Dispatch

The view from the ground.

The Dance of Daggers

A deadly, personal civil war between Yemen's president and his former friend, now archrival, threatens to tear apart a peaceful protest movement.

MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images
MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images
MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

The dance of daggers is Yemen's most deceptive martial tradition. Partners unsheathe their weapons and surge forth at each other with a kick, feinting and shrinking back. Just when you might expect one to plunge his knife into the other's heart, suddenly, they clasp arms, smile, and swirl in unison, only to break away and bristle again.

In happier times, President Ali Abdullah Saleh and top general Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar treated camera crews to the spectacle at a public celebration in Sanaa, the capital.

Today, and for almost a month running, their daggers are heavy artillery, their audience Yemen's abortive protest movement, and their dance floor a prone country whose future depends on the outcome of their duel.

The dance of daggers is Yemen’s most deceptive martial tradition. Partners unsheathe their weapons and surge forth at each other with a kick, feinting and shrinking back. Just when you might expect one to plunge his knife into the other’s heart, suddenly, they clasp arms, smile, and swirl in unison, only to break away and bristle again.

In happier times, President Ali Abdullah Saleh and top general Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar treated camera crews to the spectacle at a public celebration in Sanaa, the capital.

Today, and for almost a month running, their daggers are heavy artillery, their audience Yemen’s abortive protest movement, and their dance floor a prone country whose future depends on the outcome of their duel.

Nine months into a nationwide popular uprising, the reality facing this impoverished southern Arabian nation is bleaker than ever. As Libyans celebrated the demise of Muammar al-Qaddafi and Tunisians headed to the polls, Yemenis were caught in the throes of the bloody power struggle between the two friends-turned-foes, a deadly standoff that drowns out their calls for democracy and drags the country closer to civil war.

Not without cause, last Friday’s U.N. Security Council resolution urging a political transition assigned blame to both sides of the country’s political divide for a recent spike in violence, as dozens of protestors and civilians were caught in crossfires across Sanaa between government snipers and al-Ahmar’s soldiers.

The newest strategy of al-Ahmar’ renegade First Armored Division, which defected in March, is to accompany unarmed marches on their perilous route from "Change Square," the vast area on the west side of town where the mostly youthful protesters have set up camp, to new strategic areas of the capital, expanding his sphere of influence over the divided city and dragging whole neighborhoods into fierce clashes. The protesters have become, in effect, human shields.

***

How did the partnership between president and general, once the scourge of countless rebel and secessionist movements throughout the restive nation, collapse so violently? Can their country-sized ambitions be reconciled in a way that will spare Yemen total destruction?

The pair traces their roots to the same tribe and clan, and harks from Bayt al-Ahmar, a poor village outside the capital clinging to life on a parched massif — now a scattering of muddy farms beneath their imposing castles.

Close friends, they rose up through the ranks of Yemen’s military together, parrying repeated coups until al-Ahmar helped Saleh seize the presidency in 1978.

In gratitude, the young president granted his deputy economic concessions that would in time encompass much of the nation’s economy. The general’s eagerness for land earned him the nickname "the proprietor."

Those who know al-Ahmar say he is charming and gregarious. "He is a manly man, very charming and soft spoken … he loves collecting unique handguns and knives and spoiling his officers with land," says a Yemeni official close to the general.

Precise data on the assets he has amassed remains unknown and unknowable, but his mini-fiefdoms and estates across the country roll on for tens of thousands of acres, in addition to real estate in the Gulf and significant foreign deposits in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Further buttressing his position are millions of petrodollars wielded by his son, Mohsin Ali Mohsin, who owns one of the country’s largest oil companies.

After helping North Yemen win a decisive victory in a 1994 civil war against the formerly independent south, al-Ahmar was unleashed upon the insurgent province of Saada. There, he again raised tribal militias and armed jihadi radicals on behalf of the government’s six-year scrap with Shia rebels, aptly code-named operation Scorched Earth, which roundly devastated much of the north.

As the campaign ground on, with the besieged Shiites using landmines and local knowledge of the wild mountainous terrain to expand into new areas, al-Ahmar became convinced that the president had deliberately mired him in an unwinnable war to ruin his political career. At the same time, rumors abounded that Saleh had started grooming his eldest son Ahmed Ali, also an army general, for the presidency — a post which al-Ahmar had coveted in return for decades of services rendered to the regime.

The breaking point came in the summer of 2009, leaked U.S. diplomatic cables allege, when the president tried and failed to have Mohsin killed. A WikiLeaks document describes how Yemeni generals instructed their Saudi counterparts, who had joined the chaotic fight in the north against Houthi rebels, to bomb a site that turned out to be al-Ahmar’s base. The Saudis demurred, and the general was left to nurse a lethal grudge.

Then came the Arab Spring and the uprising in Yemen. "According to what I’m feeling, and according to the feelings of my partner commanders and soldiers," al-Ahmar intoned somberly in a message broadcast on opposition TV channels on March 21, 2011. "I announce our support and our peaceful backing to the youth revolution. We are going to fulfill our duties in preserving security and stability."

The die was cast. Days after pro-government snipers launched a coordinated sniper attack on a peaceful protest in the capital, slaughtering almost 60 unarmed demonstrators, al-Ahmar committed his war-weary division to envelop Sanaa’s protest camp and put its idealistic shine to work on his badly tarnished reputation.

Scenes of jubilation greeted Mohsin’s troops as they paraded into Change Square, flashing victory signs and tipping their Che Guevara-style red berets at the ecstatic crowds. Demonstrators planted kisses on their foreheads and smeared dollops of cherry-red paint across the soldiers’ cheeks.

Within days, Mohsin had completed a deft transformation from a disgraced warlord on the brink of being purged to the savior of Yemen’s revolutionary millions.

To hear government officials tell it, the general’s "defection" was in fact an attempted coup d’état, scuppered when a number of senior generals whom he had counted on to join ranks balked at the last minute, sticking with the regime and leaving al-Ahmar dangerously exposed. Had he succeeded, the officials say, he would have become the de facto leader of the country, likely heading a military council like the one currently botching Egypt’s transition.

"Their thinking was very close to the Egyptian model," says a Sana’a-based political analyst. "With Saleh gone, Mohsin would play kingmaker, eventually ushering in a new government that chimed with his own personal interests."

Whatever his intentions, the growing profile of al-Ahmar’s mutinying fighters in and amongst the protesters is leading to the gradual militarization of a civilian uprising whose chief maxim had been — astonishingly for a country famously awash in guns — "peaceful, peaceful."

Down the long lines of ramshackle tents in the square, al-Ahmar’s soldiers race by in pickups mounted with machine guns. When the muezzin’s call to prayer sounds, the soldiers, some of them just children swimming in oversized combat fatigues, lay their weapons on mats and pray alongside the protesters.

Throngs of protesters find themselves ducking bullets from both directions as the general’s men bring up the rear, returning fire at the government troops with rusty Kalashnikovs and shoulder-mounted RPGs. Errant shells lobbed by pro-Saleh forces aimed at the First Division base, a short distance from the sit-in colony, have repeatedly sent demonstrators fleeing in terror.

As Yemen’s agony continues, the line between protester and renegade soldier has grown increasingly blurred. A clip, widely circulated on Yemen state TV last week, shows one of al-Ahmar’s soldiers slip seamlessly into a sea of protesters after exchanging his khaki uniform for civilian dress during a mass rally in the capital.

In spite of the rising bloodshed, the prevailing sentiment amongst the pro-democracy activists of Change Square remains the same: the entrance of the soldiers, if not ideal, is a necessary shield against the bullets of government troops and plain-clothed government snipers prowling the nearby rooftops.

Many, however, harbor doubts but are too scared to speak out for fear of being accused of promoting disunity. "We had no say in this; Ali Mohsin and his solders are giving them more of a justification for the crackdown," said a 24-year-old medical student and activist who did not wish to be named. "He needs us more than we need him."

Shockingly, al-Ahmar and his troops still receive a monthly stipend to the tune of several billion Yemeni riyals — a not-so-subtle enticement from Saleh to coax him back into the fold. But the Catch-22 of Yemeni politics remains: Neither man will leave without a guarantee that the other will do the same.

Shortly after al-Ahmar’s announcement, senior Yemeni officials and the U.S. ambassador orchestrated a tense parlay between the two at the vice president’s house. Both agreed that all-out war must be avoided at all costs, and that any final solution must involve both leaving their posts. Within five minutes, President Saleh left in a huff.

The results have hardly been convincing. The general accused the president of an assassination attempt during a mediation effort by tribal elders that left four dead in March. The president blamed the general for planting powerful bombs that rocked his palace in June and left him mangled and yearning for revenge.

The knotty relationship between Saleh and al-Ahmar is at once the cause of the current problems and the key to any solution that could stave off state death in Yemen. As one Yemeni official noted, "What’s going on is not a fight between the head and the body of the regime, it’s a fight within the functions of its brain."

This article was written by FP correspondents in Yemen.

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