soldiers. On the surface, the move is very telling and leaves one questioning Muhsin’s motives.
With every shift of power, it appears that Muhsin and his batallion are never far behind.
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