Divided by Yemen's Saleh: Two brothers fight on opposite sides

One brother is fighting to oust Yemen's President Saleh; the other is a proud member of his Revolutionary Guard. They respect each other, but could end up divided by civil war.

Khaled Abdullah/Reuters
A member of Yemen’s elite Republican Guard monitored a June 10 rally in support of President Saleh.

In the eyes of Hashim, an antigovernment activist and writer fond of quoting Islamic philosophers, Yemen's peaceful struggle for democracy is divinely ordained.

But his brother, a member of Yemen's elite Republican Guard, sees it differently. Ghazi says Yemen's uprising is driven not by democratic aspirations but by bandits trying to incite chaos. "They have attacked power stations, cut off supply lines to major cities," he points out.

Hashim loves and respects his brother, but challenges his loyalty to the Republican Guard, which is part of President Ali Abdullah Saleh's state military apparatus that has violently suppressed protests since soldiers opened fire on demonstrators in Feb­ruary.

Hashim recently asked him point-blank, "If you were ordered to shoot protesters, would you?"

"He said yes," recounts Hashim, seated next to Ghazi in his modest Sanaa home. "It was unbelievable."

"Of course I would shoot them," responds Ghazi, partaking of tea and a traditional stew prepared by his brother's new wife. "They are criminals and are traitors to our leader. I would follow orders."

Hashim and Ghazi, whose real names could not be used for fear of retribution, illustrate the deep fissures within Yemeni society that threaten to tear the country apart. Tribesmen, rival military factions, peaceful protesters, and even brothers may end up on opposing sides of a prolonged civil war should President Saleh or his relatives insist on retaining power.

President Saleh makes first appearance since June 3 attack

So far, the conflict has been largely contained to one powerful tribal confederation battling Saleh loyalists in the capital. While Mr. Saleh is convalescing in Saudi Arabia from a June 3 attack on his compound, his son Ahmed relaxes in the presidential palace and security forces patrol the streets.

Saleh appeared publicly last night for the first time since the June attack, giving a prerecorded interview on Yemen TV. He offered, not for the first time, to share power under a constitutional framework approved by the people, but also struck a note of defiance – saying he would "confront a challenge with a challenge." He said he had undergone eight surgeries; his face appeared darker than normal, possibly from severe burns, and his arms were heavily bandaged.

As Saleh's condition and Yemen's economic stability become more uncertain, the conflict could spread. Some say that Ahmed has neither the credibility nor the connections to hold the fractured nation together as his father did, though he and his cousin Yahya, commander of the security forces, may well try.

"Saleh's boys don't have a chance at ruling Yemen," says Yemeni political analyst Abdul Ghani al-Iryani. "Even with all of Saleh's skills and connections, he was losing control of the country. However, ... should Ahmed or [Saleh's] nephew Yahya feel his exit is dishonorable, they may be compelled to take up arms against all that oppose their patriarch."

Powerful tribes, powerful state media

Throughout Yemen's modern history, no imam or president has ever been able to take on the tribes. North Yemen's third president, Socialist Party leader and Army officer Ibrahim Al-Hamdi, was assassinated when he attempted to strip power from Yemen's tribes.

Many in rural areas, such as the northern mountain village where Hashim and Ghazi grew up, strongly support Saleh, who has held the country together for 32 years.

Their father is one of them. Like many rural residents in this deeply impoverished country, he can't afford satellite TV and so depends solely on state-run radio and TV for his news.

"It's not his fault that he supports the regime; he is bombarded with government propaganda on a daily basis and has been for most of his life," says Hashim.

Two paths to a better life

It was in this village, where their father still toils in the fields to grow khat, corn, peanuts, and other vegetables, that both brothers developed aspirations for a better life.

Hashim saw education as his ticket, earning a bachelor's degree in Eng­lish literature. For Ghazi, serving in one of Yemen's most elite military units fulfilled his sense of adventure.

"You must be invited to join the Republican Guard. An officer sends a letter to the local council," the governing body of a tribal village, "with a list of names. Those people get to join," says Ghazi, who at first failed to make the cut.

"He walked up and down the mountain to the military camp every day for a month. Finally, someone vouched for him and he was invited to join," says Hashim.

But now, Ghazi's role in enforcing Saleh's tentative hold over the country is a major point of contention between the brothers.

"Ghazi's belief in loyalty to a leader instead of to a nation or a people is a symptom of Yemen's tribal government," Hashim explains. "We want to be rid of this tribal patronage system and institute a civil state."

Respect between two brothers on opposite sides

There seems to be no bitterness or hostility between the brothers, however.

"He's dead wrong," says Hashim, "But I love and respect him and he respects me as well."

Hashim also feels sorry for his brother. "The Republican Guard are paid 30,000 Yemeni riyals [about $150] per month. He is just being used by this regime," says Hashim.

Hashim tries desperately to convince his family that Saleh is a dictator and a criminal and that it is their religious duty to institute freedom and democracy in Yemen.

"Every Friday, I invite my brother to come pray with me at Change Square so he can see that the Yemeni people yearn to be free," says Hashim. Gha­zi replies: "I can only tell him that if he goes, he has to go without me."

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