By Barak Barfi
With the departure of Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh, the local political scene has become a battle of the sons.
Saleh’s firstborn son Ahmed is now locked in a contest with the progeny of the country’s late paramount tribal chief, Abdallah al-Ahmar, who passed away in 2007.
Their emergence as the key players in Yemen does not portend a peaceful resolution to the country’s impasse. The sons lack their fathers’ keen political talent, which provided a country historically wracked by violence and insecurity a modicum of stability for the past 33 years.
From Libya to Syria, the sons of long-time leaders have taken the lead in shaping the future of their countries. But they have proved far less skilled at reading the region’s prevailing winds than their fathers.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sold his country to the Iranians and their Lebanese Shi’i client Hezbollah, sacrificing the influence his father Hafiz had so carefully cultivated over three decades.
In Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak’s son Jamal hastened his father’s downfall by allowing his corrupt business friends to turn the country’s state coffers into their own personal bank accounts.
But it is in Yemen that the failures of the second generation are most pronounced and perilous.
In a nation where the threat of violence is a component of conflict resolution, political miscalculations can have vast repercussions. And with Saleh’s son and al-Ahmar’s children lacking their fathers’ tact, they risk exacerbating a conflict that has all but crippled the country.
Since February when protesters began demanding that President Saleh resign, al-Ahmar’s sons and successor as head of the Hashid tribal confederation has exhibited an audacious streak that contrasted with his father’s subdued and temperate policies. A French journalist who interviewed the elder al-Ahmar described him as “an ambiguous person who prefers to exercise power rather than exhibit it.”
Abdallah never allowed ideology to dictate his policies. Though a tribal chief, he supported a 1962 republican revolution that deposed a monarchy that privileged the country’s clans.
Though head of the opposition, he established a condominium arrangement with the president dividing the country’s portfolios between them. Al-Ahmar acted as a quasi-Foreign Minister by handling relations with Yemen’ s Persian Gulf neighbors and managed the country’s tribal affairs. Together, the elder Saleh and al-Ahmar successfully navigated the tempestuous waters that sunk a number of Yemen’s former leaders.
Today, al-Ahmar’s sons risk torpedoing their father’s accomplishments. Lacking their elder’s political astuteness, they have been far too overt with their ambitions for power.
Worse, their public criticisms of the president have exceeded the limits established by their judicious father. In a 2009 interview with the pan-Arab news channel al-Jazeera, Abdallah’s son Hamid unleashed a scathing attack against the president, calling for “changing the government in Yemen by substituting a government more beneficial to Yemenis, a government that can protect its citizens. This government neglected their stability.”
The conduct of Sadiq, al-Ahmar’s son who succeeded him as head of the Hashid tribal confederation, has been just as brazen during the three months of protests that have rocked Yemen.
He has spared no effort in trying to bring down Saleh, including providing for the protesters’ material needs in the makeshift camps all over Yemen. He has accused the government of waging an assassination campaign against its opponents.
By effectively declaring war on the president, the al-Ahmars unraveled the fragile tribal-republican modus vivendi their father carefully cultivated with Saleh. Convinced they were spearheading the campaign to remove him, Saleh finally responded last week by shelling their family compound.
Much like the al-Ahmars, the president son’s Ahmed has also failed to grasp the intricacies of Yemen’s delicate power balance. Raised as a privileged son of the country’s small elite, he did not experience the same “trial by fire” that gave his father the shrewd political skills to shepherd the country through successive crises.
But even in this world, Ahmed has faltered. He failed out of the prestigious British military academy Sandhurst, where Persian Gulf leaders send their children. Elected to parliament in 1997, he showed no interest in legislative affairs and is said to have never attended its sessions. Instead, he pursued various business interests and attended Formula One races.
Though he ended his political career after one parliamentary term, he still aspired to succeed his father as Yemen’s president. These ambitions put him on a collision course with the country’s main power broker, General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar (who is of no relation to Sadiq and Hamid).
As Saleh paved the way for his son to take over by making him head of the Presidential Guard, he simultaneously marginalized the general by removing his supporters from key military posts.
But Ahmed went even further. Lacking his father’s calculated and calibrated tactics, he clashed with al-Ahmar’s units and prevented his takeover of key government institutions. Al-Ahmar saw his influence in the country diminishing at the expense of Ahmed’s ambitious exploits. So when the president’s grip on power loosened, the general decided to settle accounts with the Saleh family by throwing his lot in with the protesters. In doing so, he signaled the death knell of the Saleh era.
Today, it is these sons who rule the country with General al-Ahmar lurking in the background. Having fueled the current conflict by fraying the tribal and military alliances that propped up the fragile country, Ahmed and the al-Ahmar brothers are in no position to rescue the nation from its current malaise. For without their fathers’ political acumen and vision, it is unlikely that they can put aside their overblown ambitions to reach an accord that will end the violence destabilizing Yemen.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Barak Barfi.- for the CNN
Editor’s Note: Barak Barfi is a research fellow with the New America Foundation.