Up until six months ago, few people outside the Gulf ever heard of the Houthi rebels, an insurgent group from northern Yemen that fought a series of on-again off-again conflicts with the government for most of the last decade. Part of the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam – a small minority in a country and government dominated by Sunnis – the Houthis had long been marginalised both economically and politically, with no prospects for improvement.
That all changed last summer when the Houthis – almost without warning – rode a wave of nationwide discontent over fuel subsidies as they stormed into the capital city of Sanaa. They quickly took control of security in and around the capital, forced the resignation of the prime minister, and dictated demands for reform to then-President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
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It was never the Houthis’ intent to rule Yemen, as that would then make them responsible for actually governing it – a formidable task even under the best of circumstances, never mind the fact that they represented a Shia minority in an overwhelmingly Sunni country. Instead, they wanted to take the leading role in shaping government policy, with two primary objectives in mind; ending their decades of marginalisation through eyeing military and political clout, while at the same time ending decades of government ineptness through needed reforms. At least initially, there were signs the Houthi influence might be moving Yemen in the right direction.
But matters escalated again last month when Houthi assertions that a draft constitution would still leave them marginalised led to a tense standoff with the government. Stepping up their pressure on Hadi, the Houthis tightened their grip around the capital and surrounded his presidential palace – quite literally placing him under house arrest.
In the end, Hadi, his prime minister and the entire cabinet resigned. It was the start of a coup that came to a climax last Friday when Houthi leader Abdel-Malik al-Houthi announced unilateral plans to dissolve parliament and replace it with a transitional national council that would draft a new constitution. At the same time, a presidential council of five members, appointed by the Houthis, would head the government.
In an attempt to reassure Yemenis, their neighbours and the West that Yemen was not descending into chaos, Houthi said in a speech last Saturday that he wanted to govern through a coalition that included every political force in the country. In order to bolster international and domestic confidence in his ability to maintain security, Houthi then announced that he would appoint four key ministers from the recently deposed Hadi government – all Sunnis – to his Supreme Security Committee: the former ministers of defence and interior, and the former heads of internal security and counterterrorism. Those reassurances didn’t work.
Internationally, the six Gulf Cooperation Council members immediately denounced the coup, as did the Arab League and the UN. All are calling for the return to power of the democratically elected Hadi and a continuation of a national dialogue on the new constitution.
Remember too, that Saudi Arabia considers the Houthis rise to power as part of an Iranian scheme to gain influence along their southern border. Although the Houthis deny it, there is strong evidence that Iran does have an interest in maintaining influence in Yemen vis-a-vis the Houthis, if only to keep the Saudis off balance elsewhere.
While the Houthis may not view their takeover as sectarian in nature, at least some of their political adversaries do, making any attempt for a religious minority to govern the majority an uphill battle.
But in Yemen, it’s domestic turbulence – which has been the downfall of every leader in its modern history – that in the end matters most. In the south, which is already eying independence, they outright rejected the Houthi takeover. In the oil-rich and rugged eastern province of al-Marib, heavily armed Sunni tribes are ready to stand their ground in any attempt by a Houthi led government to establish control there. The al-Islah Party – Yemen’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and a powerful political force in the country – also condemned the move.
And then there’s al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Firmly entrenched in al-Marib, they are a constant threat to Yemen’s stability as well as regional and western security. Of all the divergent entities in Yemen, AQAP is the one group the Houthis will not reach out to with an olive branch. There is, however, a very real possibility that AQAP and the Sunni tribes in al-Marib could come together in an alliance against the Houthis.
Things were bad in Yemen before the Houthis’ rise to power six months ago, and may very well get much worse if they can’t deliver on their promise of an inclusive government. Unfortunately, this time they may have bitten off more than they can chew. While the Houthis may not view their takeover as sectarian in nature, at least some of their political adversaries do, making any attempt for a religious minority to govern the majority an uphill battle. But the Houthis may have a face-saving out.
In a deal brokered by the UN earlier this week, the Houthis agreed to meet with representatives of all political parties in Yemen, to include that of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was forced to step down in 2012, in an attempt to hammer out a workable solution to the current gridlock. Those talks started Monday, and are already causing reservations with some parties. If the Houthis push back on negotiations and continue to act unilaterally both militarily and politically, look for the talks to stall and the crisis to escalate dramatically.
However, if they instead leverage their current military and political position to help drive an alternative plan of action that all or most of the parties can at least agree on as a starting point, then Yemen still has a chance to move forward. The problem is the Houthis have already rejected such a proposal with the former government’s draft constitution.
The difference now is – and let’s hope the Houthis realise it – they’re the ones responsible at this point for actually governing the country. For Yemen in particular, that requires considerable give and take by a skilled dealmaker. It won’t be a perfect solution for anyone, including the Houthis, but it’s better than the alternative. Until last week, the Houthis only had to use their influence to pressure the government to meet their demands. Now they have to take responsibility and govern. And that’s a big difference.
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.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.