Earlier this week, in what appeared be a desperate attempt to remain in power, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh unleashed his guns on Sadiq al-Ahmar, leader of the powerful Hashid tribal confederation. Ahmar's gunmen in the Hasaba district of northern Sana'a appear to be holding their ground against the military's attempts to dislodge them; meanwhile, thousands of tribal reinforcements are fighting their way toward the capital from Amran, the heart of Hashid tribal territory, although they were stopped by Saleh's military on Friday.
Saleh's resort to violence represents more finely calculated politics than, for example, the desperate and vengeful attacks of Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi. By transforming the conflict from a popular people's protest movement against an autocratic leader into a military conflict between the state and leading tribal rivals, Saleh may be positioning himself and his family to remain key players in Yemen.
Hashid and Bakil are the two large tribal confederations in north Yemen that historically have been important sources of power in the country. Tribal federations are groupings of tribes, but they are loose and do not resemble a command structure. A tribal leader's power is contingent on the circumstances of the moment, and he is only powerful if his rallying cry resonates with tribesmen. Yemen's tribesmen are individuals first, concerned with their own honor and survival: If their neighbor is gaining influence, they will look for anybody who can help restore the relative balance of power, regardless of politics or ideology.
In the twentieth century, Hashid and Bakil came into particular prominence in Yemeni politics. Under Yahya, a Zaydi imam, in the first half of the twentieth century, Bakil and Hashid were known as the imam's "wings." In 1962, when Egyptian-backed Yemeni republicans overthrew the imamate, the northern tribes divided between royalists and republicans and fought a long civil war. A military stalemate eventually allowed the republic to survive. But in the process, the war empowered the northern tribes that were well supplied with weapons from competing Cold War