In 2011, Yemenis rejoiced at the toppling of their dictatorial president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled for 33 years, notes Ibrahim Sharqieh, the deputy director of the Brookings Doha Center. It was the third successful revolution of the Arab Spring, following the overthrow of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt. But, as elsewhere, reconciliation did not follow revolution, he writes for the New York Times:
Over the weekend, after a weekslong siege of Sana, the capital, rebels suddenly ousted Yemen’s prime minister and captured the Defense Ministry, the government television station and the central bank. On Sunday, President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi signed an agreement dictated by the rebels, known as the Houthis, and facilitated by a United Nations envoy.
Sadly for Yemenis, the rebellion has not only undermined the political gains of the Arab Spring but also created deep divisions in Yemeni society. The Houthis have merely promoted the gun as the ultimate source of power. The fall of Sana gives additional support to other counterrevolutionary movements in the region. Having fought Mr. Saleh for years, the Houthis recently made an alliance with the former dictator against a common adversary: Gen. Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, an adviser to Mr. Hadi who is affiliated with the Islamist Islah Party. On Sunday, Tawakkol Karman, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 and is a prominent figure in Islah, which is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, wrote on her Facebook page: “Twelve Houthis stormed my home and seized it, after the signing of the peace and partnership agreement!”
“This agreement has avoided such a [sectarian] conflict in the immediate term,” said April Alley, senior analyst for the Arabian Peninsula at International Crisis Group. “Now the question is how it can be implemented going forward in a way that rolls back the tide of increasing polarisation and sectarian tensions.”
Washington and Riyadh are convinced that the Houthis are backed by Iran, a claim the movement denies. The group largely follows the Zaydi sect of Shia Islam which is distinct from the type of Shiism practised in Iran, the FT reports:
“This is a game-changer,” said Jamal Khashoggi, editor of the Saudi-owned Arab TV news channel. “The Houthis will dictate the terms of a new Yemen. There has to be a review in Riyadh.”
Four decades of close co-ordination between the Saudi and Yemeni states may well have been overturned, he said, with Sana’a as a Saudi proxy now “moving towards Iran”. In the meantime, he added, “there is nothing much anyone can do inside Yemen apart from fighting back against the Houthis and push for a civil war, which would be a disaster”.
“The best solution is to create a balance,” said Mr Khashoggi.
Mansour Hayel, a Yemeni political analyst, compared the Houthi offensive to the Islamic State rampage through Iraq and Syria.
“The situation is very disturbing,” Hayel said. “The state withdrew its control over institutions and the Hawthis and their affiliates replaced it. They are all over the city.”
“To prevent further chaos in Yemen, there is no alternative to putting the peaceful and inclusive transition process back on track,” says Sharqieh. “Power does not translate to legitimacy: The Houthis will need the participation of other parties, particularly their opponent Islah, to govern.”
The complicated web of tribal and religious politics, behind-the-scenes political plays from former president Saleh, and the aggressive posture of the Houthi movement outside of Sana’a in multiple provinces make it nearly impossible to predict how the situation will evolve on the ground, writes Danya Greenfield, Acting Director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East:
What happens next will rest largely on Hadi’s ability to restore some restore some degree of confidence, whether the next prime minister can demonstrate real leadership, and the calculations of the Houthi leadership about whether they want to take the country down the path of prolonged violence. With the ongoing threat of al-Qaeda, manipulation from the Saleh family, a humanitarian crisis, and widespread poverty, the challenges seem overwhelming. Nonetheless, the country has pulled itself back from the brink before and will likely do so again.
Events in Yemen this weekend underscored one of the many weaknesses of the so-called “Yemen model,” says AEI analyst Katherine Zimmerman:
The concern today is not that the al Houthis, if they become the decision makers, would end the counterterrorism partnership. In fact, given AQAP’s specific targeting of the group, the al Houthis may take pleasure in bringing Yemen’s full military force to bear on AQAP. Rather, the concern is that the political tensions seething under a veneer of stability in Yemen post-Arab Spring will catapult the country into another bout of unrest that would make the prosecution of a counterterrorism campaign near impossible. Any Yemeni government is unlikely to pursue AQAP in Yemen’s south and east if threatened directly in Sana’a, the capital.