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Meet The General Who May Hold The Last Card In Yemen

Half-brother of Yemen's wounded president, General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar has sided with the protesters, calling for regime change. But he insists that he will find the power to do it peacefully.

The army is key to the revolution's success in Yemen (Sallam)
The army is key to the revolution's success in Yemen (Sallam)
Francois-Xavier Tregan

SANAA– His men address him with respect, calling him "Efendim," (Sir). The demonstrators calling for change prefer "Mohsen," with just a touch of fear. In Yemen, everyone knows this army officer, but only by reputation: that of a dreaded combatant, and a simple and devout man.

Indeed, this influential military chief, Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, who's also the half-brother of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, rarely shows his face in public. In one now famous appearance, he announced to Al Jazeera on March 21 that he was supporting the "revolutionaries." At the time, the movement opposing the president seemed at a turning point.

Much has happened since, most notably a June 3 assassination attempt on Saleh that sent the embattled leader to Saudi Arabia, where he is still recovering from wounds from the attack. Still, the opposition struggles to unify and force him out of power, with the vice president as acting head of state.

Ali Mohsen, the powerful commander of the northwest military zone, leads the first brigade of tanks stationed in the capital. All agree that he could have easily decided to push the "popular and peaceful demonstration" into a direct armed confrontation with the president's men. But he decided instead to deploy troops around "Change Square," the hotbed of the movement, in order to protect the protesters.

His support for the anti-regime movement sparked contradictory reactions from demonstrators. His hands were bloodied in a seven-year-long war between the Zaydi minority and the army in Northern Yemen. He is also said to be close to the Salafist movement, which longs for a return to the fundamentalist roots of Islam. He is believed to have helped the movement establish a foothold in the mountainous regions of the North.

Visit with a discreet commander

Thus, the Yemeni revolution, based on pacifism and political and religious independence, is protected by a man of war and religion. The general has become a very discreet ally.

The first tank brigade spreads across several kilometers in the strategic northern Sanaa, an area largely deserted because soldiers are mostly out in the field. The military compound is a succession of training fields and empty buildings covered with religious posters, offering a panoramic view of the mountains surrounding the capital. Only the headquarters seem alive.

We visited last Friday, where since 5:30 a.m., just after the morning prayer, General Ali Mohsen had been holding meetings in his office. In the hall, portraits of President Saleh are still hanging. Ali Mohsen has always said that official portraits won't be taken down until there's a transfer of power. The soldiers of his brigade are still being paid by the State in order not to add tension to an already difficult situation.

All of a sudden, he comes running down the stairs, jumps into a pick-up, followed by a hand-full of armed men. Thirty minutes later, he turns up in another building of the compound. "Vice-President Mansour Haddi wanted to make sure we will guarantee the cease-fire," says Mohsen, dressed in a light shirt, with no apparent stripes, and a set of automatic weapon clipsaround his waist.

This cease-fire does exist in the capital. It's been enforced for more than a week. The June 3 attack on the presidential palace triggered a wave of retaliation from pro-Saleh forces on the houses of those suspected of being responsible for the attack. Targets included the general's house, though he had immediately condemned what he called an "aggression."

Since then, shifting allegiances inside the presidential palace have come to light that have given way to a conspiracy theory about what almost cost President Saleh his life. Since taking the "revolution's' side, the general is adamant about two things: pacifism and restraint. "Our only goal is to obtain a change of regime peacefully. Despite the martyrs and the wounded, we haven't answered to all the provocations," says Mohsen, who has lost 32 men.

Even when the Al-Ahmar tribal clan, opposed to the president, suffered heavy fire in the Al-Hassabah neighborhodd, Mohsen didn't intervene, refusing to fall into "the trap of a confrontation with the army." While Saleh, more severely wounded than initially reported is still hospitalized in Riyad, Mohsen believes the revolution is at a crossroads. "We hope everyone will find a worthy and peaceful solution that will have guarantees for President Saleh, his family and the leaders of the ruling party." He believes the president will eventually sign the proposed transition agreement to leave power peacefully.

With President Saleh wounded, Vice-President Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi was named interim president and has brought renewed hopes in the revolution camp. Mohsen sees him as a "patriot and an honest man." He asks "Yemen's friends and brothers," including the United States and the Gulf countries to keep pushing for quick transfer of power. "Then, my job will be done (…) I will say goodbye to the people and I will leave."

Read the original article in French

photo - Sallam

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