Latest standoff reflects the ongoing power struggle between President Hadi, his predecessor and the Houthis.
When former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had ruled the country for more than 33 years, finally stepped down and a new president was elected in February of 2012, Yemeni activists were thrilled.
The new president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, was unique in that he was a consensus candidate, endorsed and supported by both the ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), and the Joint Meeting Parties – the opposition parties’ umbrella committee that included Islamists, Socialists and Yemen’s Arab Nationalists.
Prior to his election, Hadi had served under Saleh as his vice president for more than 16 years and had shown no apparent political ambitions, which probably led to his selection as a consensus candidate.
Hadi’s election occurred as part of a broader political deal proposed by the Gulf Cooperation Council to help Yemen avoid a total civil war. The deal stipulated a transitional period during which a national dialogue, among all Yemeni political actors, would outline Yemen’s constitution and future political system.
Another important part of the deal was Saleh’s immunity from any future political prosecution, which he used shrewdly to undermine the whole process. During the national dialogue, Yemen’s decision to pursue peaceful solutions to its chronic political, security and economic problems was praised as a model of peaceful conflict resolution for other Arab Spring states.
During the national dialogue, Yemen’s decision to pursue peaceful solutions to its chronic political, security and economic problems was praised as a model of peaceful conflict resolution for other Arab Spring states.
However, few observers realised at that time, that the country was steadily moving towards an almost complete halt of its democratic transition.
So how did Yemen’s outlook shift from that of a promising transitional democracy to an increasing risk of becoming a failed state, or another Iraq, in the region?
This question can be answered, in part, by examining Hadi’s rule. Although he began his presidency by trying to be his own man and searching for his own voice, he unfortunately never found it. The irony of Hadi’s strategies was that they seemed to eliminate or reduce the political power of those actors who installed him as the head of state.
He attempted to duplicate Saleh’s strategy of “dancing over the heads of snakes”, controlling Yemeni political actors by playing them against each other, but Hadi did not have Saleh’s shrewd political intelligence and social skills.
First, Hadi quickly moved to restructure the military by removing Saleh’s sons and nephews, as well as General Ali Mohsen – the most powerful military leader in the country. This restructuring process was disastrous, as the military became highly fragmented and lost even the minimum levels of military professionalism that it had previously enjoyed during Saleh’s rule.
Second, Hadi did not adopt an effective strategy for dealing with militant groups, such as the Houthis, who began to exert greater influence in various parts in the country. While he did not support the pro-uprising military leaders, Saleh loyalists in the military contributed significantly towards the Houthis gaining control of a number of Yemeni provinces – including unexpected military control of the capital city, Sanaa, on September 21, 2014.
The rapid defeat of the Yemeni military in various battles against the Houthis, who have also allegedly received military and technical assistance from Iran, has further undermined Hadi’s legitimacy and cost him the support of key political actors such as the Islah party, Yemen’s main Islamist party, and General Mohsen.
In addition, Hadi failed miserably in his strategy to control the GPC and steer it away from Saleh’s leadership and influence. In fact, Hadi was expelled from the party after the November 2014 decision of the United Nations Security Council’s sanctions committee to impose a freeze of assets and travel ban on Saleh and two other Houthi leaders.
Despite these missteps, Hadi was not entirely responsible for the failure of Yemen’s democratic transition. Other key political actors have also made grave strategic miscalculations that benefited the Houthis.
The Islah party and the Yemeni Socialist Party did not have a clear and coordinated strategy to effectively steer the wheel of change in Yemen. Their primary focus was on the recruitment of their members in key government and civilian positions rather than on solutions to the country’s staggering economic and political problems.
For example, the transitional government failed miserably in solving the problems of continuous power outages and gas shortages. Small outlawed tribal elements in the Marib province continued to attack power lines which delivered electricity to the capital city, without any serious confrontation by the coalition government.
Moreover, corruption and failure to uphold the rule of law frustrated average Yemenis and led to an increase in political cynicism.
With the Houthis tightly controlling Sanaa, the question now is whether Saleh and the Houthis will be able to maintain their alliance and restore stability in the country.
Although it is possible that Saleh and the Houthis have a deep commitment to cooperation and plans in place to share government, and they may convince the international community of their precarious legitimacy – especially by fighting al-Qaeda elements in Yemen – it will be extremely difficult for them to win the hearts and minds of average Yemenis.
Most Yemenis believe that they have just finished watching a long, boring and bad movie co-directed by Saleh and the Houthis, where the sequel is expected to be even worse.
Given the political history of both Saleh and the Houthis, their alliance is unlikely to last very long, especially if either sees political advantage in eliminating the other to monopolise power.
The key to Yemen’s overall stability lies not only in what other political actors will do next, but also in what role the remaining military units will play.
For example, the question of how to deal with Marib will clearly test the will and role of the Yemeni military. The military now faces a clear choice of whether to support the Houthis or to play a new role at this critical juncture.
The writer is a Yemeni political science professor