Will Fluctuating Power Equations Bring Lasting Peace?

Global Centre Stage

On September 21, Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi signed an agreement for the creation of a technocratic government and the appointment of an advisor from the Houthi movement and one from the southern movement, the two powerful political groups that were not represented in the previous transitional government. Though this Houthi agreement appears to be a call for political reconciliation and rebuilding the country, the vindictive actions of the Houthi forces in Sana’a would result in a loss of widespread support and legitimacy, insists Professor Charles Schmitz

The world can be excused for being confused by events in Yemen on September 21; Yemenis themselves are still struggling to grasp what happened. What occurred in Sana’a was a major shift in power, a coup, but it was a coup against only a part of the Yemeni regime, and President Hadi remained in his seat. Fighters with the Houthi movement entered the capital, but met limited resistance as most of Yemen’s military stood aside. After taking the city, the Houthi leadership signed an agreement with the president to implement its demands to form a technocratic government. Thus, while some reporters talked about a coup, others reported a peace agreement. Both were accurate.

Shift in the Reins of Power

The Houthi rise to power is due to three factors. First, they are firmly rooted in northern Yemeni society. They began as religious revival movement among the youth, but quickly became a seasoned insurgency when the Yemeni regime threw its military power against them. During six wars between 2004 and 2010, the Houthi garnered further support from all of those suffering under the Saleh regime, particularly in the north; their successful insurgency gave the Houthi credibility. Second, ironically, the Houthi appear to be the beneficiaries of the recent machinations of the former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who resigned following Yemen’s Arab Spring in 2011. Saleh still commands loyalty in the armed forces and military commanders appear to have obeyed Saleh’s command to allow the Houthi into Sana’a. Saleh wants the Houthi to destroy his enemies in the government that replaced him and thus pave the way for his relatives, his son in particular, to regain power. Third, Saudi Arabia’s turn against the Muslim Brotherhood may have aided the Houthi by weakening the Islah Party. A slight thaw in Saudi-Iranian tensions may also have aided the Houthi.

The Houthi rise to power was at the expense of the Islah Party. In August, Houthi fighters completed their overthrow of the al-Ahmar family in the tribal leadership of the Hashid tribal federation in Amran, and in Sana’a in September, Houthi fighters defeated the military units allied commanded by General Ali Muhsin.

Each represents a major shift in the reins of power in Yemen. General Ali Muhsin, the al-Ahmar family, and the Muslim Brotherhood are the main components of the Islah party. In the early 1990s, Islah was the Islamist junior partner of Yemen’s ruling party, General People’s Congress, until Islah split with the GPC and went into opposition in the late 1990s. In Yemen’s Arab Spring, Islah led the movement to oust Saleh and was probably the strongest political party at the beginning of Yemen’s transitional government in 2012. Now, Ali Muhsin has fled to Saudi Arabia, and prominent members of the al-Ahmar family have disappeared from public view. The fortunes of the Islah Party appear to have reversed dramatically this year, and largely at the hands of the Houthi movement, with apparent help from the former President Ali Abdulla Saleh, and, perhaps indirectly, Saudi Arabia.

Rise of a Broad Based Armed Opposition Group

The Houthi leadership sees Islah as their principal enemy in Yemen. They often repeat that their enemy is not the Yemeni State, but those aligned with party interests, meaning Islah. General Ali Muhsin led six wars against Houthi insurgents in the 2000s and the Islah party harbours the Salafi/Wahhabi and Muslim Brotherhood religious currents that are opposed to the Houthi. The Houthi leadership are from the Zaydi Sada, a religious aristocracy that ruled Yemen for thousand years before the establishment of the Yemeni republic in 1962. Zaydism is a form of Shi’a Islam and the Sada are those that claim descent from the Prophet’s family within the Zaydi tradition. When the Republic was established in 1962, the Republican leadership persecuted the Zaydi Sada because they saw the Sada as a counter revolutionary threat to the new Republic. The Republican leadership, though themselves nominally Zaydi, discriminated against the Sada and supported religious currents from Saudi Arabia opposed to Zaydism such as the Salafis and Wahhabis.  

Then, in Yemen’s liberal political environment of the early 1990s, some Zaydi Sada began to participate in electoral politics and others began a Zaydi revival movement among Yemen’s burgeoning youth. When the Yemeni regime tried to repress the Zaydi youth revival movement, war broke out.  

The six wars the Yemeni regime fought against the Houthi significantly changed their base of support. From religious revivalists in the beginning, they became representatives of everyone oppressed by the Saleh regime by the end of the wars.  

People supported the Houthi because they defended themselves against the predations of the Saleh regime. Thus, the Houthi movement, or Ansar Allah as it calls itself, is not a Shi’a rebel group, as labelled in the international media, but a broad based armed opposition group that opposed the Saleh regime. The movement seeks to assure the right of Zaydis to practice their form of Islam in Yemen and the leadership of the movement comes from the Sada, or Zaydi elite, but Zaydism is less relevant to the movement than its credible leadership. The Houthis are an independent power opposed to the old elites in Sana’a; people follow them because they provide an alternative to Sana’a leadership, not because they support Zaydism.

The Houthi movement capitalised on the Saleh alliance with the United States when the US invaded Iraq, which was extremely unpopular in Yemen. They presented themselves as authentically Yemeni and defenders of the country’s sovereignty, in contrast to Saleh’s alliance with the US and Islah’s alliance with Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Influence in Yemeni Politics

Saudi Arabia fears Yemen and its chaos. Yemen is a poor neighbour that contains political currents hostile to Saudi Arabia. As a result, Saudi Arabia wants to maintain significant influence in Yemeni politics. For a long time, Saudi saw a firm ally in the Hashid tribal leadership under the al-Ahmar family, but the inability of these tribes to contain the Houthi insurgency led the Saudis to re-evaluate their alliance with the al-Ahmar leadership. At the same time, the Saudis turned on the Muslim Brotherhood after the Brotherhood took power in Egypt. The Saudis fear the spread of the Muslim Brotherhood inside the Kingdom, and thus supported al-Sisi’s coup against the Brotherhood in Egypt and put Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood on the Kingdom’s list of ‘terrorist organisations,’ withdrawing its support for the tribal and religious pillars of the Islah party.

While Islah turned against the Saleh regime and later lost support in Saudi Arabia, it benefitted tremendously inside Yemen from the Arab Spring. In fact, Islah led the opposition to Saleh in the Arab Spring. General Ali Muhsin defected and turned his guns on the Saleh regime after the massacre of protestors in Sana’a in the spring of 2011. The al-Ahmar Hashid leadership also broke their remaining ties with the Saleh regime and brought significant tribal support for the street protestors.  

Transitional Government Flounders

The Saudi brokered Gulf Cooperation Council agreement that forced Saleh to leave power in late 2011 called for a transitional government comprised of opposition members and members of Saleh’s ruling party. Saleh’s vice-president took power and presided over a transitional government of two years in which a national dialogue discussed Yemen’s major problems and laid the foundation for a new constitution. Islah appeared to be the biggest winners in this deal because it was the best organised party outside of Saleh’s ruling circles and was poised to win the post-transition elections.

However, the transitional government floundered. Government in Yemen stopped functioning as political contenders concentrated on positioning themselves for the post-transition government rather than governing. Security deteriorated and the economy stagnated. 

Will the Technocratic Government Deliver?

The Houthi used the dissatisfaction with the transitional government to build support. The inability of the transitional government to secure the country spurred calls to replace the government with a technocratic one. The agreement signed by President Hadi on September 21 calls for the appointment of an advisor from the Houthi movement and one from the southern movement, the two powerful political groups that were not represented in the transitional government, and the creation of a technocratic government. According to the agreement, the advisors and the president will vet candidates for ministerial positions from all major political parties based on their professional capabilities rather than their political affiliations.  The new government will have a short deadline to present a clear plan for governing the country and rebuilding the economy.

While the Houthi agreement appears to be a call for political reconciliation and rebuilding the country, the actions of the Houthi forces in Sana’a are not encouraging. The Houthi leadership refused to withdraw their forces from Sana’a and allow the government forces to take back the streets. Houthi fighters have ransacked the houses of prominent politicians and destroyed broadcasting stations of political opponents.  The Houthi have widespread legitimacy in the far north, and they enjoy support for overthrowing the ineffective transitional government, but they will quickly lose support if they continue to exact revenge instead of building a wide political consensus.

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Charles Schmitz

Charles Schmitz is professor of Geography at Towson University in Baltimore, Maryland, USA. He is vice-president of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies and has published widely on Yemeni politics and the economy.

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