Saleh, learning from centuries of Ottoman failures, knew from the outset of his reign that any attempt to subjugate the tribes would end in disaster. After all, it was Yemen’s most beloved and powerful tribal figure, the late Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar, who led the parliamentary vote that made Saleh president of the Yemen Arab Republic in 1978.
From that day, he made allies of northern Yemen's two most powerful tribal confederations, the Hashid confederation of which his own Sanhan tribe is a part, and the Bakil confederation.
Saleh has not held onto power solely through brute force and terror but through the patronage of tribal leaders – giving them money and political positions in exchange for loyalty.
But Saleh's hold over the tribes has completely disintegrated since the youth uprising began. Sheikh Hamid-al-Ahmar – an opposition politician, millionaire businessman, and son of Abdullah al-Ahmar – immediately expressed his support for the revolution and joined those calling for an end to Saleh’s rule.
In March, his eldest brother – Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, the titular head of the Hashid confederation – voiced his support for the youth revolution as well. Two other brothers also defected that month: Hussein bin Abdullah al-Ahmar, who was a member of Saleh's ruling party, and Himywar al-Ahmar, deputy speaker of parliament.
Now the Ahmar family is leading battles against government military units, resulting in the worst fighting seen in the capital since the 1960s.
Saleh's disparate opponents
Saleh’s rule over the unified Republic of Yemen has been troubled since 1994, when a civil war broke out just four years after he unified North Yemen with the socialist south. While Saleh's forces prevailed in that war, the southern secessionist movement gained strength over the following decade.