Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The Ahmar Sheikh | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
Select Page

London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Situations arise; men come to the fore, whilst others disappear. Roles are changing constantly in the heated life cycle that is the Yemeni scene. Here, tribal power is prominent in a society which abides by tradition more than it abides by the law. Decades have passed since the first attempt to lay the foundations of a state of constitution and law in Yemen, yet reality dictates that the state in Yemen still strongly relies on the tribal component in its political structure, and that state policy (during the reign of Ali Abdullah Saleh in particular) has been built upon earning the allegiance of tribal chiefs all over Yemen.

In this context, the tribe of Hashed, whose leadership has passed on to Sheikh Sadiq Bin Abdullah al-Ahmar, seems to be one of the most powerful entities in the tribal belt located to the north of the capital Sana’a, and in Yemen in general. The Hashed tribe has political, tribal and even regional relations, linking its chiefs to a number of heads of state and political leaders across the Arab World, the Gulf region, and Saudi Arabia in particular.

The Hashed tribe played a role in supporting and backing the September 26 Revolution [1962] in Yemen, against the theocratic rule of the Imams which stretched over an extensive period of time, and across a constantly fluctuating geographic area. Indeed, Hussein Bin Nasser al-Ahmar (father of Abdullah, the former Sheikh of the Hashed tribe and grandfather of Sadiq, the incumbent Sheikh), as well as Nasser Bin Hussein (Abdullah’s brother and paternal uncle of Sadiq), were both revolutionaries who were killed by the Imam.

After the Hashed tribe received relentless blows at the hands of the Imams’ ruling regime, tribal leadership fell upon Sheikh Abdullah Bin Hussein al-Ahmar, who was a key figure in the post-revolution period, in times of war and peace. During the reign of the late Sheikh Abdullah Bin Hussein al-Ahmar, the Hashed tribe played a role in establishing a ruling equation whereby the State and the tribe would stand on a par in the political structure. The country was rife with complex interactions between conflicting political and tribal parties; which ultimately led to recurring waves of bloody violence.

Amidst such an environment, Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar was brought up. He lived in a house that was considered a Mecca for dozens of tribes, and also for a lot of political parties, knowing that the Sheikh was capable of resolving their disputes, despite sometimes being a rival in those disputes. It was a house highly attested to in terms of tribal influence and political presence.

The city of Khumr is deemed one of the largest Hashed strongholds, and the al-Ahmar Sheikhs often used it as a tribal fortress against political upheavals. Perhaps the flight of Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar to the city, in the wake of his well-known political disputes with former Yemeni President Ibrahim al-Hamdi, bears testimony to the importance of that city to al-Ahmar family, and the Hashed tribe in general.

Sheikh Sadiq came to prominence during the last decade of his father [Sheikh Abdullah Bin Hussein al-Ahmar]’s life. During that period, the sons of Sheikh Abdullah served a vital role on political, social and economic levels. In 1988, the political presence of Sheikh Sadiq began to materialize as he won a seat on the Consultative (Shura) Council for the Houth and al-Isha province constituency. He was among the members of parliament who voted for the establishment and declaration of a unified Yemen in 1990. Meanwhile, his brother Sheikh Humid pursued a business career and founded a network of companies and corporations which provided al-Ahmar family with the required economic weight needed for their current political struggle against President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime.

Unlike Sheikh Abdullah the father, who took up a number of public posts, it appears that Sheikh Sadiq, his son, leaned more, before the outbreak of the youth revolution in Yemen, toward the tribal side, thus turning away from engaging in public activity. However, his name soon came to prominence with the deterioration of the political and security situation in Yemen. It appears that Sheikh Sadiq had gained considerable experience in the years where he accompanied his father, and was in close contact with him. Sheikh Abdullah used to depend on Sadiq when settling numerous tribal disputes and defusing tensions, due to Sheikh Abdullah’s preoccupation with parliamentary responsibilities, as head of the legislative authority from 1990 up till his death in 2008.

Sheikh Sadiq acquired his experience in handling tribal disputes by accompanying his father. Sometimes his father would commission him to resolve such disputes, especially between 1988 and 1993. During those years the son replaced the father in many situations, a process which provided Sheikh Sadiq with wide experience in dealing with the issues of the tribe and its customs.

In addition to his efforts in tribal affairs, Sheikh Sadiq also has experience in the field of civil aviation. He spent four years in the US where he obtained a certificate in flying small aircraft. Sheikh Sadiq’s first participation in public activity came in 1988 when he took part in the Consultative (Shura) Council elections and won a seat for the constituency of Houth, al-Isha and al-Qafla. This period gave him the opportunity to get acquainted with the traditions of parliamentary activity. It also offered him the chance to mix with the different tribes and know their customs, traditions and problems. Sheikh Sadiq visited several tribal areas in al-Jawf, Marib, Sa’dah, Hajjah and Abs. Moreover, he co-mediated with his father in resolving numerous tribal disputes.

However, Sheikh Sadiq’s strongest public appearance came during the 1993 parliamentary elections, which were deemed the most important elections in the history of Yemen, being the first to be held after the unification. Those elections were overwhelmed by political struggle which became more severe after the entrance of the Socialist Party, as a partner in the governing elite, in addition to the Islamic-oriented Reform Party.

After Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar passed away, Sheikh Sadiq came to the forefront of the tribal scene, having received unanimous approval from the tribes of Hashed to succeed his father as chief of tribe. Sheikh Sadiq was inaugurated amidst a mass audience on the 23rd of January, 2008. Sheikh Sadiq’s procession proceeded from Sana’a to Khumar – the hometown of al-Ahmar family – surrounded by throngs of supporters who welcomed him in Umran, then Kharif, and pledged allegiance to him. The procession then reached Khumar, where the streets were crowded with tribesmen who had flocked from all surrounding areas. The inauguration ceremony witnessed the tribes’ affirmation of choosing Sheikh Sadiq as his father’s successor.

The sentiments delivered by the sheikhs in attendance came in support of tribal unity and national liberty, as they extolled the roles played by Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar, who had taken up several senior posts in the state, most notably the chairmanship of the Yemeni parliament, a position Sheikh Abdullah continued to retain since the establishment of the unified State till his death.

After the inauguration ceremony, the responsibility of tribal affairs, along with coordinating relationships with the state and other tribes, was handed over to Sheikh Sadiq. But with the outbreak of the popular uprising, as millions took to the streets demanding change and for President Saleh to step down, the positions of Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar’s sons varied. Sheikh Humaid sided with the opposition, as he was a member of the Yemeni Congregation for Reform Party, whereas Sheikh Sadiq initially stood with the mediation committee along with a number of notables, dignitaries, and Sheikhs, headed by Sheikh Abdul Majeed al-Zendani.

This committee shouldered the responsibility of reconciling the views of the youth and opposition parties on the one hand, and the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh on the other. A local agreement was reached and drafted at the time, and was termed the “Clerics’ Agreement”. Unfortunately however, the efforts of this committee completely collapsed when Sheikh al-Zendani announced that President Saleh should be held accountable for the country’s aggravating unrest, thereby declaring his endorsement of the youth revolution.

Following this step, and in concurrence with other similar steps, Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, Chief of the Hashed tribe, together with the rest of his brothers and a number of tribal sheikhs, declared their participation and support for the youth revolution. This move rendered Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar part of the ongoing conflict, having originally served as a mediator in it. This declaration dealt a heavy blow to the regime, which had relied significantly on tribal chiefs who possessed the required leverage to pave the way for any candidate to rise to power in Yemen, during both its Imamate and Republican eras. It is worth noting that some branches of the Hashed tribe still maintain a sense of neutrality with regards to the most recent conflict between government forces and tribal fighters supporting Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar.

By going to Change Square in Sana’a and delivering a speech in solidarity with the youth protestors, Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar and dignitaries from the Hashid tribe adopted a route contrary to that of the regime. No sooner had a few weeks elapsed when severe clashes broke out, highlighting the tension in the relationship between the regime and Yemen’s tribes. Such a state of tension soon transformed into a bloody struggle after elements from the Hashed tribe occupied a school near Sheikh al-Ahmar’s house, in order to prevent [government troops] from using it as a military base to target the Sheikh’s house, at least according to the Hashed account of events. However, this action transformed the entire area into a target of shelling by the Republican Guards and the security troops, who were deployed in areas close to Sheikh al-Ahmar’s house, located in al-Hasabah, north of the capital Sanaa. The government shelling of the house that once belonged to former ally Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar, and the subsequent devastating damage, represented a massive mistake as the Yemeni authorities had targeted a house which long held symbolic status amongst Yemeni tribes.

Sheikh al-Ahmar’s house was targeted at a time when it was full of sheikhs and mediators from different tribes, and the bombing resulted in the death of several tribesmen, including five tribal sheikhs from Marib, Qifa, Bakil and Damar. Among the victims were mediators whom the President had sent to negotiate with tribal sheikhs, something that prompted the Hashed tribe to further intensify its attacks. As a result, fierce battles continued whereby the Hashed tribe seized control of government headquarters; including a number of ministries and sensitive corporations in the capital Sanaa. Mediation efforts have failed so far in reaching a truce between the President and the tribe, which seems to be experiencing a crisis by endeavoring to settle old scores with Ali Abdullah Saleh. This was expressed by observers who say the President is targeting the sons of his ex-ally in a bid to fight off their competition to himself, his sons, as well as his nephews.

However, according to the government’s account of events, Sheikh al-Ahmar and his nine brothers are seeking to seize control of government institutions, preparing to mount a coup against constitutional legitimacy. As a result, the Attorney General issued an arrest warrant against the Sheikh and his brothers, charging them with forming armed gangs and attacking public and private property. For their part, the al-Ahmar family says it was the President who targeted their house, and that he sought to draw the world’s attention away from the strong protest movement across Yemen, which demand the overthrow of the regime. Al-Ahmar sources say that the regime’s provocations also aim to engage pro-revolution army units in a struggle, so that President Saleh can claim to the Arabs and the world that Yemen is experiencing a civil war; a war between the President’s authority on the one hand, and al-Qaeda and its Islamist and tribal adherers on the other. Yet some observes believe that the aggravation of the situation, on Monday the 23rd of May, was linked to President Saleh’s refusal to sign the GCC initiative.

At that time, a state of deep concern prevailed among protesting youths, with regards to the developments of the situation, fearing that their peaceful revolution would shift into acts of armed violence. In a statement to Asharq Al-Awsat, those youths emphasized that President Saleh is making every endeavor to make this happen because – in their viewpoint – this is his only way out and the only means by which he can ward off the consequences of the Freedom and Change Square demonstrations, and others across the country. The media used to focus on the youth activities in the squares, yet these started to lose momentum after cameras turned towards the scenes of destruction and killings caused by the battles taking place in al-Hasabah. However, a considerable number of youths confirmed to Asharq Al-Awsat that they have had no hand in this, as President Saleh’s regime is pushing them, as well as the tribes, towards violence. Nobody will remain passive regarding the aggravation of violence, and this will further complicate the political and military scene in Yemen, according to youth activists.

Some activists stress that President Saleh will exploit the struggle taking place in northern Sanaa, Abyan, and elsewhere to his advantage, so as to abort the peaceful revolution. Those activists say that after what happened in Freedom Square in Taiz, it is clear that the regime is determined to empty these squares from protestors, and that the President will not relinquish power peacefully. On the 3rd of June 2011 there was an assassination attempt on Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, together with heads of the legislative, executive and consultative authorities, and the death of a number of the President’s personal guards. The President and senior officials have now been taken to a hospital in Riyadh, and some of them are in a life threatening condition as a result of the attack they suffered. These events have deepened the sense of gloom surrounding the already dark image of the Yemeni scene. The situation has also caused much speculation with regards to the relationship between the two sides [the government and the Hashed tribe], particularly after the presidency accused al-Ahmar’s family of orchestrating the assassination attempt, although it denied this. This all is happening despite the fragile truce concluded between the two parties, which the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia sought to reach and was approved by the Vice President Abdrabu Mansour Hadi, the now acting President.

However, it is feared that an armed dispute between the two parties may be renewed, but this time extending to larger areas up and down the capital city and beyond, in view of the influx of thousands of fighters from the Hashed tribe and others [to Sanaa], to relieve Sheikh al-Ahmar. There has been a sense of anticipation whereby each party is recalculating the state of affairs according to developments in the operation theater at the Military Hospital in Riyadh, where President Saleh was admitted. Between the two sides [Saleh and al-Ahmar] the revolutionary youths are still demonstrating in the Change and Freedom Squares, with their hearts beating for their revolution and their eyes kept on the hotspots in Hasabah, and the capital Sanaa. The youth are agonizing over the domestic scene’s complexities, and the slackening foreign pressure to force the President to step down from power, a major demand for which they had initially taken to streets.

Perhaps, the current crisis that has arisen in the relationship with President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime is the most dangerous mission Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar has ever confronted since his father passed away. Sheikh Abdullah had always kept pace with President Saleh, even though the former was chief of the Yemeni Congregation for Reform opposition party.