Tribes, politics and guns in Yemen

National politics or tribal politics? In Yemen it's often difficult to tell the difference, as illustrated by a violent spat on Saturday involving Hamid al-Ahmar, one of the most outspoken opposition MPs, and Nu'man Duwaid, the governor of Sana'a province.

Al-Ahmar is a prominent figure in the Hashid tribe – his father, besides being speaker of parliament and head of the Islah party, was paramount chief of the Hashid and, in his day, the most important tribal figure in Yemen.

Governor Duwaid, meanwhile, is a sheikh of the Khawlan tribe and a member of President Salih's party.

At a political rally last week, Duwaid accused al-Ahmar of having gained his wealth from looting public property. This was deemed as an insult to the honour of the Hashid tribe and Duwaid's Khawlan tribe duly apologised "according to the tribal norms".

On Saturday, though, armed supporters of al-Ahmar arrived at Duwaid's house in four vehicles and opened fire, killing one bystander and injuring three others. The Yemen Observer reports: "The governor’s security were able to get two of the four cars and confirmed to the interior ministry that they belong to Hamid al-Ahmar."

A statement from the ruling General People's Congresscondemned the attack as "a terrorist act violating the conduct of difference in opinion, the values, laws and norms and traditions of the Yemeni people" and called for those involved to be brought to justice.

Later that evening, as al-Ahmar returned from a meeting of the Preparatory Committee for National Dialogue (which he chairs), his guard spotted a pickup truck bearing an official licence plate,according to Arab News: 

"When his guards went away from the house, more than 30 gunmen opened fire at them. No one was hurt in the attack and the Ministry of Interior was notified about the incident."

Al-Ahmar (profiled here in the Yemen Times) has been prominent among those calling for President Salih to step down. In a TV interview last month, he described the ruling party's efforts to change the constitution and abolish presidential term limits as "political dementia". 

The Hashid are a force to be reckoned with in Yemen. The Yemen Times article notes:

"The heinous murder of [Hamid al-Ahmar's] ambitious uncle and grandfather led his father to mobilise 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."

Among his many business interests, al-Ahmar owns Sabafon, a mobile phone company which has been providing a messaging service for anti-Salih protesters.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 Feb 2011