Tue, March 22, 2011 | WikiLeaks
WikiLeaks: Who will succeed Saleh in Yemen?
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
After 27 years in power, President Saleh’s recent announcement that he would not seek another term in 2006 has provoked increased speculation about potential successors. There is widespread skepticism about Saleh’s intentions not to run, especially as there are few if any viable candidates. Saleh has given little indication of how he would transfer power, begging the question as to how and when such a transition might take place. The general public’s growing acceptance of democratic institutions would likely require, barring a national emergency, Saleh’s successor to take office by popular vote. At the highest levels, however, true power still derives from the military and the tribes, and the next President would have to meet with their approval. In the case of Saleh’s death or retirement prior to 2013, his successor would almost certainly be a military officer and likely a member of the President’s Sanhan tribe. Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali, is the most obvious choice, but there are considerable doubts as to his fitness for the job. Saleh has provided Yemen with relative stability relying on his maneuvering skills and strategic alliances, but has done little to strengthen government institutions or modernize the country. As a result, any succession scenario is fraught with uncertainty. Although the Yemeni public complains freely about corruption and lack of the democratic institutions necessary to establish rule of law, Yemenis generally agree that for the time being no one but Saleh can maintain the nation’s unity and stability.
Reference ID: 05SANAA2766
Created: 2005-09-17 12:12
Origin: Embassy Sanaa
S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 05 SANAA 002766
E.O. 12958: DECL: 08/20/2015 TAGS: KDEM, KMCA, KMPI, PGOV, PINR, PREL, PTER, YM, DOMESTIC POLITICS
SUBJECT: WILL SALEH’S SUCCESSOR PLEASE STAND UP?
REF: A. SANAA 1910 B. SANAA 2162 C. IIR 6906 D. SANAA 2414 E. SANAA 2022 F. SANAA 1877
Classified By: Classified By: DCM Nabeel Khoury for reasons 1.4 b and d.
¶1. (C) Summary. After 27 years in power, President Saleh’s recent announcement that he would not seek another term in 2006 has provoked increased speculation about potential successors. There is widespread skepticism about Saleh’s intentions not to run, especially as there are few if any viable candidates. Saleh has given little indication of how he would transfer power, begging the question as to how and when such a transition might take place. The general public’s growing acceptance of democratic institutions would likely require, barring a national emergency, Saleh’s successor to take office by popular vote. At the highest levels, however, true power still derives from the military and the tribes, and the next President would have to meet with their approval. In the case of Saleh’s death or retirement prior to 2013, his successor would almost certainly be a military officer and likely a member of the President’s Sanhan tribe. Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali, is the most obvious choice, but there are considerable doubts as to his fitness for the job. Saleh has provided Yemen with relative stability relying on his maneuvering skills and strategic alliances, but has done little to strengthen government institutions or modernize the country. As a result, any succession scenario is fraught with uncertainty. Although the Yemeni public complains freely about corruption and lack of the democratic institutions necessary to establish rule of law, Yemenis generally agree that for the time being no one but Saleh can maintain the nation’s unity and stability. End summary.
Saleh: The Only Game in Town
¶2. (C) On July 16, President Saleh made the dramatic announcement that he would bow out of the 2006 Presidential Election. (ref A) Few observers believe he is sincere, but Saleh’s declaration placed urgency on the question of who could succeed him as President. (Comment: Given the general belief that a viable successor will not appear before next year’s September election, Saleh may well have made his announcement simply to drive home the point. End Comment).
¶3. (C) There is no clear chain of command should the President step down, die, or become incapacitated while in office. The Vice President is only a figurehead. Other prominent leaders are generally considered to be unacceptable to one or another major tribal or regional constituency within the Republic. It seems likely that Saleh would prefer his son, Ahmed Ali, succeed him, although the heir apparent does not currently command the same respect as his father and is younger than 40, the Constitutionally mandated minimum age for assuming the Presidency. When asked for names of potential successors, Yemenis are unable to come up with a single potential candidate. Despite yearnings for a genuine democratic process, most believe that the next President will come from within Saleh’s inner circle of family and military allies.
¶4. (C) Beginning with unification in 1990, Yemen embarked on a program of limited democratic and economic reform. Nevertheless, fifteen years after unification, Saleh retains a firm grip on Yemen’s executive apparatus, using the military and government finance to exert control and distribute patronage. Saleh also dominates the judiciary through his chairing of the High Judicial Council, which has sole power to appoint and remove judges. Yemen’s Parliament is weak and the ruling GPC party has a wide majority of seats. Even opposition parties generally seek to influence the President rather than replace him.
A Deal With Two Devils
¶5. (S/NF) Despite his authoritarian tendencies, Saleh is unable to govern the country single-handedly due to tribal and regional fractures. He relies heavily on a “power sharing” arrangement with the country’s leading tribal and military figures, Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar who heads the Hashid Tribal Confederation, and Brigadier General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, Commander of the Northeastern Military District and reputedly the most powerful military man in the land. This triumvirate was formed by written agreement in 1978, following the assassination of President al-Ghushaimi. Both Mohsen and Sheikh al-Ahmar wield great influence over Presidential decision-making, but neither challenges Saleh’s presidential power directly.
¶6. (S/NF) Sheikh al-Ahmar is the 70 year-old Speaker of Parliament and head of Yemen’s largest opposition party, Islah. As head of the Hashid Confederation, Sheikh al-Ahmar heads a veritable government within the government, and is able to broker deals between the ROYG and the tribal sheikhs within his realm. Saleh’s own Sanhan tribe belongs to Hashid, making al-Ahmar the President’s tribal leader. The Hashid tribes are located largely in areas of the country considered the most unstable, including Sa’ada (base of the al-Houthi rebellion), Maarib, al-Jawf, and Amran. Al-Ahmar is considered a founding father of the modern Yemeni Republic, and uses his position as Speaker of Parliament to advance his business interests and to grandstand on foreign policy. Despite his age, al-Ahmar shows no sign of retreating from public life and his sons hold positions of prominence in Parliament, business, and tribal affairs. Moderates and serious reformers within Islah blame al-Ahmar for their party’s inability to affect change in Yemen, and many consider their leader more a part of the regime rather than an oppositionist.
¶7. (C) Ali Mohsen is between 50 and 60 years old, and is generally perceived to be the second most powerful man in Yemen. Most reports indicate Mohsen is the cousin of Saleh’s two half brothers, although there is much confusion on this matter, with some claims that he is himself a half-brother to Saleh. Ali Mohsen’s name is mentioned in hushed tones among most Yemenis, and he rarely appears in public. Those that know him say he is charming and gregarious. As Commander of the Northeast Region and the First Armored Division, Ali Mohsen acts as Saleh’s iron fist. (Note: When Saleh took power, with the help of Ali Mohsen, he held the position of Commander of the First Armored Division. End note). The area that Ali Mohsen controls includes the governorates of Sa’ada, Hodeidah, Hajja, Amran, and Mahwit, and he is more powerful than any governor. Mohsen was instrumental in the North’s victory in the 1994 civil war and in crushing the recent Sa’ada uprising. It is estimated that he controls over 50 percent of ROYG military resources and assets.
¶8. (S) This tripartite alliance has been the cornerstone of Saleh’s 27-year rule. It depends on the President’s personal relationships and history with both men. Although there have been tensions, including of late an on-again-off-again public war of words between Saleh and al-Ahmar, Saleh has remained relatively unchallenged over the course of his rule. (Note: Saleh’s two predecessors were both assassinated within one year. End note). In exchange, he has given both men a wide berth to run their affairs with informal armies, courts, and economic empires. Saleh often bows to their demands on issues such as anti-corruption and gun control, and makes direct payments from the treasury to the two men’s tribal and military constituencies. Despite the ad hoc nature of this arrangement, it has proved essential in maintaining control over this inherently tribal country. An acceptable successor to Saleh would be expected to deliver a similar level of stability.
Scenario 1: Electoral Defeat, A Near Impossibility
¶9. (C) Yemen is scheduled to hold presidential elections in the fall of 2006. Assuming the President relents to his party’s demands and runs as expected, it is extremely unlikely he will face a serious opposition challenger. Democracy activists from across the political spectrum yearn to see their next President elected through competitive elections, but none can point to a single viable candidate at this time. Islah, with a considerable mosque-based constituency to draw from, is the only party with the resources to mount a challenge to Saleh. It is, however, difficult to imagine as long as Sheikh al-Ahmar runs the party. (Note: in the last elections in 1999, Islah nominated Saleh rather than its own candidate. End Note).
¶10. (C) There have been rumblings from Islah’s rank and file about fielding a candidate, most likely through the mechanism of the opposition coalition the Joint Meeting Party (JMP). Although JMP leaders continue to insist the opposition will not nominate Saleh in 2006 and intends to back its own candidate, they lack the organization, unity, or viable national figure to succeed and are unlikely to try. Recent rhetoric has focused instead on “unity and dialogue,” pointing to a possible national unity party coalition that will endorse Saleh for another term. (ref B)
¶11. (C) There are currently three declared candidates for President: Tawfiq al-Khamri, Vice-President of the Council of Yemeni Entrepreneurs, recently announced his intention to run as the “business candidate;” Salaam al-Hakeemi who lives in exile in Cairo and was involved in a failed 1979 coup attempt; and Ahmed Noman, brother of Deputy Foreign Minister Mustafa Noman, who currently resides in London. None of these candidates represents a major political party or is considered a serious challenge to Saleh. (Note: When his brother announced his candidacy, Noman told us he received a call from Saleh who jokingly asked if the DFM would be leaving to manage the campaign. End Note).
Scenario 2: A Fresh Start in 2013
¶12. (C) Assuming Saleh wins the next election (a pretty safe assumption), his last constitutional seven-year term would expire in 2013. Considering his age and public opposition to a constitutional amendment, most Yemenis believe that they will have a new President by 2013 at the latest. Despite weak institutions and submissive political parties, democracy has permeated Yemen enough that the public will expect to choose its next President in open elections. Ahmed Ali is currently too young according to the Constitution to hold the highest office. Saleh likely plans to use the next seven years to groom his son (a la Mubarak), make him increasingly visible, and place him in positions of higher responsibility so that he will be seen as an acceptable candidate in 2013.
¶13. (C) Ahmed Ali is a colonel in the Yemeni military, and heads the Yemeni Special Operations Forces and the Republican Guard (both considered the most effective military units in the country). The majority of Yemenis, tribal and non-tribal alike, have a strong aversion to hereditary succession. Until the 20th Century, hereditary succession was forbidden by the Imamate. The Imam was required to be a Zaydi and a direct descendent of the Prophet, but the most qualified candidate was chosen by tribal consensus.
¶14. (C) These norms remain fresh for many Yemenis, and Ahmed would have to overcome the view that his accession to the presidency would be a betrayal of the republican character of the state. Election by popular vote in a viable multi-candidate election, however, would give Ahmed Ali legitimacy if Saleh can mobilize sufficient tribal and military support for his son. Faced with the absence of a viable alternative, Ahmed Ali might gain sufficient backing, but there is currently insufficient data to know if he would be able to navigate Yemen’s political complexities like his father, the “Master Balancer.” Reported feuding between the sons of Saleh and Sheikh al-Ahmar raise additional doubts as to whether the current power-sharing arrangement could be extended to the younger generation.
¶15. (C) Other potential candidates in 2013 could include one of the second generation of al-Ahmars. The most prominent of Sheikh Abdullah’s ten sons are Sadiq, the eldest, who has already been anointed to succeed his father as head of Hashid, and Hamid, who as head of the al-Ahmar group runs the family’s considerable business empire. Saleh’s nephews, Ammar and Yahya, both hold important positions in Yemen’s security establishment, but are too junior at the moment to assert themselves and play any independent political role.
Scenario 3: Coup
¶16. (S/NF) A military takeover could only realistically be launched by one of the five Area Commanders. Having himself come to power by coup, Saleh has been extremely careful to select Commanders whose loyalty is ensured by tribal bonds. Members of Saleh,s Sanhan tribe control all military districts and most high security posts, with the commanders enjoying blood and/or close ties to Saleh. The Commanders report directly to the President, outside the normal channels of the Ministry of Defense and without constitutional mandate. (ref C) They are the final authority in nearly every aspect of regional governance. In practice, they behave like tribal sheikhs and super-governors, parceling out new schools, water projects, and money. Despite periodic efforts to integrate military units, the Commanders recruit largely from regional tribes.
¶17. (C) Brigadier General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, Commander of the Northeastern region, is the most powerful of these military elites. The commander of the Eastern Area is BG Mohammed Ali Mohsen. The Eastern Area includes the governorates of Hadramawt and al-Mahra. Ali Faraj is commander for the Central Area, which includes Al-Jawf, Maarib, al-Bayda, and Shabwa, while the Southern Commander, controlling the Aden, Taiz, Lahaj, al-Dhala and Abyan, is Abd al-Aziz al-Thabet. Finally, BG Awadh bin Fareed commands the Central Area, including the capital Sanaa. With the exception of Ali Mohsen, all of these commands are subject to periodic change or shuffle.
¶18. (C) Considering the degree of loyalty that Saleh enjoys from his Commanders, it is unlikely they would launch a coup. Sanhan connections permeate the entire military, with 31 of the President’s cousins heading army units throughout the country. In the event of Saleh’s sudden demise, however, the Area Commanders would be the pool from which tribal leaders would be likely to select their next President.
Scenario 4: Sudden Death
¶19. (C) According to Yemen’s constitution, the Vice President assumes the Presidency if the position becomes vacant and holds office for a maximum of sixty days until elections can be held. In the case of Saleh’s death or incapacitation, Sheikh al-Ahmar would likely be a key player in choosing a new leader. By law, all Presidential candidates must be submitted to the Speaker of Parliament, and approved by ten percent of the legislative body. Given the short time frame, this would give al-Ahmar a pivotal role in the selection of potential candidates. The list would likely be negotiated between al-Ahmar, representing the tribes (and Parliament), and the military represented by Ali Mohsen. Citing national unity, Parliament would likely accept a consensus candidate to avoiding a messy electoral contest at a time of such potential crisis and instability.
¶20. (C) In such a case, the most likely candidate would be one of the Sanhani military commanders. Despite its prominence in the state, Sanhan is a relatively minor tribe in the Hashid Confederation. Nominating a leading figure from the Hashid elite, such as al-Ahmar or one of his sons, would infuriate the larger (but weaker) Bakil Confederation. It would also alarm Southerners, who already believe the state has been heavily infiltrated by tribes. Saleh’s relative anonymity within tribal politics, coupled with his willingness to pay the tribes handsomely for their support, was perhaps the main reason for his early success and subsequent longevity. The tribes will look to extend this arrangement by nominating another Sanhani candidate for President.
¶21. (S/NF) Ali Mohsen himself would be a leading contender, as he would be able to count on the loyal support of the military and the backing of supporters in both the GPC and Islah. Ali Mohsen’s questionable dealings with terrorists and extremists, however, would make his accession unwelcome to the U.S. and others in the international community. He is known to have Salafi leanings and to support a more radical Islamic political agenda than Saleh. (ref D) He has powerful Wahabi supporters in Saudi Arabia and has reportedly aided the KSA in establishing Wahabi institutions in northern Yemen. He is also believed to have been behind the formation of the Aden-Abyan Army, and is a close associate of noted arms dealer Faris Manna.
¶22. (S/NF) Ali Mohsen would likely face domestic as well as international opposition if he sought the Presidency. Mohsen’s reputation may have been damaged in some circles by his role in the al-Houthi rebellions. Although ultimately successful in quashing the insurgency, the campaign resulted in hundreds of fatalities, months of clashes, and earned the enmity of the northern tribes and traditional Zaydis. Yemenis generally view him as cynical and self-interested. A major beneficiary of diesel smuggling in recent years, he also appears to have amassed a fortune in the smuggling of arms, food staples, and consumer products. If he holds true to form, Mohsen would likely prefer to play kingmaker, choosing another loyal military officer to hold the Presidency.
Scenario 5: Popular Revolt
¶23. (C) Widespread discontent with corruption in the ROYG manifested itself in direct hostility towards the President and his clan during recent nationwide riots in protest of the lifting of fuel subsidies. The ROYG has never had a firm grip on tribal regions of the country, but recent developments hint at a greater degree of instability. The fuel demonstrations spread to the tribal regions of Marib and al-Jawf, and resentment there continues to simmer over what the tribes believe is neglect by the ROYG. (ref E) This followed on the heels of two al-Houthi rebellions, which in the latter stages included attacks against ROYG officials in the capital. Contacts in other regions, including Hadramawt, Aden, and Taiz, note their own discontent with ROYG corruption and mismanagement and predict renewed resistance from Southerners.
Discontent is common among Southerners, particularly in Aden, who feel that unity did not produce hoped for economic and political benefits. Instead, they complain that carpetbaggers from the north have stolen all economic opportunities in the south, and that life was better before 1990 unification. In the event of a popular revolt that gets out of hand, a strong military leader like Ali Mohsen is likely to step in to reassert order.
¶24. (C) The next few years may well bring increased upheaval around the country, especially if economic conditions continue to worsen and the ROYG fails to implement serious anti-corruption measures. (ref F) The Yemeni public, however, lacks the organization, education and motivation at this point in time to topple the Saleh regime. Many Yemenis point out that the daily practice of Qat chewing by most Yemeni men is the major impediment to affecting change through peaceful means. “As long as we care more about chewing Qat than democracy,” said one political activist sadly, “we cannot make a difference.” Yemenis are used to complaining about the Government, but they also fear widespread instability and believe it more likely to result in regional violence and balkanization than a positive change in regime.
Looking for the Status Quo
¶25. (C) Comment: President Saleh has been so successful at co-opting or eliminating his competition that few viable alternatives to his leadership exist at the moment. Those figures who exert real influence, specifically Sheikh al-Ahmar and Ali Mohsen, also have powerful enemies and prefer to be kingmakers rather than kings. Saleh’s success stems from his personal relationships and a complex network of deals and alliances. Regardless of the scenario, it is certain that the officers and sheikhs who comprise this patronage network would seek a successor who could maintain the status quo. This person would almost certainly be a Sanhani in the mold of Saleh, such as one of the Area Commanders or Ahmed Ali, if he is able to fill his father’s shoes. The status quo, however, is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain, given a declining economy, rising frustration over official corruption, and increasing U.S. and international pressures on the regime to change the way it does business. Considering these challenges, it is no wonder that even Saleh’s staunchest opponents are in no hurry to name his successor, just yet. End comment.