Sanaa, Yemen – For the fourth consecutive day, Sanaa echoed to the sound of gunfire, shelling and sirens as Yemenis waited nervously to find out if a peace deal announced a day earlier between the Houthi rebels and the government would finally be endorsed or fighting would rage on.
By late September 21, the deal brokered over the course of the previous month was signed.
Sources close to both the Houthi and government negotiators told Al Jazeera that they believed the Houthis were stalling to gain leverage on the ground.
According to a draft of the deal obtained by Al Jazeera, the president will have to appoint a new government within a month from sealing the deal. Three days after the deal is signed, the president would appoint two advisors, a Houthi and one from the South and also appoint a new prime minister. The deal also stated that a new constitution would be drafted on the basis of consensus.
The fighting has catalysed negotiations for a peace deal that began a month ago. Broadly, the deal, brokered by UN envoy Jamal Benomar, would see the government reduce the price of gasoline at the pump to YR3,000 (almost $14), a 25 percent decrease from the YR4,000 ($18) it was raised to in late July (in mid-September, Hadi cut the fuel price to YR,3,500 ($16) but the Houthis have demanded a further decrease).
It would also see the current transitional government dissolved and replaced with what Houthi leader Abdelmalek al-Houthi saw as a more representative body, and in which the Houthis were given a number of cabinet positions – possibly as many as its biggest rival, al-Islah party, Yemen’s Islamist party.
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The deal would lead to the formation of a committee to review stalled progress on policies agreed upon at the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), a 10-month series of peace talks held between most of Yemen’s major political stakeholders in 2013 and 2014.
Another committee would be formed to oversee Houthis’ withdrawal from Sanaa, Amran to the north, over which the Houthis consolidated control in July, and al-Jawf, northeast of Sanaa, the bulk of which the Houthis now control after a recent wave of fighting.
Houthi fighters entered Sanaa on September 18 after a month of mounting protests led by the movement, which also goes by the name Ansar Allah, or Partisans of God. Claiming that they were acting in self-defence after attacks from rival militias, the Houthis surrounded a military camp run by loyalists of a conservative Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who is among the group’s biggest rivals. Fighting between Houthi forces and Islamists and tribal militias, along with military units loyal to Mohsen, quickly spiraled out of control, and saw the Houthis seize key strategic areas in the capital while exchanging artillery fire with the Mohsen loyalists.
Many in the capital worry that the Houthis have little intention of honouring the deal -particularly given the clear demand for a Houthi withdrawal.
“Considering the massive military victories the Houthis have gained in recent days, it’s quite hard to imagine they’d give up Amran and al-Jawf in the absence of massive concessions,” says Adam Baron, a London-based Yemen analyst who lived in the capital for three years. “Concessions that the government is unlikely to be willing, or able, to give,” Baron said.
Others argue that the Houthis clearly have their sight on Maj. Gen. Mohsen, a presidential military adviser who led successive campaigns against the Houthis in Sa’dah between 2004 and 2010.
“I just don’t see the Houthis coming this close to him [Mohsen] and giving up,” says a Yemeni politician who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He devastated Sa’dah for years, and they think had [the Houthis’ founder] Hussein al-Houthi killed [in 2004]. It’s hard to believe they’ll take political gains over revenge and power.”
Baron, meanwhile, argues that the Houthi crisis points to a wider set of issues around Yemen’s UN-backed political transition, which began with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh stepping down in November 2011 and of which the dialogue conference was a part.
“The real question, in my opinion isn’t whether some deal is signed – there are always deals [in Yemen],” Baron says. “The key issue is that, after months of ignored signs, it has now become painfully obvious that Yemen’s transition is on the verge of collapse – if it hasn’t collapsed already. So the question is whether the powers that be – both inside and outside Yemen -have recognised this and are willing to take appropriate action to stop the country from spiralling even further into absolute disaster.”