The Tribe Has Spoken: Yemen's Power Brokers Step In

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Muhammed Muheisen / AP

Antigovernment protesters shout slogans demanding the resignation of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh during a demonstration in Sana'a, Yemen, on Sunday, Feb. 27, 2011

As protesters continue to hit the streets of Yemen's cities, another battle is being fought behind closed doors — this one for the hearts and minds of the nation's tribal leaders. After a prominent sheik quit the party of President Ali Abdullah Saleh on Saturday, Feb. 26, pressure is mounting for other tribal chieftains around the country to jump off the fence and proclaim their allegiances.

"I'm announcing my resignation from the ruling party, party of corruption, and my joining to the revolution of the young people until this regime is toppled," announced Sheik Hussein al-Ahmar, a member of Yemen's most powerful tribe, the Hashid, in Amran city, 30 miles north of the capital, Sana'a.

Hussein was speaking to a crowd of 10,000 members of the Hashid and Baqil tribes — the two largest tribal conglomerates in Yemen — causing some observers to report that both groups had broken from the President. Infuriated and possibly a little embarrassed, other prominent Hashid and Baqil leaders sent out a flock of press statements Sunday to declare that Hussein was "only representing himself."

Government loyalists are quick to point out that Hussein has always been a bit of a black sheep. He has left the party before — a couple years ago, after losing a senior position in the ruling General People's Congress (GPC) Party. One GPC official said the latest move was no surprise, referring to it as a "media stunt." A vocal critic of the government, Hussein said in early February that he would send armed tribesmen to Sana'a to protect demonstrators. He didn't.

Hussein, who is a former close friend of the President's, comes from one of the most powerful and wealthiest families in the country. His late father, Sheik Abdullah al-Ahmar, was a leading figure in Yemen's revolution and almost became President himself; while he went on to form the nation's main opposition party, Islah, he and Saleh kept an amicable relationship until the sheik's death in 2007.

Now Sadeq al-Ahmar, brother of Hussein, has taken on their father's role as "Sheik of Sheiks." Sadeq has been a vociferous opponent of the President on many occasions but, unlike his brother, has not broken ranks. When asked recently if he supports the President or the opposition, Sadeq diplomatically answered, "I'm the brother of all." In a country where tribes, families and politicians are almost indistinguishable, close friends and worst enemies can often be the same people.

While Hussein was speaking in Amran, Saleh spent the weekend barnstorming around the country, traveling to both government strongholds and provinces where tribal law dominates in order to shore up support. On Sunday, 11 tribal sheiks confirmed their allegiance to the President. But Hussein's declaration, coupled with the resignation of a dozen other members of parliament from the GPC, has given the opposition a boost. "There is a piling-on effect," says Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen analyst at Princeton University. "More and more people are going to resign from the GPC, and more and more will be calling for Saleh to resign."

On Sunday, an opposition website reported that 59 members of the GPC threatened to resign if violence against protesters continued. TIME was unable to corroborate the report. The opposition has also called on its supporters to attend a rally on Tuesday, March 1, to protest the deaths of 27 demonstrators.

Local analysts are unsure that the tribes will join with the protesters. "The tension may force Sadeq to take more action. But I don't think other tribal leaders will do the same. They don't have the same immunity as the Ahmars, who are powerful and privileged," political analyst Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani tells TIME. Al-Iryani says the Ahmars have been trying to distance themselves from the regime for a while but continue to benefit financially from Saleh. Tribal sheiks in Yemen are known to voice complaints publicly in an attempt to squeeze cash sweeteners out of the President.

"The Hashid and Baqil tribes will do as they have always done," says al-Iryani, "get paid in the morning from one guy, pledge allegiance to him, then get paid from the other side in the evening and pledge allegiance to him." Only two days before Hashid and Baqil tribespeople demonstrated against the government in Amran, members of the same two tribes held a rally in support of Saleh in a neighboring province.

Tribal leaders will be closely eyeing the protests' development, constantly evaluating how to best exploit their grievances for power grabs. As they send an increasing number of their followers to protests around the country, student demonstrators and human-rights activists are worried that their cause could be violently commandeered by the tribes, which will then vie for the presidency as Saleh weakens. The differences between Hussein and Sadeq al-Ahmar "are coming to a head," says al-Iryani. "They need to assure us that they won't hijack the demonstrations for their own political motives."