Sanaa, Yemen – Talks aimed at ending the standoff between the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels have once again ground to a halt amid mounting fears that the country is on the brink of civil war.
Fighting broke out around Sanaa’s Al Iman University, a Salafi educational institute run by a leading member of Islah, Yemen’s main Sunni Islamist party, on September 18, as Jamal Benomar, the UN special envoy to Yemen, attempted to broker a peace deal in the Houthis’ northern heartland of Sadah.
Hopes of a breakthrough had been raised when the Houthis and the government formed official negotiation teams and Benomar was formally appointed as a mediator on September 13.
But the Houthi team quit the talks two days later, protesting against the government’s replacement of its negotiators with one that the Houthi officials accuse of refusing to honour the deal brokered by the previous negotiators.
Ali al-Bokhaiti, the Houthis’ chief spokesman in Sanaa, told Al Jazeera that fighting has since intensified in the north of the country, with clashes breaking out in and around Sanaa that have left dozens of people dead.
It has now been a month since supporters of the Houthis, a revivalist movement for the Zaydi Shia form of Islam that is unique to north Yemen, took to the streets of Sanaa to protest against what their leader Abdelmalek al-Houthi says is a corrupt government that must be dissolved and what he sees as an unfair decision to increase fuel prices.
Al-Houthi has also demanded that policies agreed upon by the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), a 10-month series of peace talks held between Yemen’s main political actors in 2013 and 2014, be implemented.
The Houthis have set up protest camps both in the centre of Sanaa and on the outskirts of the capital, a move which government officials view as being part of a plan to storm the city. “The Houthis are doing their best to create a military presence in Sanaa,” a senior Yemeni official who works closely with President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, told Al Jazeera. The source added that any future deal with the Houthis should include conditions that they leave the capital and commit themselves to a plan of disarmament.
The Houthis, on the other hand, say their aims are peaceful and that the camps will be removed once a deal is reached. Bokhaiti explained that the Houthis took to the streets “because the president has changed the negotiation team, and he did so when a deal was about to be concluded. We didn’t want to start from the beginning again after all the progress we had made.”
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But sources close to the government said the two figures involved in the informal talks with the Houthi fighters, Abdelkader Hilal and Abdulkarim al-Iryani, had not been given the authority to negotiate a deal. Their replacements, Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, Hadi’s chief of staff, and Jalal Rowaishan, a senior political security official, arrived at the negotiating table only to find that the Houthis had raised the bar too high in their demands, the senior official said.
“They came with new demands. It’s not the [fuel subsidies] any more and it’s not the NDC outcomes. They are now refusing to implement the NDC recommendations on disarmament and the regions [dividing Yemen into six administrative regions]. They are using it to reopen the regions issue. They want something else.”
During the dialogue conference, the Houthis agreed to a step-by-step process of disarmament to take place as other elements of the peace deal were implemented. The government says that they have not fulfilled their commitments to the process. The Houthis, meanwhile, have complained that a plan to divide the country into six regions – made after the conference – is unfair and must be reviewed.
Diplomatic and government sources explained that Hilal and Iryani were pulled from the talks because they were making concessions too easily, particularly on fuel prices and the Houthis’ role in a future cabinet, and conceded that the change of negotiation teams may have led to the breakdown in the talks.
There were too many negotiators on behalf of the president, some talking to the Houthis as part of an official delegation, while others were working behind the scenes... This has created confusion and multiple, slightly different proposals.
“There were too many negotiators on behalf of the president, some talking to the Houthis as part of an official delegation, while others were working behind the scenes,” said April Alley Longley, Yemen analyst at International Crisis Group. “This has created confusion and multiple, slightly different proposals.”
A constant flow of leaks and counter leaks to local media outlets had also slowed the talks. The purported leaks of Houthi demands and government concessions, according to both government and Houthi sources involved in the negotiation process, have reinforced a sense of mistrust among negotiators and increased anger within the ranks of the Houthis’ supporters and their opponents at the same time.
As the talks stutter to a halt, the danger of armed conflict in the capital looms large, with Yemenis fearful that the fighting at Al Iman University could spread to the rest of the capital. The government is already embroiled in fighting the Houthis on the one hand, and tribal and Islamists in the provinces of Al Jawf and Mareb on the other. It is deploying air strikes in an attempt to halt the Islamists’ territorial expansion and back the “popular committees”: tribal militias set up to fight the Houthis.
In July, the Houthis – who already hold Sadah – consolidated their control over Amran province, which separates Sadah from the capital. Clashes on the outskirts of the capital in recent days have also sparked fears that the group plans to take the capital by force.
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“The Houthis are coming towards Sanaa with heavy weapons,” the high ranking official told Al Jazeera. “They want to take Al Jawf so they can be close to Mareb, where the [main oil export] pipeline is. This is unacceptable. The clashes are now between the state and the Houthis.”
The same official agrees that the government, which is also engaged in a war with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), is in an extremely delicate position. “We don’t want clashes in Sanaa,” he says. “If we do, it will be everywhere, in every street.”
Open warfare in the capital would open up a space for AQAP, which exploited the unrest in Yemen’s 2011 uprising to seize territory in the south of the country and to continue its recent resurgence. As a result, militants have expanded their presence in the eastern province of the country. “Now I think it is a suitable environment for all militants including al-Qaeda,” said the official. “All the focus is on the Houthis.”
Bringing the talks to a conclusion will be difficult, however, Longley said. “Probably [the] most important reason is that over time both sides would have lost trust in each other to negotiate in good faith, a situation that has only been augmented by both sides’ public escalation campaigns in the street and in the media,” she added.
When asked to respond, the Houthi spokesperson, Bokhaiti, said: “When we say we want the downfall of the government, it’s not because we trust them.”
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The longer the talks drag on, the higher the risk that fighting might spread throughout Sanaa. “[Negotiations] could end spectacularly well tomorrow or drag on for another few weeks,” says Jane Marriot, the UK ambassador to Yemen, who has been supporting the talks. “But I am happy that there are negotiations. As long as you have ongoing negotiations, the less likely it is that there will be fighting inside Sanaa. But with that said, it is also more time for people to pre-position, and to bring weapons inside the capital – which is not good.”
Should negotiations resume, the main sticking points will be the fuel price, which the Houthis want brought down by 25 percent. The government has already brought it down by 12.5 percent, refusing to go lower.
The other important point is the Houthis’ demand for a role in a future government. President Hadi has already agreed to dissolve the current cabinet and to give the Houthis at least one ministerial position. But, according to the high-ranking government official, the Houthis want an equal number of cabinet posts to that of the General People’s Congress and al- Islah. The GPC and Islah are Yemen’s biggest parliamentary blocs and hold 50 percent and 30 percent, respectively, of cabinet posts in the current transitional government.
“We didn’t ask for a certain number of seats; we just asked for the main groups and parties to have a fair share in the government,” said Bokhaiti. “We think we are now one of the main powers in Yemen and we want to be treated like everyone else.”