The surprising alliance that explains Yemen’s political collapse
Twelve months ago, Yemeni interim president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi stood in front of foreign diplomats and political grandees at Sanaa’s Republican Palace. He declared his country’s political transition to democracy an “unprecedented success.”
In 2011, Yemen’s Arab Spring had threatened to push the country into a debilitating conflict. But remarkably, a deal brokered by the United Nations and the Gulf Cooperation Council prevented a bloody civil war. Longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down; Hadi was tasked with overseeing peace talks and the creation of a new constitution.
Initially, these talks went surprisingly well. After decades of instability, a stable, peaceful democracy seemed possible if not probable. Yemen became the last glimmer of hope for Arab countries that had suffered through 2011′s roiling unrest. As Danya Greenfield of the Atlantic Council wrote, achieving consensus of any kind after such an acrimonious period was a “remarkable achievement.”
Today, no one is hopeful. The much-vaunted “Yemen model” for political transition, once mooted as a possible solution for Iraq, Libya and Syria, has been broken beyond repair.
Sanaa is under the control of a militia made up of supporters of a onetime pariah rebel movement and of Saleh, who ruled north Yemen for 33 years before being ousted in 2011. Hadi has attempted to resign from the presidency while under effective house arrest — minutes after his prime minister and Cabinet quit their posts for good. Yemen’s restive south has effectively seceded from the north, and the economy is about to collapse. The vicious local al-Qaeda affiliate is resurgent.
The surprise for those paying attention to Yemen is not so much that the transition has imploded — the odds were always stacked heavily against it — but the reason behind its collapse.
In September 2014, the Houthis, a onetime religious revivalist movement-turned-well-organized armed group, began to seize control of the capital after several days of heavy fighting on the western edge of the city. Few Yemenis thought the group had the firepower or the gall to pull off a full-blooded assault on Sanaa. Most expected they’d soon pull back.
But in the last four months, Houthi militias have become increasingly entrenched in Sanaa and across north and west Yemen. They achieved this by cooperating with their onetime nemesis, Saleh, to defeat the conservative Sunni faction that split from the Saleh regime in 2011.
The alliance has come as a surprise. For years, Houthi supporters had blamed Saleh for the death of their founder, Hussein al-Houthi, in 2004. Now they were working alongside him.
Will that alliance prove durable? The most recent crisis in Sanaa was driven by both sides’ opposition to clauses in a new draft constitution that lays out plans for a new federal model of government.
But there are deep disagreements between the Houthis and Saleh about what Yemen’s future leadership should look like. Since Hadi announced his resignation, members of Yemen’s House of Representatives, a parliament dominated by Saleh’s General People’s Congress, have been mulling a vote that would allow Hadi to step down. GPC members have been calling for Yahia al-Rai, the speaker of the house and a hardline Saleh loyalist, to be made interim leader.
The Houthis, however, have called for the formation of a military council led by their people. Ali al-Emad, a leading politburo member, has described the Yemeni parliament, elected in 2003, as “illegitimate”, arguing that it should have no say on the country’s future leadership.
If Hadi’s resignation is accepted — and there is still a possibility that it will not be — the Houthis and Saleh will be set on a collision course. There is little trust between the country’s two remaining centers of hard power, and little that can be done to prevent a confrontation between them — Yemen’s military has quietly collapsed over the past four years.
The sad fact is that the consensus reached at the peace talks in 2014 was little more than a mirage, a brief moment when Yemenis dared to dream that their differences could be settled through inclusive dialogue. Instead, they have again found themselves the losers in a high stakes, winner-takes-all game that they have no say in and that threatens to push the country over the edge for good.