No Deal in Yemen: The President Says He Won't Go

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ZOHRA BENSEMRA / Reuters / Corbis

Yemen's President Saleh

The contest in Yemen became clearer on Saturday as the dusty confusion of street protests gives way to a political rivalry that is likely to leave democracy in the lurch. On Saturday, after days of equivocation, Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh officially rejected a last-ditch proposal by the political opposition to step down before the end of this year. Instead, Saleh insisted he will remain in power until elections in late 2013. Many had envisioned the compromise placating not just student protesters but the well-armed tribal sheikhs who last week finally joined the demonstrations against the regime. Now, it is the sheikhs who may hijack the uprising.

One tribal leader in particular has emerged as Saleh's rival: Hamid al-Ahmar. Perhaps the wealthiest man in Yemen and the owner of gaudy mansions across the country, Ahmar (who owns the local Kentucky Fried Chicken and Baskin Robbins francheses) has begun to spout rhetoric that includes words like "democracy," an ostensible sign that he is preparing to exploit the current unrest and make a dash for Saleh's throne. "Some people think that I am capable to be there [the presidency]... maybe this place suits me," Hamid said in an interview last week. But, historically, Hamid's actions have been less about democracy and more about tribal rights and political realism.

Indeed, observers say Hamid al-Ahmar is clearly assembling his influential and well-placed brothers and relatives for a power grab, detaching them from their posts with the regime and arraying them beside him. As several members of the regime resigned after the President made his decision to remain in power till 2013, so did the deputy Culture Minister, Yahya al-Ahmar, and the deputy Minister for Youth and Sport, Hashid al-Ahmar, both brothers of Hamid. Last week, another brother, Hussein, dramatically announced his resignation from the ruling part in front of 10,000 tribesmen. The defections punctuate the Ahmar clans strength: its ability to assemble a militia of loyal armed tribesmen quickly. One brother remains associated with Saleh: Sadeq al-Ahmar, the "Sheikh of Sheikhs" and the head of the most powerful confederation of Yemen's tribes, the Hashid.

The potential Saleh-Ahmar face-off has rattled at least one embassy in Yemen. On Saturday, the British Embassy in Sana'a sent a text message to all Britons in Yemen advising them to leave the country. At a somber gathering in the capital British Ambassador Jonathan Wilks told a small contingent of British expatriates that they should take this advice "very seriously." "We are in a situation that could kick off anytime," he told a gathering that fretfully sipped at glasses of wine and British ales. "The political situation has reached a stalemate, there has been a marked deterioration in the political situation behind the scenes, and there's no luck for dialogue. Tensions between Hamid al-Ahmar and the ruling party are high." Said the ambassador: "My advice, as the sheikh of this tribe, is to leave immediately."

The president's rejection of the proposal had been less than polite. On Saturday, Saleh's office released a statement in Arabic saying the offer — the main point of which was the president stepping down in the next nine months — was both "mysterious and unclear." Accusing the opposition of going against the constitution, the government declared that Saleh would only step down when his term ends in two years. "The peaceful and smooth transition of power is not carried out through chaos but through the will of the people expressed through elections."

The scene is set for Saleh to scramble to retain support of the tribes, but already, the defections are creating an increasingly weaker presidency. The resulting vacuum in Sana'a that could allow Ahmar and other ambitious sheikhs to vie with each other and with Saleh for control of the central government — the basic ingredients for civil war.