Houthi ‘game-changer’ casts doubt on Yemen model

yemen sadaIn 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!”

yemen“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.

Yemen: Saleh bites back?


Credit: Sada

Credit: Sada

Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, has been besieged since August by armed Houthi followers demanding the government’s resignation after a decision to cut fuel subsidies, the latest in a series of grievances they hope to settle, notes Nasser Arrabyee, a Yemeni journalist based in Sanaa. Thousands of protesters are camping out near important government institutions like the ministry of interior, raising concerns that there will be a violent escalation to topple the government. Meanwhile, Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh is using the crisis to reestablish his influence on the country’s politics, he writes for Carnegie’s Sada Journal:

Seeking to appear above the fray, Saleh keeps denying claims that he supports Houthi fighting in Amran, Jawf, and Sanaa. “We will not stand with a party against the other,” he toldsupporters from Amran on September 9, calling for dialogue to save Yemeni blood after more than 10 pro-Houthi protesters were killed and 60 others injured in a confrontation with the government forces near the cabinet building. Saleh has made a show of ignoring the unrest, instead receiving tribal and religious leaders from all over Yemen who came to show support after an alleged assassination attempt. …

Whatever its strength or motives, Saleh’s potential overt support for the Houthis would likely help their cause in the short term, giving them political backing—particularly from pro-Saleh tribal leaders and his supporters within the army. However, even an informal alliance risks enflaming the tensions in Sanaa and may lead to further violence. But Yemen can avoid all-out war if the Houthis opt for a political solution. If they form a party and maintain the backing of Saleh and his supporters, they will be able to make stronger demands, and President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi, who depends mainly on international support that would be lost if Yemen went to war, is keen to ensure such a resolution.


Yemen protests expose unravelling of social contract

yemenYemen’s Houthi movement has threatened further protests unless a new government is put in place and fuel subsidies are reinstated, placing President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi in an impossible situation. The recent demonstrations illustrate two deeper and more serious trends that warrant attention, according to Danya Greenfield, the acting director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, and Svetlana Milbert, the assistant director for economics at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East:

First, the Houthi movement has tapped into a reservoir of frustration and resentment among the Yemeni public that reaches far beyond its traditional support base among the Zaydi Shia population centered in the northern Sa’ada province. Second, the complete lack of attention and lack of political will to address urgent economic and fiscal crises has now brought Yemen to a near standstill. In a country where more than 50 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and 30 percent suffer from food insecurity, the overnight removal of one of the few tangible social benefits is reason enough to take to the streets. Both points glaringly illustrate the failure of the transitional government to provide economic opportunities to improve the day-to-day life of millions of Yemenis….

The cash-strapped Yemeni government had been negotiating with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for more than a year to secure a loan as a way to access much-needed financing and draw other financial commitments from donors and investors, they write for the MENA Source:

The loan program would require the removal of subsidies, but the IMF recommends gradual price adjustments and an information and communication campaign to prepare the public. Neither of these were done. The IMF and other international donors also emphasize the need to expand the social safety net and cash transfer payments to those who would be most affected by the price increases. The United States and other donors had even increased their contributions to the Social Welfare Fund (the body tasked with distributing cash support to the poor) in the summer of 2014 in anticipation of subsidy removal. Sadly, Yemen ignored the advice.

Most importantly, the government failed to launch a comprehensive education campaign to communicate exactly what would be done and when, why energy reforms were necessary, how the most vulnerable population would be protected, and how funds would be reallocated toward other social benefits, they note:

Of course, even if the Hadi government had communicated and undertaken a measured reform strategy, it is possible—perhaps even likely—that popular protesters would have taken place. The government may have intentionally avoided an official announcement to catch Yemenis off-guard, as witnessed in Egypt with the recent removal of its energy subsidies. But what Yemen’s subsidy reform exposes, beyond simple incompetence, is the unravelling of the social contract between the state and its people.  


Houthi Shia rebels ‘threaten Yemen’s transition’

Moderate Islamists and western diplomats in Yemen are increasingly concerned that military successes by the Houthis, coupled with the re-emergence of the local al-Qaeda franchise, could ignite the kind of debilitating sectarian violence that is raging elsewhere in the region – pushing Sunnis towards the violent rhetoric of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the FT’s Peter Salisbury reports from Sana’a:

Western and local officials fear a surge in sectarian violence could derail Yemen’s internationally backed political transition to democracy aimed at putting an end to decades of conflict.…..A debate is now raging within Islah, and the wider Sunni community, over how to respond to the rise of the Houthis – seen by some as an existential threat to a political order that has been controlled by privileged conservative Sunnis for much of the past three decades. One party official described sentiment within Islah as “life or death”.

Tens of thousands of Houthis joined an anti-government rally in Sanaa on Monday in response to a call by Shiite rebel commander Abdulmalik al-Houthi, Middle East Eye reports:

The protesters assembled in Change Square and then paraded through the centre of the capital, where supporters of the rebels, who are known as Houthis or Ansarullah, had converged during the morning after travelling from outside the capital.

“Islah was one of the early winners from the overthrow of Mr Saleh – taking up key posts in the country’s transitional government. But the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt led to disquiet in the party, which had seen Egypt as a template for Islamist governments in the region, while the increasingly anti-Islamist stance of Saudi Arabia took away a valuable source of funding,” Salisbury writes:

Islah supporters also believe Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who replaced Mr Saleh as Yemen president, has turned against them since the early days of his leadership. Islah suspects that the Houthis’ offensive is part of their plan to reinstall the Zaydi imamate that ruled in Yemen for a millennium before being unseated in 1962, and that their ultimate goal is control of Sana’a. They also say the Houthis are backed by Iran.

However, Hussein al-Izzi, a Houthi spokesman, insists the group has no interest in seizing the capital and denies being supported by Tehran. “We came to stop corruption in Amran, and the fighting stopped when we defeated the Islah militias and al-Qaeda,” he says.

Mr Al-Izzi says Islah’s leadership is intertwined with that of AQAP – a widely held view in Yemen but one denied by the party.

But, according to April Alley-Longley, an analyst at International Crisis Group, a move into Arhab would provoke a powerful backlash that could change the dynamics of the conflict. “If the Houthis continue their advances, especially around or in Sana’a, they risk reshuffling the political deck and consolidating a new coalition against them,” she says.

“We are concerned by the physical spread of the Houthis – now they are just outside Sana’a,” says a senior western diplomat. “We want the transition to continue, for there has to be a focus on national unity, not divisions. We want the Houthis to be in there, but not with their tanks.”

Yemen has long had a vibrant tradition of community-based dispute resolution, particularly tribal dispute resolution, which has become even more dominant in the transition period that followed the 2011 Arab Spring protests, according to a recent report from the US Institute of Peace:

  • As the Yemeni state has struggled to regain political equilibrium, rule of law has deteriorated and criminality and armed conflict have increased. State institutions have weakened and now struggle to meet citizens’ demands.
  • In response, citizens increasingly turn to traditional or community-based dispute resolution for their justice needs. In addition to long-standing actors or mechanisms, a number of new dispute resolution actors have emerged. Some areas have seen a retribalization, while in thers, armed actors dominate.
  • Although alternative dispute resolution actors have been an important gap-filler during this time, they have also found their authority challenged. The political uncertainty and the rise in lawlessness have simultaneously weakened both formal and informal actors’ ability to resolve disputes sustainably and to prevent conflict.

Over two years after the start of Yemen’s uprising in 2011, participants at a recent Chatham House forum (above) discussed achievements of the transition process to date and its latest developments, including progress of the National Dialogue Conference. Yemen’s transition was also be considered in regional and international context, in light of transitions set in motion by the ‘Arab uprisings’.

Why Yemen is no model for Iraq

YEMEN FAREAThe suggestion that Yemen could be an example for how to bring stability to Iraq came as a shock to most Yemenis, says a key analyst.

“The contradiction between their country’s political reality and its reputation as an Arab Spring success story has always been glaring, but now it had become absurd,” Farea Al-muslimi (left) writes for Foreign Affairs.

The deal that led to the ousting of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled since 1978, “was a rotten one,” he contends:

It merely handed the presidency over to his deputy, Hadi, and ensured that Saleh would continue to play a role behind the scenes. He was also given immunity for all his wrongdoing during his 33 years in power. And that is not the same thing as democracy. Even worse, the deal made a real transition to democracy in Yemen all the harder and it sowed the seeds of new conflicts.

One of the deal’s key promises to the tens of thousands of pro-democracy activists who took to the streets to bring down Saleh was to hold the National Dialogue Conference (NDC). It was supposed to bring together all the political factions, from the southern separatist movement to young modernizers to negotiate an outline for Yemen’s future political structure; and put the outcome of these negotiations to a public referendum for approval. However, the NDC, held from March 2013 to January 2014, did very little beyond extending the terms of parliament (whose mandate expired in 2008) and the president (whose democratic legitimacy consists of a hastily rushed-through referendum on his serving one term in office). The NDC then ignored its own bylaws and refused to put these decisions to a public vote.

A few years ago in Yemen, people used to warn of an “Iraq scenario” if its problems weren’t addressed, meaning that Yemen would be the new Iraq. They don’t anymore, Al-muslimi concludes.