Yemen: Who will Succeed Sheikh al Ahmar?

Yemen: Who will Succeed Sheikh al Ahmar?

The recent passing of Sheikh Abdullah Bin Hussein al Ahmar has caused considerable confusion inasmuch as it has raised questions. Speaker of the Yemeni parliament, Chieftain of the Hashed tribe and head of the Muslim Brotherhood offshoot party, the oppositional Yemeni Congregation for Reform (al Islah party), the late al Ahmar enjoyed a close relationship with Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh who announced a three-day mourning period the day the sheikh passed away, 29 December 2007 in Riyadh.

There is no doubt that he has left behind a substantial vacuum; the question is: How can it be filled?

A strong proponent for Arab and Islamic causes, especially the Palestinian one, al Ahmar is a veteran politician and tribal lord who many across Yemen refer to as the “maker of presidents” [due to his wide public support and huge clout] and the godfather of the constitution. Indeed he was renowned for being the man Yemen listened to and trusted, especially since he was the chieftain of the tribe that the president is affiliated it to. Moreover, al Ahmar has played a key role in restoring relations with the neighboring Gulf States, in addition to having had invaluable and rich experience in Yemeni political life.

According to the head of the political science department at Sanaa University, Mohammed al Zahiri said, “[al Ahmar] epitomizes a witness who was present throughout the political history of contemporary Yemen for over half a century and a figure who has lived throughout significant Yemeni events in society, the state and political parties,” and added that, “as a personality, al Ahmar represents the embodiment of and a witness to the convergence of tradition with modernity and the coexistence of traditional life with the contemporary one, in addition to the (tribal) societal structure embracing the Islamic movement, meaning that tribal allegiance embraces religion.”

One of the most important questions being raised is about the future relationship between President Abdullah Saleh and the al Islah party following the demise of al Ahmar. In his interview with Asharq Al-Awsat Dr. al Zahiri stated that there must be differentiation between al Ahmar’s relationship with President Saleh and the party’s relationship with the ruling General People’s Congress party (GPC).Of the former he said, “It was an alliance and one of the things that can attest to that is the fact that al Ahmar supported the president in the elections in 1999 and 2006, which was a different stance to that of al Islah party. As such, the sheikh’s alliance with the president was within the framework of the tribal system and with the head of the political system.”

In terms of the relationship between the GPC and the oppositional al Islah party, Dr. al Zahiri describes it as “adversarial despite the fact that the sheikh headed al Islah. This is what would explain what may ostensibly seem to be a contradiction between the sheikh’s position as the leader of an oppositional party and his position as a tribal chieftain. But what is notable here is that the personal relationship is stronger than the relationship on the level of the political party or tribe, and this is a matter that not only appears to be specific to Yemen alone but to Arab regimes in general.”

In light of these facts, al Zahiri believes that Sheikh al Ahmar’s death will not have a practical impact on the relationship between the two parties, al Islah and the GPC, because, “it is a special and unique relationship that is specific to the fact that al Islah party is the largest opposition group in Yemen.”Moreover, al Zahiri believes that “Sheikh al Ahmar left Yemen when it was weak both as a society and a political system,” and added that “his death was a warning bell indicating this weakness.” He believes that the remedy for this is, “to reinforce the sovereignty of the law and to make the transition from political preaching to combating corruption and to move towards progress and achievement.”

In response to the question of whether there was a candidate to replace al Ahmar, al Zahiri answered in negation and explained, “[It’s] for a simple reason and that is that the late al Ahmar, may he rest in peace, was a common denominator between the various systems in the state. And it is rare to find a figure capable of uniting parties like that; evidence of this was demonstrated through his funeral procession which was attended by approximately one million citizens and also through the manner in which his death was announced. It was a funeral that bespoke of the immense vacuum and the great legacy he left behind.” Despite the acknowledgement of the loss caused by Sheikh al Ahmar’s death by a top leadership figure of al Islah party, Dr. Mohammed Saeed al Saadi, the deputy secretary-general of the party has toned down speculation regarding the party’s loss. He said: “Al Islah is an institutional party that is prevalent and follows regulations and a system because it is built on a solid foundation. Despite the huge vacuum that resulted of Sheikh al Ahmar’s departure, may his soul rest in peace, the system that is followed within the party is not a centralized one; the leading figure is a reference and advisor but does not constitute the full executive authority,” he said.

Al Saadi continued to express to Asharq Al-Awsat the irredeemable loss that is al Sheikh al Ahmar: “Not only did he have an impact on al Islah party; he also played a large role in the political process both on the level of the government and the opposition. We have all suffered a great loss… Al Islah will continue to follow his vision, course and policies which are adhered to by the party’s members and which are not based on individuals but rather on a whole system.”

Furthermore, al Saadi stated that it was unlikely that the political rivalry with President Saleh and his ruling party would escalate as a result of Sheikh al Ahmar’s death, “because there are no obstructions posed before the president and there is no severance [of relations]…Our philosophy up until now has been to avoid any severance with the political leadership. Exchange is necessary in the interest of the state and there is no point of political antagonism.”Deputy Secretary-General of the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) Sheikh Yehia Abu Subaa told Asharq Al-Awsat that, “Sheikh al Ahmar’s death has left us in need of his presence whether in matters related to the economy or security or the developments that have taken place in the south and in Saada [northern Yemen]. Moreover, Abu Subaa believes that the sheikh’s absence will have several ramifications that include, “problems with resolution attempts and visions in the present time and in the future, but such is fate… The sheikh has gone but he has left his sons and their latent potential and every era has its own set of circumstances. Al Ahmar was a mediator and he used to absorb the differences that used to erupt between Yemen and the neighboring states, especially Saudi and the Gulf States.”

Regarding the dangers that the country and the al Islah party could be subjected to due to the Sheikh’s recent demise, Abu Subaa acknowledged that there were indeed fears and added, “When there were indications of any potential threats, the sheikh’s presence was reassuring and we felt that consulting him could avert these risks… But now in his absence, how will these risks be dealt with and deflected?”

However, Abu Subaa stresses that any threats must be confronted both as an opposition and as a ruling regime “because we have all lost Sheikh Abdullah al Ahmar. On the day of his funeral [his son] Sheikh Hamid al Ahmar called upon the Yemeni tribes to reconcile for a full year in commemoration and honor of his deceased father in which time they would disarm and put an end to the tribal skirmishes and wars. Indeed, some tribes have begun to respond to the invitation.”

“We all support this invitation, “ said Abu Subaa, “and we all aspire towards adopting it universally whether on the level of the state, regime, and ruling or oppositional party because the tribal wars and feuds have become alarming and costly in terms of social life, security and on the economy. Unfortunately, these conflicts have been reinforced and have spread out over the past few years and have reemerged in provinces where they had disappeared. By this I mean the southern provinces which are witnessing tribal feuds and armed clashes and killings despite the fact that these phenomena had disappeared in the Yemeni republic before the union over a quarter of a century ago.”

It is widely believed that the present joint efforts represented through the governmental committee headed by the Yemen Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Rashad Muhammed al Alimi and the committee headed by Salem Saleh will bring about positive change. Abu Subaa is hopeful that the legacy of Sheikh al Ahmar can be extended to ensure the security and stability of the state.And yet, there are concerns about al Ahmar’s sons’ ability to fill his shoes only because he was such a great man, but especially with regards to his eldest son Sadiq al Ahmar who has succeeded his father as the chieftain of the Hashed tribe. However, equally, there is also support for the al Ahmar sons.

Abu Subaa states, “Sadiq is a respectable man and he has a good relationship with the public and he is not young  he is over 50 years old. He is capable of playing a role between his tribe and other Yemeni tribes. Sheikh Hamid [al Ahmar] has become a famous political persona and he is widely respected among the oppositional circles. Meanwhile, Sheikh Hussein has chosen a different path; he is neither with the opposition nor with the government which will reserve a special niche for him politically. He is also the most involved of al Ahmar’s sons in tribal matters and problems. There is no denying that Sheikh al Ahmar’s sons are part of all these issues by virtue of the environment in which they grew up and since they have been involved in- and witnessed- the events and developments as they happened.”However; Abu Subaa, who is likewise chieftain of a Yemeni tribe, also warns of a political dimension in which, “The authority is attempting to divide the tribal status quo in general like what it has done with the Bekil tribes and others, and what it is trying to do today to the Hashed tribe,” he said.