Election time in Yemen
With Vice-President Hadi set to become Yemen’s next President, who are the country’s power players and how will they influence its future? The image shows ousted President Saleh, VP Hadi and the Al-Ahmar brothers. © Your Middle East
Election time in Yemen
Catherine Shakdam
Last updated: February 19, 2012

The key players of Yemen’s political arena

After a year of nationwide demonstrations and much bloodshed, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh bowed to internal and external pressure, finally agreeing to ink the GCC brokered proposal in the Saudi capital Riyadh, which enounced the terms of his departure from power.

The controversial initiative promised President Saleh and his coterie an immunity blanket against their departure from power with a clause preventing them from running for public office.

The power-transfer agreement provisioned for the creation of a coalition government, in which both the opposition and the ruling party would sit equally, and early presidential elections with one sole consensus candidate, Vice-President Abdu Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

But with Hadi set to become Yemen’s next President, who are the country’s power players and how will they influence its future?

With over-lapping conflicts, a dire economic and humanitarian situation, and the ever present threat of terrorism, Yemen still sits on the brink of a precipice with many actors trying to manipulate their way through the maze it has become, hoping to bank on the current unrest to forward their political ambitions.

Al-Ahmar and al-Islah

The Al-Ahmar brothers, Yemen’s very own blue bloods and leaders of the powerful al-Hasheed confederation of tribes are also the founders and leaders of the al-Islah party, an Islamic political faction which advocates a return to Islamic and traditional values.

“The brothers” as they are often called, have been at the center of Yemen’s power play for decades. From their late father Sheikh Abdullah bin Hussein al-Ahmar helping the newly elected President Ali Abdullah Saleh assert his position in the midst of much political upheaval to the creation of the opposition party which became the country’s main political counterweight to Saleh’s hegemony over Yemen, the al-Ahmars have been ever present agents, with all signs pointing to a desire to continue on.

And if Sheikh Sadeeq al-Ahmar, the clan’s elder, was content to lead his tribe and act the King on his fief, his younger brother Hameed had other plans.

A billionaire businessman, Hameed did not hide his political ambitions, voicing loud and clear his desire to dethrone Saleh and herald al-Ahmar’s era. According to diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks, he told American diplomats a few years back that he intended to use a popular uprising to organize President Saleh’s ouster from power and promote his own accession to the presidency.

As soon as revolutionaries took to the streets demanding Saleh’s immediate resignation, Hameed was quick to voice his support of the movement, declaring that he would throw his weight into the ring and protect those who fought for freedom and democracy.

Soon after that, al-Islah literally flooded “Change Square”, the epicenter of the revolutionary movement, organizing the protests and taking charge of the revolution management.

Independent revolutionaries actually complained that al-Islah was corrupting the movement by repressing all those who disagreed with their methods, often using violence and imprisonment.

The main political driving force behind the opposition with most of the current coalition government members being either al-Islah or al-Islah loyalists since their finances very much depend on the brothers’ good graces, al-Islah is the elephant in the room.

The ruling party has actually warned that al-Islah and al-Ahmar were manipulating the “Arab Spring” phenomena to assert an Islamic rule over Yemen, a far cry it said from the people’s calls for democracy.

“You just need to take a look at their members list…you will find well-known terrorists, such as Sheikh Abdel-Mageed al-Zindani and other promoters of violence. Al-Islah will be a catastrophe for Yemen as they work hand in hand with al-Qaeda. All what you see is a covert operation to take control of the state institutions, al-Ahmars engineered the entire popular movement to oust Saleh, the only man who stood between them and ultimate power,” said a presidential adviser who for security reasons preferred to remain anonymous.

If politicians willingly sided with al-Islah and the al-Ahmar family to strengthen their ranks in the fight against Saleh, several are now worried that in the wake of the coming presidential elections, al-Ahmar’s apparatus will turn against the people in a bid to seize power.

“Those people have lived outside the law for so many years, doing as they please without fear of consequences… How can you expect that suddenly they would abide by the rules? They are still keeping private jails, they are still using bribery and corruption to buy their way in. Is it really the type of people we want to build Yemen’s future with?” asks an independent youth leader.

The Joint Meeting Party

In 2003, a coalition of political factions opposed to President Saleh, the JMP, managed to win about 60% of the parliamentary seats. Since then, their influence has somewhat dwindled, with the other opposing party, al-Islah, gaining momentum.

The JMP is composed of 5 parties and a handful of independents:

* The Yemeni Socialist Party, YSP

* The former ruling party of South Yemen

* Al-Haq

* The Nasserists

* And the Popular Forces Union.

The JMP has undeniably gained some ground through the course of the popular uprising, but its ability to influence Yemen’s future will be put to test after the presidential elections.

The General People’s Congress

The General People’s Congress, also known as the ruling party, is Yemen’s biggest and most influential political faction with over 7 million members and widespread support nationwide.

Controlling the Parliament, the ruling party will not go away once President Saleh’s presidential term ends. Unlike in Egypt, where the ruling party collapsed upon the departure of President Hosni Mubarak, the GPC’s shadow over Yemen still casts long and wide.

Interestingly, President Saleh himself announced upon the signature of the power-transfer in November 2011 that he would now, as the leader of the GPC organize the opposition and work to re-establish his party’s political hegemony.

Many detractors to the regime have warned that the GPC’s power will hinder any chance of political reforms, at least as long as it is headed by Saleh. “Clearly Saleh wants to get back in charge or at least help his son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, to become the nation’s next leader. This could be dangerous for stability and set Yemen on fire,” said a former Shurah council member.

Vice President Hadi is actually himself a member of the party, which puts him under the leadership of Ali Abdullah Saleh. It still remains to be seen if the GPC will help transition Yemen away from violence and into a time of prosperity and stability.

The Saleh Clan

If Yemen is known for its discord and internal conflicts, there is one thing on which most politicians agree at the moment: Saleh is far from being the defeated figure some western powers like to portray.

Saleh and his family are still in the center of it all, controlling 70% of Yemen’s armed forces and 90% of its fire-power capacity.

Ahmed Ali Saleh, the President’s eldest son and head of the mighty Republican Guards shows no sign despite the agreement signed in Riyadh to ever want to resign from his position. Yehia Mohamed Saleh, one of the President’s nephews is still leading the country’s Central Security Forces. Ammar and Tarek Mohamed Saleh, also nephews, are respectively controlling the National Security Agency and the Presidential Guards, while General Mohamed Saleh al-Ahmar, the President’s half-brother, heads the air force.

This blunt violation of the power-transfer proposal and the fact that none of these figures have expressed the slightest interest to leave the country, safe from Yehia Mohamed who sought asylum in Cuba and Venezuela following calls from activists to freeze the family’s assets and to drag several of its members to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, has prompted detractors to warn that the clan was planning to derail the transition process.

Moreover, recent clashes between the armed forces and political factions have been credited to Saleh, with opponents to the regime claiming the President was arming militias to promote instability and confirm the theory that he was the only entity in Yemen capable of uniting all warring parties.

Surprisingly, many of those who first protested against the three decades long presidential rule of Saleh are viewing positively the ascension of his son Ahmed Ali, believing that he has the qualities required and the will to change Yemen into a modern civil state.

Ahmed Ali has long been thought of as a man of change, determined to put an end to the ancestral tribal system on which Yemen has been operating for centuries.

Although it was rumored back in May of last year that he was rallying supporters to his cause in a bid to set up his own political party, no such plan has come to the surface.

Many are still hoping that he would make a return for the next presidential elections in two years time, or as some have foretold, run a “coup d’état” against the current government.

The Southern Secessionist Movement

Ever since the beginning of the popular uprising, al-Harak or the Southern Secessionist Movement has used the revolution and the breakdown of the state’s ability to suppress its detractors to resume its campaign in what used to be South Yemen.

For years, al-Harak has accused Saleh’s government of oppressing its people in a way similar to that of a colonial force, telling tales of segregation, stolen lands and political abuse.

With people clamoring for a new beginning, al-Harak saw an opportunity to good to pass on. It decided that now was its time to pressure the central government into agreeing to its demands and gain some independence from Sana’a.

However, al-Harak’s continued opposition to the coming presidential elections on the base that it denies VP Hadi’s legitimate right to present himself as the nation’ sole candidate, risks to jeopardize any chance Yemen would have to put to rest old feuds and bridge the northern-southern divide.

With more violent clashes being reported every day and a mounting death toll, all hell could break loose in Aden.

Al-Houthis

Al-Houthis, a group of Shia militants operating in the northern provinces of Yemen has long been a thorn into the government’s thigh, threatening to plunge Yemen into a sectarian conflict with Sunni and Shia sitting on either side of the fence.

Believed to be financed by Iran, as Teheran is looking to infiltrate Yemen’s political make-up to throw Saudi Arabia’s hold on the region out of balance, al-Houthis are also opposing the coming elections.

Sheikh Abdel-Malek al-Houthi, the group leader announced a couple of weeks ago that he was looking to become a political force in the country by launching his own party. Since then he has been calling for parliamentary reform, arguing that the state needs to break out the ruling party’s control by installing a more representative system where all factions would sit.

So far all diplomatic attempts to end the escalating tensions between al-Houthis and their nemesis, the Salafists, have failed miserably, leaving the Shia rebels to extend their hold over the northern territories to three provinces, Hajjah, al-Jawf and Sa’ada.

Al-Qaeda

As other groups in the country, al-Qaeda saw in the uprising an opportunity to intensify its territorial expansion by seizing cities and villages in the widely tribal and most instable regions of Yemen, the southern territories.

After invading Zinjibar, the regional capital of Abyan last year, al-Qaeda worked at securing its stronghold, preparing for the second phase of its program.

As many analysts have warned, al-Qaeda leaders are smartening their approach towards the population, knowing that without popular support they stand no real chance of establishing the Islamic Caliphate they are longing for.

Tribal leaders and local residents told the press that the group was now running social and humanitarian programmes as well as distributing schools and learning manuals, wanting to bridge the gap the government has left by its inability to look after its people.

“Villagers still fear the drones which seem to follow al-Qaeda wherever it goes but not so much the ideas they are promoting since it is accompanied by food, water and medicine,” said a trooper posted near Zinjibar.

Moreover, reports have shown that al-Qaeda militants have already infiltrated Yemen’s political arena with prominent figures working in the shadows to help assert the group’s growing influence and hold over the region.

And if a few years back, al-Qaeda was merely a terror organization, it is now attempting to morph into mainstream politics.

The Independent Youth

Composed of pro-democracy activists and human rights militants, despite its best efforts to remain relevant in a fast-pacing movement, the Independent Youth movement was unable to maintain its momentum, losing to mainstream political factions.

However, dubbed the “heart of the people” the movement remains to this day the pulse of the country, a gauge of how decisions and policies are received nationwide. And if so far the group has preferred to remain somewhat apolitical, sticking to principles rather than programs, several leaders are already seeking to politicize their message, determined to extend their role within Yemen society well after the transition period.

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