Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1234, (19 - 25 February 2015)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1234, (19 - 25 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

After the constitutional declaration

Have Yemen’s Houthis bit off more than they can chew? Medhat Al-Zahed writes

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Al-Ahram Weekly

In another shocking development after the Houthi power grab in Yemen, the movement issued a constitutional declaration 6 February to dissolve parliament and form an interim national council of 551 members to elect a five-member presidential council and appoint a technocratic cabinet.

Earlier, they had forced President Mansour Hadi and his Prime Minister Bin Haj Ali to resign, after they raided the presidential palace and took control there in a symbolic show of force proclaiming domination of the capital Sanaa and the keys to the state after their expansion nationwide.

The declaration created the Revolutionary Committee, headed by Mohamed Ali Houthi, and stated the current constitution will continue in effect unless it contradicts the constitutional declaration that (like all such documents) promises to protect public rights and freedoms. It also adopts a foreign policy based on good relations with neighbours and non-interference in the affairs of others, with resort to peaceful means to resolve disputes (which are all elements in Yemen’s constitution, but were reiterated here to reassure Saudi Arabia and convey goodwill).

The declaration stated that the Revolutionary Committee is the true expression of the revolution and will have branch revolutionary committees across the country. It will elect an interim national council composed of 551 members, and current MPs will be allowed to join this council that will choose the interim government of technocrats.

According to the constitutional declaration, the Revolutionary Committee will be responsible for “taking necessary steps and measures to protect the nation, guarantee its safety and stability, and protect the rights and freedoms of the people.” The duties of the interim national council and the presidential council will be outlined in an auxiliary declaration to be issued by the Revolutionary Committee.

The question now is whether the Houthis have bitten off more than they can chew. Or did they take advantage of the transitional phase in Saudi Arabia after the death of King Abdullah and the handover of power to King Salman? Also, did they exploit a period of US-Iranian understanding to take full power?

 

MONOPOLISING THE POLITICAL ARENA:

This question is legitimate because of new developments in Houthi expansion, not only by taking over the powers of the presidency and government through the Revolutionary Committee, but also the entire political arena through revolutionary committees in all provinces. These committees will work to push back the Popular Congress Party (PCP) formed by former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and theIslah Party of the Muslim Brotherhood and Joint Meeting Parties (JMPs), and create a populist despotic regime under Houthi rule.

There are signs that Yemeni political forces that in the past met the Houthi onslaught with silence or quiet protest are now willing to adamantly resist.

The first response to the Houthi declaration came from Aden Governor Abdel-Aziz Bin Habtor, who protested what he described as “an absolute coup” that is nonbinding to other provinces. Meanwhile, leaders of the Southern Movement held a meeting to reject the declaration. Mass protests took to the streets against the declaration in Taez, and the 2011 February Revolution Youth issued a statement declaring: “Sanaa is a capital occupied by sectarian armed militia who usurped power and undermined the Yemeni state.”

Authorities in the oil-rich Mareb also condemned Houthi escalation, and local tribes said they are prepared to confront all possibilities. Meanwhile, Saleh’s PCP announced its politburo would meet to discuss developments and announce its position on the Houthi constitutional declaration. It called on all activists to hold protests in all Yemeni cities to condemn the declaration, and Al-Arabiya news channel reported that Houthis opened fire on demonstrators at Sanaa University.

Condemnation of the Houthi declaration not only came from right-wing political and grassroots forces, but also GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries that issued a strongly worded statement demanding the retraction of the declaration. Meanwhile, ambassadors from European countries also condemned it after armed Houthis failed to convince diplomatic missions in Yemen at a meeting at the foreign ministry to recognise it. European ambassadors withdrew from the meeting aimed at briefing them on latest developments. One diplomatic source told Barakish.net that ambassadors from European and other countries withdrew from a meeting headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Hameed Al-Awadi, to show their rejection of the new conditions resulting from the constitutional declaration. The source added that all GCC ambassadors boycotted the meeting for the same reason.

As a result of Yemeni, regional and international pressure, the Houthis agreed to participate in a meeting with other political rivals in Yemen proposed by UN envoy Jamal Bin Omar. However, this meeting was also a failure, like the one on 5 February on the eve of the constitutional declaration, which aimed to address the presidential and governmental vacuum. Those gathered tentatively agreed on forming a five-member presidential council headed by a southern leader to take charge of the country for one year. Reports state that Houthis threatened their opponents at the meeting and negotiations failed because the Brotherhood’s Islah Party demanded the security situation in the capital should first be addressed before any agreement, while Houthi militias who control the state withdraw. The Houthis rejected these demands and the representative of the Nasserist Popular Organisation walked out.

So what are Houthis relying on in their takeover of Yemen?

 

THE HOUTHI GAMBLE: The Houthi are gambling on defections in the ranks of other forces, as demonstrated in the following. The Houthi constitutional declaration was broadcast live from the presidential palace in the presence of military and political leaders who support the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as those loyal to Saleh’s PCP. Among those present were Major General Mahmoud Al-Sobeihi, Air Force Commander Major General Rashed Al-Janad, and commander of the First Military Zone Abdel-Rahman Al-Heleili — all key figures and loyal to the former president.

Also, a leading figure from the Southern Movement, Hassan Zaid Bin Yahya, who is loyal to the group, gave a speech at the event in the name of the Southern Movement, asserting adamant refusal of foreign intervention in the affairs of South Yemen. It appears that the Houthis are building a political alliance in order to divide ranks.

They are relying on the US’s ambiguous position. Former US ambassador to Baghdad Christopher Hill said that, “regarding Houthis in Yemen, it is in the interest of the US to work with any government in order deal with the problem of Al-Qaeda in that country. The problem is that this issue occurred during political transition in Saudi Arabia, and the Saudis cannot be happy with the emergence of a government that is backed by a Shia minority in Yemen.”

He concluded by saying: “I believe the threats are quickly escalating in Yemen, and the US is trying to handle the issue calmly and work with any team that reaches power because the work we did with the previous two governments was very productive, and we want to see if we can continue. I am confident that Saudis are very concerned about recent developments.”

The Houthi realise that Saudi Arabia is preoccupied with its power transition. They also realise the difficulty of resolving issues in Yemen in all cases through foreign military intervention, because of the advantage of Houthis as an irregular fighting force skilled at mobility and deployment, as well as resorting to militia “hit and run” techniques that would exhaust any invading regular armies. At the same time, the international coalition is preoccupied with ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), while the situation is complicated in Yemen because of Al-Qaeda’s presence there.

Meanwhile, the numbers of political players in Yemen are dwindling because of exhaustion, attrition and frustration over the Yemeni revolution’s path. Accordingly, it is unlikely the Houthis will retreat quickly anytime soon, or that there will be international intervention to block their advance, especially since they continuously reassure they will not go near Bab Al-Mandab Straits, and in the face of an international force in the Straits to deal with them if they did.

Yemen may remain unstable for many years to come. Opposition to the Houthis will gradually grow and it is likely the south will secede. The Reform Party and Gulf countries may use Al-Qaeda to halt Houthi expansionism, which would be a foolish step. Naturally, Iran’s influence in Yemen will grow and put pressure on Saudi Arabia in its backyard. One diplomat summarised the paradox of Western policies by saying: “In my opinion, one of the obstacles is that the West does not view Iran as a real threat to its interests, unless it possesses nuclear weapons. It is as if Iran did not cause most of the crises in the Middle East by interfering in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and devouring Yemen. The problem is not Iran’s nuclear ambition, like most believe, but it is aspiring for an empire under the cover of religion.

“I believe, and I may be mistaken, that if Iran stops enriching uranium and pursuing its nuclear ambitions it would be a greater threat for countries in the region, because US and international economic sanctions against would be lifted. This would allow Tehran to expand its support and manipulation of its anarchist tools and alliances in the region to put Gulf countries under siege, and increase its influence and domination of the Middle East as a whole. We would be in a bad position if Iran can manufacture nuclear weapons and perhaps even worse if Iran agrees not to manufacture [nuclear weapons] and increases its tampering in the region without economic sanctions and political isolation.”

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