There aren't many foreigners traveling to Sanaa these days, but one group of outsiders is getting a lot of attention: an FBI forensics team, which reportedly arrived last week to investigate the attempted assassination of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is now convalescing in Saudi Arabia.
Evidence from the scene indicates that the explosion may have been caused by a device that was planted inside the mosque on the presidential compound, and not by a mortar shell or rocket, as was initially reported. If true, this means that someone with close access to the president was involved, which raises the question of why members of the Yemeni regime's inner circle -- set to mark its 33rd anniversary in power next month -- now appear intent on destroying each other?
To answer this question, it is necessary to look beyond the protests that have called for Saleh's resignation and instead look at the premises of the political settlement that has held the inner circle together for so long.
The first spectacular rupture within the group came on March 21, when Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar publicly defected from the Saleh regime three days after snipers gunned down peaceful protesters in Sanaa, killing more than 50 people. Ali Mohsen is the country's most powerful military leader and a distant cousin of Saleh. A fight between the two men has been simmering for at least a decade; empathy for the protesters was certainly not the only factor contributing to Ali Mohsen's decision to jump ship. The rivalry between the two former allies was probably more decisive.
By joining the opposition movement, Ali Mohsen and other defectors from the regime have not necessarily heralded a new era for the Yemeni people. Instead, they appear to be settling old scores.
The inner workings of Saleh's Yemen are incredibly opaque. Think of a series of concentric circles with him at their center: That's the regime. Tightly wrapped around the president in the next circle are his close relatives (sons, nephews, half brothers, cousins, and in-laws), and slightly further away is the elite of the Sanhan tribe, to which both Saleh and Ali Mohsen belong. These three circles, consisting of perhaps 50 or so people in total, constitute the regime's inner circle. Some of its members control the country's most sensitive military positions, including those charged with counterterrorism operations in close cooperation with the United States. All have enjoyed the benefits of being deeply enmeshed in the country's formal and informal economy.
The regime has intentionally kept the names of most members of the inner circle out of the public realm, and until several years ago even Saleh's last name -- Afaash -- was treated as though it were a state secret. The likely reason: The name revealed that Saleh is not a sheikh and does not come from a respected tribal pedigree. Moreover, his name also revealed that Ali Mohsen actually sits above the president in the Sanhan tribal hierarchy.