SANAA – When Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh ordered his military on March 18 to fire on peaceful protesters calling for his resignation, he sealed his fate. A wave of military, government, and diplomatic defections, led by his long-time ally First Armored Brigade Commander General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, rocked his regime.
But, although al-Ahmar announced that he was appalled by the use of force and vowed to defend the constitution, his decision was anything but altruistic. The disgruntled general, who has long-standing ties to the type of jihadists that the United States is battling in Yemen, merely sought to settle a score with the president’s family.
The relationship between al-Ahmar and Saleh extends to their youth, with Saleh’s mother having had a second marriage to al-Ahmar’s uncle. Though they are not half-brothers, this frequent, if mistaken reference, indicates their closeness. Al-Ahmar has long been considered either Saleh’s right hand man or the country’s hidden president. When the Nasserite party attempted to overthrow Saleh less than 100 days into his presidency, al-Ahmar defended him and quashed the coup. In 1994, his units put down a secessionist movement in the south.
But, as Saleh prepared the way for his son Ahmad – the head of the Presidential Guard – to succeed him, he began to marginalize al-Ahmar. In 2009, Saleh sacked al-Ahmar’s key backers, including Central Command Chief General al-Thahiri al-Shadadi and Lieutenant General Haydar al-Sanhani, from power.