What The Hell Is Happening In Yemen?

Maria Abi-Habib explains how the Yemeni capital came to the brink of a coup this weekend during the worst fighting since the 2011 overthrow of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh:

The militants known as Houthis have been protesting outside government ministries in the capital Sana’a since August, complaining about Houthi rebels take position around Yemeni Government TV in Sanaarising fuel prices and demanding the government quicken the pace of political overhauls. By Sunday evening, they had taken over the central bank and the defense, interior and finance ministries, adding to advances last week that included the airport.

Shortly after Sunday’s takeover, the Houthis, President Abed Rabbo Mansour al Hadi and most of the country’s major parties signed a United Nations-mediated cease-fire that included an agreement to form a new government. Mr. Hadi will choose the next prime minister but must consult with the parties that signed the agreement, details of which were scarce. The Houthis are likely to have an edge in those negotiations after their recent display of force.

Khalil Harb suggests that the Houthi movement acted “strangely” by inking a deal “while having all the makings for a successful coup d’état in their grasp.” Meanwhile, Peter Salisbury notes that many Sana’a are skeptical that the deal will hold:

“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.”

Ibrahim Sharqieh explains how it got to this point:

After Saleh was overthrown in 2011, the new transitional government acknowledged the past mistreatment of the Houthis, and officially apologized for the six wars Mr. Saleh waged against them between 2004 and 2010. But it did not address all of the historical grievances of the Houthis, who pressed on with their insurgency. Many Yemenis believe that the Houthis are acting as agents of Iran, which backs them. To legitimize their rebellion, the Houthis had to come up with popular proposals to address rising energy prices and incompetence in the government. It was the poor performance of Yemen’s transitional government that allowed them to succeed. President Hadi, and his government – including Prime Minister Mohammed Salem Basindwa, who just stepped down – failed miserably to deliver basic services, spur economic development and, most important, create jobs. Unemployment was one of the main drivers of the revolt against Mr. Saleh.

Gregory D. Johnsen notes that the Houthis have “moved far beyond their narrow sectarian origins” over the past two years:

They have broadened their appeal beyond their traditional power base of Zaydi Muslims – a branch of Shiite Islam that is relatively close to Sunni Islam – and in the process become Yemen’s primary opposition group. They are also, as the latest agreement makes clear, the closest thing Yemen has to a kingmaker. The Houthis may not have enough power to impose their will upon the rest of the country, but they now have enough supporters and weapons to act as an effective veto on Yemen’s central government. This is a remarkable turnaround for a group that once believed itself to be on the verge of political and religious extinction in Yemen.

Adam Baron agrees that the conflict shouldn’t be viewed through the prism of sectarianism, “even if the Houthis are largely followers of Zaidism, a northern Yemeni brand of Shia Islam, and their adversaries are overwhelmingly Sunni Islamists”:

The Houthis’ biggest achievement has been to transcend their roots in the mountains of the devoutly Zaidi far north to position themselves as a national movement. Notably, the Houthis’ ties with Iran notwithstanding, the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) has issued a statement welcoming the peace agreement. The Houthis themselves acknowledge that they have received political and media support from Iran, while their adversaries claim that they receive Iranian arms and funding, something that has long raised the suspicions of Yemen’s Gulf neighbors.

Meanwhile, Zack Beauchamp reminds us that the situation in Sana’a isn’t the only conflict roiling Yemen:

As if the Houthi movement wasn’t enough, southern Yemen plays host to an entirely separate Sunni Islamist rebellion. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is the driving force here, along with Ansar al-Sharia, a group that’s either simply an extension of AQAP or affiliated with it. The weakness of the Yemeni government and broad national insecurity, as discussed above, has allowed AQAP to fester here. While Yemeni government offensives and a US bombing campaign have pushed AQAP out the most populated areas in southern Yemen, the group still has a hold a lot of territory in the rural areas of the region. The US National Counterterrorism Center sees AQAP as the terrorist group “most likely to attempt transnational attacks against the United States.”

The two rebellions are not directly linked, but the Yemeni government’s inability to fight informs its failures against the other, and the weaker that the government gets, the easier it will be for both groups to grow unchecked.

(Photo: Houthi rebels take position around Yemeni Government TV during the clashes between Houthi rebels and government forces in al-Caraf north of Sanaa, Yemen on September 21, 2014. By Mohammed Hamoud/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)