Yemen is burning. However, with bigger fires getting out of control in other parts of the world, it seems to have been relegated to the back page of mainstream media for most of the last few months. But what happens there in the near term and long term really does matter, both locally and regionally. The poorest country in the Middle East, Yemen has been plagued for decades by corrupt and weak governments, tribal infighting, resource depletion, a deteriorating security situation and utter poverty.
Two months ago, Houthi rebels riding a wave of public discontent, swarmed into the capital city of Sanaa from the north, and succeeded in bringing the regime to its knees in a matter of just days. In the eyes of many Yemenis, the Houthis are, at least for now, the dominant political force and best hope for change in a country that truly needs it from top to bottom. They are also a substantial military force, having taken control of much of Yemen’s security apparatus in the north and central parts of the country. What makes both these points remarkable is that the Houthis are members of the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam, a small minority in an otherwise Sunni majority country.
The Zaidis reigned over much of northern Yemen under a system of religious and secular rule known as an imamate for over a thousand years until revolution swept through the country in 1962. Yemen’s nationalist movement eventually led to the establishment of two separate countries: the Yemen Arab Republic or North Yemen and the Peoples Democratic Republic of Yemen or South Yemen. In 1990, North and South Yemen united to become the present day Republic of Yemen.
However, the Zaidis never regained the power and influence they had prior to 1962, and have been both politically and economically marginalised by each successive government ever since – at least up until now. And that’s an important point to remember in any discussion about the Houthis.
|Houthis tighten control of Yemen’s capital|
In 2004, Hussein Badr al Din al-Houthi, a dissident cleric from northern Yemen and head of the Zaidi sect there, started an uprising against the government in Sanaa, demanding greater autonomy in the north, as well as to protect Zaidi religious and cultural traditions from perceived impingement by Sunnis. Houthi was killed by government troops just a few months later, but his followers adopted his name and carried on the struggle.
Following a series of on again off again periods of bloody fighting, the Houthis agreed to a ceasefire with the government in 2010. However, not much changed for the Houthis in terms of perceived grievances perpetuated by the government, which brings us to the more recent events that resulted in the Houthis’ rapid and astonishing rise to power.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh ruled Yemen with an iron fist for more than 30 years, and although a Zaidi himself, was no ally of the Houthis. In fact, he was their nemesis during and after the six years of rebellion. As the Arab Spring swept through much of the Middle East in 2011, the Houthis took advantage of growing dissatisfaction throughout Yemen with the Saleh government, and began to consolidate their control in the north.
As part of the Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative signed later that year, Saleh agreed to step down and pass the reigns of power to his deputy, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi. But once again, promises of government reform went nowhere and the lives of everyday Yemenis, to include the Houthis, were no better.
For the Houthis, the final straw in their clash with the government was the lifting of fuel subsidies in July 2014, which lead to wide scale protests by both Sunni and Shia in Sanaa. By that time, the Houthis had become much more politically astute and militarily capable. They knew what they wanted and how they were going to achieve it. After taking control of Sanaa in September, the Houthis forced Yemen’s Prime Minister, Mohammed Basindwa, to resign, and then outright rejected Hadi’s first nomination to replace him. From that point on, the Houthis have more or less been calling the shots in Sanaa, although it’s important to note that what happens there doesn’t necessarily carry weight in much of the rest of the country.
So what do the Houthis want? The short answer is political concessions that give them significant influence in the central government and greater regional autonomy throughout the country, particularly for them in the north. And so far, they’ve been very successful in that regard. Since taking control of security functions in and around Sana’a two months ago, the Houthis have proven to be a formidable military force, and have not shied away from flexing their muscle.
So what do the Houthis want? The short answer is political concessions that give them significant influence in the central government and greater regional autonomy throughout the country, particularly for them in the north.
Frustrated with Hadi’s slow pace toward reform, the Houthis gave him a 10-day ultimatum at the end of October to form a new government, which he subsequently announced on November 9. The new technocratic reconciliation government includes representatives from the traditional power bases as well as the Houthis, southern secessionists and most every other political party in the country. For now, the Houthis have established themselves as a legitimate political party with long-term goals, and an essential part of the security apparatus.
So what stands in the way of the Houthis’ plans for greater influence in Yemeni politics? Plenty. In the south, the al-Hirak secessionist movement looks at the Houthis as a direct threat to their long sought after aim of independence, especially if the Houthis begin to move in that direction.
Consider also, the Islah Party, which is Yemen’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Houthis’ biggest political rival. Each will do what they can to undermine the other. And then of course there is al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), based primarily in central Yemen, where the Houthis have already begun to extend their influence. Daily clashes between the Houthis and AQAP are taking a deadly toll on both sides, with no sign of letting up.
AQAP will forge whatever relations they can with the Sunni tribes in central Yemen to exploit in their favor the Sunni-Shia struggles seen throughout much of the Middle East. And speaking of Sunni-Shia struggles, don’t discount Saudi Arabia either, which looks at the Houthis as nothing more than an Iranian tool to undermine them.
The Houthis’ rise to power and influence was as sudden as it was unexpected, and for now at least, they have brought about political change that may not have occurred otherwise for many years. Change that for the first time in Yemen’s history is set to be truly representative of all the disparate political factions. Only time will tell whether the new government can effectively control a country as complex and diverse as Yemen. But the Houthis’ best chance at helping it to succeed is to maintain their role as a legitimate long-term political party with limited goals and a short-term guarantor of security.
What they don’t want to do is become another divisive political or military element with a grand scheme for power and influence, something Yemen has proven to have no shortage of in the past.
Martin Reardon is a Senior Vice President with The Soufan Group, a New York-based strategic security and intelligence consultancy, and Senior Director of Qatar International Academy for Security Studies. He is a 21-year veteran of the FBI, and specialised in counterterrorism operations.