The Yemeni Opposition’s strong man [Archives:2007/1115/Opinion]

December 27 2007

Dr. Abdullah Al-Faqeh
Hameed bin Abdullah bin Hussein Al-Ahmer, now at the age of 40, has become one of Yemen's most influential men. This huge achievement is only partially due to being born into one of Yemen's most powerful families)Al-ahmer family of the Hashed tribal confederation. His father Abdullah bin Hussein Al-Ahmer, was and still is the paramount leader of the Hashid confederation. Senior Al-ahmer is still, at least nominally, the Speaker of the Yemeni House of Representatives (HR). He is also the most respected living revolutionist. For more than four decades, senior Al-ahmer has been known as the presidents' maker and breaker, but he never sought the highest office for himself.

Hameed Al-ahmer was born in an era of turmoil not only in north and south Yemen but also in the Arab world. In less than a decade, senior Al-ahmer lost his father and a very bright brother to the cause of political change. In addition, the battle between the republicans and the royalists was still raging. In such a political environment, Hameed was named after his politically ambitious, popular, and talented uncle, who was executed by the Imam.

While it was extremely rare for the sons of sheiks to worry about education during the 1970s and the 1980s, Hameed had a personal inclination to education. It was something inside him that led the son of this powerful, albeit traditional, family to educate himself to the best possible. As a youth, Hameed would travel to the U.S to spend summers where he would stay with an American family in order to learn English.

In the early 1990s, Hameed, who is now a fluent speaker of English, attended Sana'a University and earned a bachelor degree in economics with honors. Like his other brothers, Hameed must have enjoyed the support of his rich and powerful family. Unlike his brothers and most sons of Yemeni sheiks, however, he opted for the hard way in life.

One of his professors privately conveyed to the author that he used to double check Hameed's exams to search for mistakes. The professor was afraid that people would not believe that a son of sheik Al-ahmer would get a full grade in an economic course. One of the students who attended school at that time said that Hameed, who would usually be followed with many armed bodyguards, would reach the gate of the College of Trade and Economics and hand over his small gun to the university police in order to keep it for him until he picks it up on his way out from classes.

The late professor of economics at Sana'a University and the founder and then publisher of the Yemen Times Dr. Abdulaziz Al-Saqqaf interviewed Hameed, the young entrepreneur, in one the early issues of Yemen Times. That interview reflected a professor's fondness of a young man who seemed keen on making a difference in the life of his country and people. But late professor Al-Saqqaf himself might not have thought that Hameed in a few years over a decade would become one of Yemen's most achieving businessmen, owning icons such as Sabafone)a cellular telecom with more than a million and a half subscribes)the Islamic Bank of Saba, and at least a dozen other businesses.

But Hameed is not only a brilliant businessman. He is also a courageous, diligent, innovative, and goal oriented politician. Capitalizing on the power and influence of his family, Hameed was elected to the Yemeni HR for the first time in 1993, reelected in 1997 and again in 2003. It is worth noting that while Hameed's older brother)Saddiq)remained politically independent and his younger brother Hussein joined the ruling General People's Congress (GPC), Hameed from the onset ran on the ticket of the party presided over by his father)the Yemeni Congregation for Reform)which is known by its short Arabic name Islah (meaning reform).

It was no coincidence that Hameed would find himself after a decade and a half of multi-partisan politics as one of the top leaders of Islah which is unequivocally the largest opposition party in the country. It is very likely that senior Al-Ahmer, a father of many sons and daughters, and one of the most shrewd politicians in today's Yemen had saw in Hameed)his second son)what it takes to inherit his father's powerful political role. It is also worth noting that the rise of the political star of Hameed has paralleled the gradual withdrawal of senior Al-ahmer from political life partially due to deteriorating health conditions.

Whereas senior Al-Ahmer has been most of the time out of the country for treatment and rehabilitation over the past few years, junior Al-ahmer has been calling the shots in his father's place. While not outsider to politics, Hameed's rise to the nation's top rank of outspoken politicians took place in the last three years. His acquisition of an important political role coincided with many developments in the Yemeni political scene. For one, the old alliance between senior Al-ahmer and President Saleh started filtering. The immediate causes are many but the single, and probably most significant long-term cause, is a struggle over power among the younger generation of the Hashid confederation. For another, senior Al-ahmer as said earlier has been gradually withdrawing from public life partially for health and partially for political reasons.

And, regardless of the causes of the rift between senior Al-ahmer and President Saleh, politics in Yemen seems to have dramatically changed over the past few years thanks to Hameed's entrepreneur skills, political ambition, and determination. It is widely believed that Hameed has played a vital role in solidifying the opposition's stand against Saleh in September 2006 presidential elections. At that time, Saleh, with no signs of credible competitor in the horizon, had hoped for a smooth renewal of his term in office. To his dismay, junior Al-ahmer surprised him with a fierce elections' battle that attracted the attention of friends and foes.

While accompanying the Joint Meeting Parties' presidential candidate engineer Faisal bin Shamlan in his camping trail across Yemen, Hameed seemed to have redefined the contemporary politics of Yemen. He proved the old slogan of tribal politics, which states “my nephew and I are against the outsider,” to be inaccurate. The most telling moment, probably in the politics of modern Yemen, occurred in the summer of 2006 when Hameed with the support of some of his brothers mobilized tens of thousands of Hashid's tribesmen for the opposition parties' presidential candidate bin Shamlan's campaign stop in the city of Amran to the north of the capital of Yemen)Sana'a.

It is true that Saleh is the one who decided to shift from the politics of consensus to the politics of competition. It is truer, however, that junior Al-ahmer is the one who defined what the politics of competition looks like today and will look like in the future. And, while the door for reconciliation of differences among the younger generation of Hashid is not completely closed, the likelihood of reconciliation and a return to the politics of consensus seems remote. The best the sons of Hashid can hope for in the future is not the impossible return to the politics of consensus, but the attainable goal of acceptance of the right and legitimacy of the role of each other.

Hameed, who is widely perceived among the opposition)specially the youth)as their strong man, repeatedly asserts that he is ready for the long haul of political competition and struggle. In response, the regime has been keen on targeting him. Since he openly started opposing Saleh's rule and policies and calling for deeper and comprehensive political reforms, the regime has reacted hastily, using state institutions, resources, and public media outlets to undermine his flourishing businesses, and to tarnish his reputation. But despite being subjected to all types of harassment, Hameed seems to be undeterred. In a recent interview, Hameed, an optimist and a strong motivator, told his supporters and opponents too that he is ready to pay the price for the cause he believes in.

Some of Hameed's friends, however, fear for his life. One of his proponents wrote a long article in 2005 asking “will Hameed become the Harairi of Yemen?” referring to assassinated businessman and prime minister of Lebanon Mr. Rafiq Al-harairi. For those who know him well, the fate of his late uncle at the hands of the Imam raises a legitimate concern.

Unlike his friends, Hameed prefers to look at the bright side of events. After all, the heinous murder of his ambitious uncle and grandfather led his father to mobilize the Hashid tribes, normally supporters of the Imam, to the side of the revolution when it broke out in north Yemen in 1962. The efforts of his father, family, and tribesmen eventually led to the permanent demise of the Imamate's 11 centuries' rule. “We are now better off” said Hameed, in a recent interview, comparing the conditions of opposition leaders today to those of the 1960s revolutionaries in the southern and northern parts of Yemen.

The author is a professor of politics at Sana'a University. For comments, please email the author at: [email protected]