Local News Political Analysis

President Saleh, Ali Muhsin, and the Lost Inner Circle

General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, center

President Saleh has ruled over Yemen for thirty-two years, which is the longest period for a president since the revolution in 1962.

Saleh was able to deal with the structure of tribal Yemeni society and to lead coalitions to eliminate or exclude his political opponents.

Ruling Yemen for over three decades has not been an easy task — it is a “dance on the heads of snakes,” according to Saleh’s own phrase.

In spite of the crises he has witnessed during his ruling period, still he always seemed to maintain control through the tribal and military alliances  that have been cultivated for decades.

Accession to the Presidency

After assuming responsibility over Taiz governorate, Saleh became one of the most prominent, influential figures in North Yemen.

His tenure coincided with the presidency of Ibrahim al-Hamdy, who ruled Yemen starting from 1974and adopted a new revolutionary agenda and alleviated the prevailing tension with South Yemen and sought a  reconciliation, in addition to embracing a socialist vision for the development of North Yemen.

On October 11th, 1979 al-Hamdy was assassinated along with his brother in mysterious circumstances prior to his travel to the south to Sign an agreement on the unification of Yemen.

He and his brother were found dead in a hotel room with two dead French women and bottles of wine – the case remains unsolved.

Ahmed al-Ghashmi who ruled Yemen after al-Hamdy, ruled Yemen for less than one year and was assassinated after less than a month after al-Hamdy’s killing, then president Saleh became member of the presidency board of the Yemeni Arabian Republic, then was elected unanimously to be the president and supreme leader of the Yemeni armed forces.

Maintaining the Office

Saleh counted on his family members to manage military, security institutions and he granted his brothers critical military positions such as over the air force, armored divisions, and the republican guard.

He also included people from his home region and hired them in the army and in other important positions, among them al-Ahmar, al-Danin, and Al-Magulah and granted other prominent personalities from different regions other military, security and civil positions.

Four major alliances have propped up Saleh’s regime since he assumed power in 1978.

First among them was with the sheikh of Hashed tribe Abdullah Bin Hussein Al-Ahmar, head of House of Representatives, who ensured Saleh’s legitimacy and cash flow when he opened the way for him to Saudi Arabia and its support.

As much was stated in the late sheikh’s diaries, in which he also mentioned the way which Saleh reached the presidency through the support of the sheikh and the Saudi Kingdom in Jeddah in 1978, and stood by him in wars in the central regions and the war of 1979 and the 1994 civil war.

Moreover, the Sheikh’s support was a great boon to Saleh in the hotly contested 2006 elections.

His Second ally was General Major Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, who contributed to his rule through military power and profound links to the tribes.

Ali Mohsen is known by his loyalty and generosity and was one of the most prominent allies of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and was known as his “right hand” who helped him to extend his influence throughout the country.

Ali Mohsen emerged as a strong  man from the beginning of Saleh’s rule and was known for his strictness in combatting the military coup of the Nasserite Party in Yemen under the leadership Isa Mohammed Saif.

Also, his leadership was key in preventing the coup to take over Sanaa when the president was on a visit to Hodeida and Khalid ibn al-Walid camp in Taiz Governorate.

He also led the fighting in Sa’ada during for wars against the Shiite leader Hussein Badr ad-Deen al-Huthi, who announced his rebellion against the state, and mobilized his supporters to confront the army, which ended with his death in September 2004.

Third are the military leaders among his relatives, most prominently the leader Mohammed Ismaeel, Ahmed Faraj, Mahdi Maqula, Mohammed Mohsen Al-Ahmar, Mohammed Saleh Alahmar and others who were prominent leaders of the air force.

Fourth is the Socialist Ali Nasser Mohammed (former President of South Yemen), who halted fighting between the North and South since he took power and sought to the Yemen to solidify the unity, as he stopped military activity and ended the battles in the central region during the 1994 war.

At this time, the system in Sana’a was subject to collapse at the hands of the National Front which ruled Taiz, Ibb and Al-Baida, Marib and Al-Jouf.  Thus he contributed to stability in northern Yemen, and oil and gas investment in Safer.

Then the January events took place and thousands of soldiers and civilians emigrated to north of Yemen to enhance Saleh’s regime.  Ali Nasser and his loyalist forces  also helped to regain the yemeni unity and without them access to Aden would have been impossible in July,7th,1994.

Who is Ali Abdullah Saleh?

Saleh was born on March 21st, 1942 in Bait Al-Ahmar village in Sanhan, Sana’a governorate to a poor family after his parents’ divorce.

He worked as a shepherd and received his early education in the village, then quit the village in 1958 to join the army at the age of sixteen.

He joined the Officer’s School of the Armed Forces in 1960 and participated in the events of the revolution of September 26th, 1963 and was promoted to the rank of second lieutenant.

Saleh also and participated with the rebels in the defense of the Revolution during the “siege of seventy” When the royalists surrounded Sana’a for 70 days and the Republicans were victorious.

Later he joined the Armor School in 1964 to specialize in mechanized combat, and then assumed leadership tasks in the field of fighting in the same specialty.

Saleh was known for his bravery, and was a troublemaker and was subjected to military sanction several times without fear; on the contrary, this appeared to only raise his courage which impressed his superiors and was promoted in the army ranks quickly.

In 1975 Saleh became the military commander of the Taiz brigade and camp commander of Khalid bin al-Walid camp, which gained him great influence.

Saleh also represented the Yemen Arab Republic in several forums outside the country.


Yemeni unity was the overriding concern for all Yemenis, including President Saleh; it was within the objectives of the revolutions of both North and South.
During the years that separate the two revolutions, the leaders of the two sides did not stop meeting and scheduling strategies for unity.

The final agreement was to be soon signed several times, yet stopped by the differences between the Northern and Southern regimes, among them the socialist and capitalist camps as well as the Saudi Arabia, which opposed the plan.

After the killing of Salim Rabi’ Ali, the southern system suffered problems and violent disturbances that calmed down relatively in the years of separation between the North and the South when Ali Nasser Mohammed assumed the presidency of south.

The parties continued their convergence toawrd Unity and increased convergence after the governance of Ali Nasser Mohammed in the South, who started his campaign of openness.

This strategy made the radicals split, led by the Northerner Abdul Fattah Ismaeel and others.

As a result of differing visions, a war took place in January 13 against President Ali Nasser Mohammed.  A Russian intervention was in favor of the radicals and led to the departure of Ali Nasser, along with nearly twenty thousand refugees to the North, and Ali Salem Albeidh assumed control in the South.

Saleh took the advantage of the war and refused to side with any side, which ended with the collapse of the socialist dreams in the South. Saleh visited the South after the war, where he was enthusiastically welcomed.  His abstention from the conflict and his relative popularity allowed him to reap the fruits of the efforts at unification made by leaders who had preceded on both sides of the divide.

Then the final steps toward unity were initiated and final agreements were resolved.

One of the conditions the South was the final exit out of Ali Nasser Mohammed from Yemen, and on 22nd of May 1990 leaders of North and South announced the establishment of unity, and the declaration was signed by Saleh and Al-Beidh.

Under the unification agreement the two parts became one, and Ali Abdullah Saleh became president and Ali Salem Al-Beidh his vice-president and General People’s Congress party and the Socialist party had equal share of a supposedly balanced power.

After he fell out with many of his traditional allies, Saleh’s managerial style became more paranoid, and he started nominating his sons and the sons of his brother Mohammed to key positions.

He appointed his son Ahmed instead Ali Saleh Al-Ahmar as the Republican Guard leader and appointed his brother’s sons Yahya head of the Central Security, and his nephew Tariq as a commander of the private guards, and Ammar an agent for the National Security Agency, and recently his son Khaled as leader First mountain infantry division.

Last Ally Lost

A secret memo issued by the U.S. embassy in Riyadh released by wikileaks indicated that Ali Abdullah Saleh tried to have Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the strong man of the army and Saleh’s most prominent military aid, killed during clashes with Shi’ite rebels in 2010.

The operation was canceled when the Saudis warned their fighter pilots that they were about to hit the headquarters of Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar.  It seems Saleh was caught trying to get rid of a potential adversary.

This document was capable of raising a rift between President Saleh and Major General Ali Mohsen, and indicated that Ali Mohsen appeared to stand against the inheritance of the presidency.

Arguments between the two reached to breaking point, particularly after the claim of the Ministry of Defense to move the central leadership of the first armored divisions, previously located in Sana’a, to Amran, which led to the departure of Ali Mohsen to Germany briefly.

This departure enabled the president to further weaken the division, as part of his position as the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.  He ordered the transfer of most heavy equipment from the stores to the leadership of the Republican Guard.

Having fulfilled his purpose, Saleh paid a visit to ask him to return along with his half-brother. Ali Mohsen was reportedly was reportedly taken aback by the degradation of his forces, and aked Saleh on how he could have so aggressively singled out his unit and depleted their abilities.

Pro-Regime to Pro-Revolution

Major General Ali Mohsen kept waiting for the opportunity to strike back at Saleh and ensure his own survival, till he managed to utilize the rest of the division’s forces for the purpose of protecting youth revolution in the change square.

This likely came as a shock to the president.  Or, as some have theorized, the move as an artifice by Saleh, who ordered the division to protect the youth protesters after the massacre on Friday and a loss of confidence in the security establishment.

In reality however, it seems that years of slights, insults, and tricks by the Saleh and his inner circle had finally succeeded in alienating the strong man, and ensuring that he had little choice in preserving his position except through joining the protestors.

Some believe that the revolution was a great boon to ​ General Ali Mohsen and his followers and the political exiles, past and present, especially among the military leaders.

These days, they gather in their meetings and Qat sessions marvelling at their newfound interests and opportunities, and seeking to coax or convince their peers into defecting against Saleh.

Soldiers and leaders were divided by Saleh’s allies, and were united by the revolution in Change square in Sana’a, which received dozens of soldiers from the army and security forces who declared their resignations and joining of the young protests.

Among them are Captain Yahya Mohammed Ismaeel, son of the east military division chief Major Mohammed Ahmed Ismaeel.

Also, the leader of the east region Major Mohammad Ali Mohsen refused to turn over the leadership of his unit after a replacement was appointed for him by the authorities after he announced his joining with the revolution.

Military sources confirmed the appointment of Major Ahmed Saeed Bin Braik as the new leader of the eastern area according to the website of the Ministry of Defense, the “26th of September.”  The paper also noted that Colonel Hussein has also been appointed   commander of the Fifteenth Infantry Brigade.

These appointments come after the appointments of Major General Mohammad Ali Mohsen as eastern commander, Brigadier Thabet Muthanna Jawas as Major Brigadier of the Fifteenth Infantry Brigade of the Revolution of peaceful young people.

A replacement was also named for the air base commander Brigadier General Ahmad  al-Sanhani in Hodeida, who announced joining the youth revolution in change square.

Finding a Way Out

President Saleh’s regime, which lasted for almost thirty three years, has depended on allies and the consolidation of his rule around an inner circle.

Now, he has lost most of his allies as well as large swaths of territory in the North and South.  The coincidence of regional upheaval with the strained relations between the president and his allies has blown up in Saleh’s face – with no friends, and no sure regional order to refer to, he finds himself facing his greatest challenge almost alone.

Sanhan Tribe’s Rifts

The divisions within Ali Saleh and Ali Muhsin’s tribe of Sanhan have grown and expanded after Saleh’s younger relatives boys were promoted and prospered expanded at the expense of the president’s traditional allies and leaders.
Not only leadership positions in military establishment were allocated to this new generation, but key economic and financial positions.

Still, elders of the tribe were treated well enough to enable the president to seek a mediation among Ali Mohsen’s relatives, especially after he joined the revolution, in order to convince him to abandon the First Armored Division’s newfound anti-government stance.

Ali Mohsen considered the subsequent mediation attempt as a ploy by the president to assassinate him, which resulted to the killing of four of the prominent mediators and the wounding more than seventy people.

Predictably, the government retorted, accusing Ali Muhsin of laying an ambush for the mediators and deliberately killing them.