How the Houthis Did It
Regional rivalries and a botched post-Arab Spring political transition paved the way from the Houthis' north Yemen base to the doors of the presidential palace.
Nearly four years ago, during the height of Yemen’s Arab Spring protests, when then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh was losing allies by the day, I was called into the office of an international humanitarian organization in Sanaa, the capital. The organization’s director wanted to relay some news that nearly everyone else was choosing to ignore.
“The Houthis have expanded their territory, here and here,” the director, who asked to remain anonymous, said, pointing at a map of Yemen’s northernmost territory. Such an incursion into tribal-held territory outside the Houthis’ home in the northern province of Saada was unprecedented, said the director. And the Houthis had forced all government officials and the military out of Saada as well.
“What do you think the Houthis are trying to do?” I asked.
“We don’t know,” the director answered.
When I left the office, I was still more concerned about another group that was seizing territory in Yemen, but in its southern provinces: al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The Houthis, whose political ambitions were never entirely clear, could do what they wanted in Saada. It would hardly bleed down into the capital, most of us in Sanaa — journalists, analysts, and officials — believed at the time.
We were wrong. The Houthis’ gradual consolidation of power among northern tribes and the southward expansion that began in early 2011 led them directly to the doors of Yemen’s presidential palace this week. And it cost President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi his job. On Jan. 22, with Houthi forces in control of Sanaa, Hadi submitted his resignation letter to parliament, as did his cabinet. The latest crisis in Yemen has brought a country already besieged by various insurgent groups and an economic crisis into a new period of even graver uncertainty.
Fighting between Houthi militias and the few armed forces still under Hadi’s direction has calmed since Wednesday evening, when Hadi and the Houthis came to an agreement that addressed Houthi demands, such as redrafting the recently chartered constitution. The de facto new president is Yahya al-Rai, previously the speaker of parliament. Rai is a close friend of ousted president Saleh, who ceded power to Hadi in February 2012 after a year of anti-government protests, conflict, and international pressure. But it’s still unclear why Hadi resigned less than 24 hours after reaching an agreement with the Houthis.
Since the beginning of Hadi’s presidency, the Houthis, who backed the protests that led to Saleh’s resignation, have played a role in the transition process that included a national dialogue process and redrafting of the constitution. But in the end, it wasn’t to their liking: The rebel group staunchly disagreed with the plan outlined in the new constitution (written by a committee appointed by Hadi) to recast Yemen as a six region federal state. And so, the Houthis took matters into their own hands: Over the past year, their militia had been making its way toward Sanaa, fighting some tribes, making alliances with others, and defeating the national military along the way. In September, they surprised Yemenis when they entered the capital, easily took over government ministries, and forced Prime Minister Mohammed al-Basindawa to resign. The past week’s events have been a continuation of their power grab. Some, including the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), have called it a coup d’état.
Abubakr al-Shamahi, who until recently worked as a researcher in Sanaa, says that Hadi’s decision to resign was inevitable given this week’s events, but may not have been what the Houthis ultimately wanted given that their modus operandi has been to chastise Hadi for neglecting to address the population’s economic grievances and policy failures. Yet, the Houthis don’t seem intent on governing: thus far, they have failed to provide practical alternatives and have never showed a keen interest in ruling, preferring rather to pull strings from behind when convenient. After all, trying to lead Yemen is not a task for the faint of heart. “It puts them in a bad position. Who else do they have to blame? The president’s gone,” said al-Shamahi, who also reports for London-based newspaper al-Araby al-Jadeed.
Among other dangers, the Houthi takeover could further inflame Yemen’s sectarian tensions. The Houthis first appeared as a rebel force in Yemen in 2004, when a war began between the group and government forces. The Houthis said the government threatened their culture as Zaydis, a branch of Shiite Islam. The government, meanwhile, accused the Houthis of trying to restore the Zaydi Imamate that had ruled Yemen until the 1940s. This conflict flared up in Saada every few years, but a peace agreement during the last war of 2009 had held.
But as Houthi militias have pushed south over the past few months, they have been battling tribes allied with AQAP, igniting fears of a larger civil war, and sparking retaliatory attacks from the terrorist group that have killed dozens of civilians. Yemenis fear this kind of sectarian fighting could be repeated in the capital. And Yemenis who may not have supported AQAP otherwise could side with the militant group because they stand against the Houthis. Others are concerned that the chaos in Sanaa opens the door for Yemen’s southern separatist movement, which has called for the re-establishment of an independent south Yemen.
Adding to the political mayhem, Saleh has been accused by the United States of working with the Houthi rebels to undermine Hadi’s power. The former president has remained in Sanaa since abdicating the presidency. Possibly adding fuel to this accusation, Al Jazeera leaked an alleged private phone conversation on Wednesday between Saleh and a Houthi commander. In the conversation, which was said to have taken place last October, the former president revealed that he has a relationship with the Houthis — Saleh asks the commander to get in touch with several of his close allies — though it is still unknown whether he had foreknowledge of this week’s attacks.
Regional and international dynamics are also playing an important role in the current conflict. During his speech on Tuesday, Abdul-Malek al-Houthi, the rebellion’s leader, emphasized that President Hadi was not working toward what was best for Yemen, but instead relied on corruption and acted as a pawn of the international community, led by the United Nations, the United States, and the European Union. While Abdul-Malek al-Houthi’s critiques of Hadi certainly pandered to his audience, they are largely based in truth. Most of Hadi’s power did stem from the international community, who ushered him into power via a transition agreement drafted in 2011. He lacks legitimacy among the population because of it.
“He has no military power, no real political power, no support base on the ground, no tribal support base. In reality, what’s he got? It’s the international community,” Shamahi says. “So it’s very easy for the Houthis to attack him through that line. That plays very well in the Middle East, especially Yemen.”
But Hadi isn’t the only one with foreign allies. The Shiite militias have reportedly received financial and material support from Iran. That’s hard to confirm but, Tehran has certainly expanded its influence in Yemen since the Arab Spring, even reaching out to activists among the southern separatist movement.
At this point, Washington is still sticking to a Yemen policy that predates the Houthi takeover. “We continue to urge all parties to abide by the terms of the Peace and National Partnership Agreement, the GCC initiative and its implementation mechanism,” State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a press conference on Wednesday, Jan. 22, referring to past political agreements which have not been fully fulfilled, the latter being the transition agreement that brought an end to Saleh’s presidency.
In Yemen since 2011 there has been no shortage of such political agreements among conflicting parties, signed documents that outline steps never achieved, Band-Aids for crises that never hold. Yemeni and Western officials heralded these agreements as the only savior for Yemen, while often seeming to willfully ignore other crises, like the looming threat of a rebel group that over the past few years fought its way to the president’s doorstep.
Perhaps it should be no surprise, then, that the Houthis were able to take over the government in a country with weakened and fractured armed forces, a president who failed to address the serious grievances that cause Yemenis to support opposition forces, and an ex-president who still lives in the capital and seems desperate to return to power.
Photo credit: MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images