Yemen's Power Wedding

When the sons of Yemen's most powerful tribal leaders tie the knot, it's not only a marriage -- it's a chance for a show of strength that nobody in Sanaa can ignore. 

SANAA, Yemen — Generally speaking, it's hard to imagine anything more mind-numbing than watching a bunch of people discuss how they're going to hand out wedding invitations. But, as I sat at the home of Sheikh Himyar al-Ahmar earlier this month, watching the deputy speaker of Yemen's parliament and about a dozen others, ranging from fellow tribal leaders to his brothers' office staff, fiercely debate the intricacies of how to handle that very task, I was fascinated to the point of embarrassment.

The discussions focused on which guests would have their invitations delivered personally, and who would ultimately give them to whom. But it wasn't the topic itself as much as the prominence of those involved that interested me. Names of key power brokers were dropped by the minute; sitting silently, I wondered if it was possible to divine clues into something more substantial from this glimpse into the mundane inner-workings of Yemen's elite.

Six days later, the marriages of two of the sons of Sheikh Himyar's brother, fellow politician Sheikh Hamid al-Ahmar, would be marked in a reception attended by thousands of guests. The event contradicted the stereotypes that paint Yemeni society as perpetually on the brink of devolving into a nationwide blood feud, providing a glimpse of the cultural mechanisms that hold it together despite its many fractures

Even among Yemen's many prominent tribal families, the Ahmar clan occupies a special status. Its late patriarch, Sheikh Abdullah bin Hussein al-Ahmar, was arguably the most powerful and respected tribal leader of his generation -- popular memory places his influence as second only to that of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, with whom he was allied until the former's death in 2007. The eldest of the late tribal leader's 10 sons, Sheikh Sadiq, succeeded him as head of the Hashid tribal confederation, but even among his prominent siblings, Sheikh Hamid often seems to get the bulk of the attention.

His father's name alone guaranteed Sheikh Hamid prominence since birth. But he has done more than simply coast on his father's legacy: His business empire is so vast that even activists who accuse him of corruption are users of his cell-phone carrier. And his political prominence is at least partially owed to his willingness to break with the rest of the family: Hamid was the first of his brothers to come out against Saleh, doing so while his father was still alive. His blunt calls for a shakeup earned him the ire of the former president and his allies, who accused the sheikh of simply seeking power for himself. Many Saleh loyalists accused him of orchestrating the Arab Spring-inspired protests that ultimately unseated the longtime Yemeni strongman in 2011.

"If you think Hamid runs things now, wait until you see this wedding," a friend told me a few days prior. His tone may have hinted at his tribal and political issues with the Ahmars, but he did have a point. On some level, a massive celebration was a virtual necessity: In Yemen's fluid post-Saleh political environment, the wedding was an obvious opportunity for a show of strength.

By the day of the wedding, news of the upcoming nuptials had spread throughout Sanaa. When I walked out my front door on Thursday, my neighbors, noticing that I had donned traditional Yemeni formal wear -- that is, a freshly dry-cleaned thobe, an embroidered scarf, a tailored jacket, and a ceremonial dagger -- knew immediately where I was heading.

"The Ahmar wedding is today, isn't it?" the guy who runs the shop next to my house, a staunch supporter of the former president, remarked with a smirk. "Send my regards to Sheikh Sadiq."

His joke went over my head, as I was still catching up on sleep I lost attending the grooms' samra, a late night reception that was part of a week-long marathon celebration. I'd planned on staying for an hour, but the display of tribal traditions kept me glued to my seat. It was much like the wedding itself -- and, for that matter, most social gatherings frequented by Yemeni males -- a qat chew. Guests reclined on the low couches that filled the cavernous hall, chatting with those around them as musicians played traditional music.

A crowd of men singing ancient chants in unison heralded the grooms' arrival; through the rest of the night, guests took turns reciting poetry mixing expressions of merriment with musings on Yemeni politics. I'm pretty sure it was abundantly clear that I was enjoying myself, but the uncle of one of the grooms seated next to me couldn't seem to shake fears that I wasn't having a good time. It's hard to find anyone that takes hospitality as seriously as Yemeni tribesmen.

"What do you think? Honestly, we'll be glad when this is all over," Sheikh Abdullah Hamid, the older of the remarkably down-to-earth grooms, told me when I briefly checked in on my way out. "You're coming on Thursday, right?"

I couldn't help but laugh.

"Do I even have a choice?" I joked. "I'm pretty sure most of Yemen will be there."

Arriving at the gate of the wedding hall with some friends, it seemed like the truth. The most stunning success of the wedding was evident at the entrance -- a gun ban was enforced without any major difficulties. At weddings like this, a decent chunk of guests usually show up heavily armed -- sheikhs, particularly, tend to travel surrounded by an entourage of AK-47-toting companions.

But barring a handful of exceptions, guests left their weapons and guards at the door. Even the Ahmar brothers were limited to two guards with a single handgun each. One of their cousins, who refused to leave his guards, was forced to welcome guests outside.

The mammoth chamber in the Sanaa Convention Center that housed the reception was three times larger than any of the Yemeni capital's wedding halls, and it was still packed. There were 9,427 invited guests -- including all of parliament, all of the current cabinet, all senior military security officials, and 700 tribal leaders. In total, more than 10,000 people were estimated to have stopped by. The key thing -- especially in weddings this high profile -- is often just making the appearance. 

Eager to get my own appearances made, I moved toward Sheikh Hamid who, despite being mobbed by guests and looking a bit fatigued, noticed me out of the corner of his eye and motioned to his guards to part the crowd. I quickly offered my regards before jumping into the line to congratulate the two grooms, the men of the hour. (Yemeni weddings are ultimately a rather painful ordeal for the grooms, who have to spend hours on their feet greeting an endless procession of well-wishers, the majority of whom they barely even know.)

The brides were absent, celebrating at a separate reception elsewhere. In conservative Yemen, the vast majority of weddings are gender-segregated events. That's not to say that the brides' identities were of no consequence -- both hailed from prominent tribal families. With the bulk of marriages still arranged in Yemen, they're often used as an opportunity to cement ties between elites.

Past political or military battles with the Ahmars were no obstacle to receiving a wedding invite. Sheikh Naji al-Shayf, the vociferously pro-Saleh head of the rival Bakil tribal confederation stopped by -- out of respect for his age and tribal status, he was one of two tribal leaders granted an exception to the gun ban. I bumped into an official who in a conversation last fall cast the Ahmars, his rivals for decades, as the epitome of everything that's wrong with Yemeni politics. A number of officers from military units that helped lay siege to the family's compound in the capital in 2011, during the Ahmars' clash with the government, made an appearance as well. Meanwhile, soldiers from the recently disbanded Republican Guard, a bulwark of support for Saleh, secured a nearby hilltop. 

"Where else would you see this?" a friend asked after we left, pointing out a few of the more interesting guests. "These people talk shit about the guy constantly, and still, they all show up for his sons' wedding and wish him the best."

The retention of honor is, of course, a key aim of the traditions that govern Yemen's tribal system. But what the weddings of the children of prominent Yemenis show is that honor doesn't inevitably demand the vanquishing of one's rivals -- more often than not, it's just about being able to save face.

The decision to send invitations far and wide may not be driven solely by gracious intentions -- a part of me sees such invitations, and subsequent attendance, as a series of passive aggressive dares, with each side trying to come off the bigger man. But regardless of motivations, it's hard not to see such cordial gestures as a way to let off steam amidst the country's fraught politics.

"Say what you want about Yemenis," a sheikh from the rural environs of Sanaa once told me. "But even if we're fighting a war against someone, we'll still take a break to go to his son's wedding."



The Rise of Germany's Tea Party

Could a brand-new, anti-euro political movement threaten Merkel's quest for a third term?

BERLIN — As if dysfunctional Italians, resentful Greeks, and reluctant Cypriots weren't enough trouble, German Chancellor Angela Merkel now faces an obstacle much closer to home in her efforts to save Europe's monetary union from collapse. And with elections upcoming, she might even have a game-changing challenger on her doorstep.

The new anti-euro Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is well-positioned to capitalize on rising voter discontent with tax-payer bailouts of mismanaged and corrupt southern European governments. The party's self-confident leader, Bernd Lucke, sees a chance to defeat Merkel's wobbly governing coalition in September's federal election. "Many of Angela Merkel's supporters will vote for us. And when she loses public support, this will be the end of her political life," Lucke said recently. If this happens, it could put Merkel's triage efforts, and perhaps the entire effort to save the eurozone, into jeopardy.

Lucke is a deeply sober and analytical 50-year-old economics professor at the University of Hamburg. He spent 33 years as a card-carrying member of Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union party (CDU), before founding AfD this February. For Lucke, the tipping point came in 2010, when Germany bailed out Greece in violation of the EU's founding document, the Maastricht treaty. He told the Telegraph that "It communicated the feeling that governments were not bound by law, and it introduced a policy which was economically misguided. It made me feel homeless in my party."

Now, his new party seeks to abolish the euro and return Germany to the Deutsche mark, which passed out of existence in 2002 with the introduction of the common currency. He argues that a phased-in process of currency reform could enable the Deutsche mark to again become Germany's currency by 2020. According to Lucke, this would relieve Germany of the burden of carrying the debt for bankrupt or near-bankrupt southern European countries and decrease the current tensions and resentments in Europe.

In April, the party's 1,300 members elected Lucke -- along with entrepreneur and chemist Frauke Petry and journalist Konrad Adam -- to lead AfD. And though it's still in its infancy, the party seems primed to take advantage of Germany's growing anti-euro sentiment. According to a 2010 Infratest Dimap poll, 57 percent of German citizens regret the introduction of the euro; more than one-third would like the Deutsche mark to be, once again, immediately reinstated as the country's currency.

Still, Lucke's new party has a ways to go. According to an April poll by the research institute INSA-Meinungstrend, the AfD could secure 4 percent of the vote in the federal election. And yet the numbers show the AfD cutting into Merkel's constituency. Just weeks after the party's conference in April, AfD membership enrollment continues its steady climb from a little over 5,000 registered members in late March to nearly 10,000 now. The AfD's treasurer Norbert Stenzel told the German daily Rheinische Post in late April that "at this time we are winning between 100 and 200 new members each day."

The popularity is not hard to understand. A significant portion of Germany's now has serious doubts about the economic viability of southern European countries -- Italy, Portugal, Spain, Greece, and Cyprus -- and is getting fed up with being called Nazis every time they try to impose fiscal discipline on those begging for a handout. Take the example of Spain's large left-of-center daily, El Pais, which published an opinion piece in late March calling Merkel's behavior "Hitler-like" because her economic policies are the functional equivalent of a declaration of war on Europe. The paper later apologized for the Nazi parallel, but German's robust modern democracy doesn't take such comparisons lightly.

It has been a rough March and April on the European front for the domestically popular Merkel. Her austerity policies triggered France's governing socialist party to term her conduct "egotistical intransigence." Merkel's disciplined remedy of roping in spending has been a sore point for the anti-frugal French socialists. Nevertheless, the attacks on Merkel proved to be too excessive for the party's leadership who are not keen to pick public fights with Europe's chief economic engine. France's interior minister Manuel Valls promptly condemned his party's attack on Merkel as "irresponsible, demagogic and noxious."

Putting aside the charged EU debate about austerity versus capital infusion to spur European economic growth, Germans always viewed the birth of the euro with skepticism. The introduction of the new currency in 2002 prompted a coinage, "Teuro" -- teuer is German for "expensive" -- to lampoon the increased prices associated with the new currency. The Association for the German language even named "Teuro" the word of the year in 2002.

Eleven years on, euroskepticism seems to have reached a new peak. Even Kai Konrad, one of Merkel's most prominent economic advisors, recently predicted the demise of the currency in an interview with Die Welt. "Europe is important to me. Not the euro, " he said. "And I would only give the euro a limited chance of survival."

In this environment, the AfD's emergence seems almost inevitable. And yet the AfD can sometimes seem like a bit of a contradiction. On the one the hand, it puts opposition to the euro front and center on its homepage: "An end to this euro!" On the other hand, as Lucke told the German magazine Focus, "We are for the European market [but without the European common currency]." And he's also for maintaining unity among the 27 members of the EU in foreign policy, bank oversight, and defense.

Under Lucke's preferred scenario, "Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and probably France" would leave the euro right away. An ensuing transitional phase of four to five years would take place with co-existing euro and national currencies. The belt-tightening, fiscally responsible Northern European countries (with the euro) during the interim phase would be pitted against the Southern European countries charged with living too high on the hog. It's survival of the fittest. 

Lucke has become a ubiquitous presence in the German media and has worked hard to distance his organization from charges of extremism. Of course, a fringe anti-euro party is sure to attract some members embracing uglier strains of nationalism. The Rheinische Post noted that some AfD members and supporters write for the Junge Freiheit, an ultra-right wing newspaper that, critics argue, has chauvinistic and racist articles blanketing its pages. But as Lucke told the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel in late April, "We do not want any anti-Semites, racists or xenophobes in our ranks." Lucke said the AfD discharged a member who covered up his membership in the extremist right-wing National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD).

He has evidently learned lessons the missteps of another once promising political movement, the anti-copyright, pro-Internet freedom Pirate Party. Last year, that party, which had enjoyed some impressive successes in local elections, was engulfed in string of highly controversial outbreaks of alleged anti-Semitism. A Pirate Party candidate seeking a position on the national board called for criminal penalties in Germany to be lifted against Holocaust denial. He was not elected. Dietmar Moews, who sought to be a Pirate Party federal candidate, criticized "world Jewry" and caused a large section of his fellow members at the national meeting to boo him and walk out of the party's conference.

In contrast to the high-tech, web-savvy members of the Pirates, however, the AfD is a bit more wonky. There's at least 30 "Professor Doctor" abbreviations on the party's homepage -- teachers of economics, engineers, and finance. But the AfD does mirror the the Pirates in another key way. Both parties are largely defined by a one-issue electoral agenda and are not terribly concerned about foreign policy matters beyond Europe.

To the degree that the AfD expresses positions on non-euro issues, they tend to be vaguely socially conservative. The AfD bemoans that "Germany has too few children" and calls for the Federal Republic to become "children and family friendly," a strain of American-style conservatism that has led some journalists to label the group the "German Tea Party."

It is unclear if the AfD will surpass the required 5 percent voter hurdle in September to enter the Bundestag. A late April Forsa poll showed only 2 percent projected voter turnout for the party. The head of the polling institute Forsa, Manfred Güllner, told Stern magazine that the AfD would not endanger Merkel's governing coalition, which has brought together the CDU and its sister party, the Bavarian-based Christian Social Union, as well as the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP). But let's remember: this party's only been around for a couple months. And in this electoral climate, anything's possible.

Nonetheless, the traditional powerful parties in the Bundestag -- the Social Democrats (SPD) and the CDU -- are filled with some level of anxiety about the rise of this new protest party. In a detailed report in the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in late April, the paper's Berlin-based political correspondent Majid Sattar revealed that the two major parties had conducted opposition research to blunt the growth and attraction of the AfD. Meanwhile, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS) -- a think tank affiliated with MerkeI's CDU party -- issued a study arguing that the AfD should be taken seriously but should not be "upgraded through ongoing public debates."

Chancellor Merkel won't probably lose that much sleep over the AfD. Germany's unemployment rate hasn't been this low since 1990. Her poll ratings continue to remain solid and she's on track to win a third term. According to an April ZDF poll, Merkel leads her social democratic opponent and main challenger Peer Steinbrück by a 36 percent margin.

And if she prevails on Sept. 22, she'll become the longest serving female head of state in Europe since the late Margaret Thatcher. The AfD might not be able to stop the new Iron Lady but if she intends to govern, she can't really ignore the strain of public sentiment they represent.