Saturday,17 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1353, (20 - 26 July 2017)
Saturday,17 November, 2018
Issue 1353, (20 - 26 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

United in war, divided in power

The Houthi-Saleh coalition in Yemen, forged by necessity in war, could well collapse if regional and domestic actors manage to extend the breach between them, writes Hossam Radman


United in war, divided  in power
United in war, divided in power

When Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain declared a diplomatic boycott of Qatar and put it under diplomatic siege, the General People’s Congress Party (GPC) in Yemen quickly praised the step describing it as “positive due to Qatar’s support of terrorism”. Sanaa, however, is not united. Countering the praise of the GPC, the top Houthi leader Mohamed Ali Al-Houthi, chairman of the Revolutionary Council, said his group was on good terms with Doha. In fact, Houthis invited Al-Jazeera to return to Sanaa and begin reporting again after its offices were shut down two years ago.

This division among the “coup coalition” is nothing new or surprising. The common denominators between the two sides seem much fewer than reasons for conflict and separation. They became united under the torrent of Operation Storm of Resolve that melted icy relations during six wars in Saada and a popular uprising across Yemen.

The composition, rhetoric and outlook of the Houthis and GPC make conflict between them inevitable. The former is a religious group that was viewed as apostate since its inception, and has fought many wars with the state of Yemen, finally concluding with a popular uprising in 2011 with Houthis moving from Saada to Sanaa to lead protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime alongside the Joint Meeting Party (JMP) and Southern Movement.

On the other side, the GPC is the largest and most significant party in Yemen, especially after it overthrew its unity partner, the Yemeni Socialist Party, in the mid-1990s. The party was conceived and grew under the patronage of the regime and its political and social alliances. It spread throughout state institutions and adopted a secular political platform without advocating any particular ideology. The GPC and its leader were very pragmatic, moving from one camp to the next and running the country through a delicate balance that in the past caused it to ally itself with everyone fighting against it today.

SECRET UNDERSTANDING BECOMES EXPLICIT COALITION: The Houthis did not make their way from Saada to Omran then Sanaa just on their own acumen. They were helped along by the folly of their political rivals (the Reform Party and President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi who mismanaged the transition phase) and the shrewdness of their tactical ally (Saleh and the GPC) which did not oppose Houthi action and allowed it to move in and eliminate all its enemies.

However, regional transformations, fluidity of events in Yemen and the ensuing military intervention led by Saudi Arabia, brought this tacit understanding into the light. In May 2015, Saleh stood on the rubble of his house that was destroyed by coalition strikes to declare: “I am willing to enter an alliance with Ansar Allah and anyone who will stand up to aggression”. This was a turning point that crowned coordination between the two powers ruling this vital region in Yemen.

After one year of close military action resulting from the war, Saleh and Houthis tried to transform their coalition from a reaction to political action to win extra “legitimacy” points. The Supreme Political Council (SPC) was formed in July 2016 to run the country and restore the constitution and political institutions. Saleh, who controls the majority in parliament, volunteered to mobilise his bloc to approve the SPC and establish a parallel legitimacy resulting in a war government that manages domestic affairs.

CONSTRAINTS ON THE COALITION: Although Saleh is persistent in making the partnership with the Houthis a success and directly intervened several times to state that attacking Houthis serves the interests of “aggressors”, this confluence remained superficial without successfully translating into action. Houthis, who lead the Political Council, are still not prepared to dissolve the Revolutionary Council established in 2015 during their revolutionary declaration that dissolved parliament.

When this council was formed, it seemed Saleh had succeeded in turning back the clock to pre-2011 since he forced the Houthis to support a parliament where he has the majority, in return for transforming their de facto power into a legitimate power, albeit minimally.

But this did not include Houthi exclusionary actions within state institutions. Many inexperienced Houthi youth replaced GPC cadres and the duality of power sharing continued through a network of revolutionary councils and unofficial recruitment, to the advantage of Houthis from outside the military and security apparatus. Despite the reality of a common threat and a balance of weakness that forces Saleh to ally with Houthis because he cannot fight by himself, and forces Houthis to partner with him because they cannot run the country by themselves, events indicate no strategic coalition is forming between the partners in power in this vital part of Yemen.

HOW THE ARAB COALITION VIEWS THIS RELATIONSHIP: From the Saudi point of view, weak ties in Sanaa are the Achilles heel of the coup through which it can overthrow the Yemeni capital politically, since it failed to do so militarily. This could explain the separate and unilateral official and unofficial overtures by Riyadh to coup partners. On occasion, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir would announce he sat down with Houthis, and at others informed sources reveal that Houthi spokesman Mohamed Abdel-Salam frequently visited “Dhahran of the South” for direct political dialogue with the Saudis, near the end of Obama’s presidency.

What many thought were preludes for a political breakthrough turned out to be tactical moves by Saudi Arabia to waste time until US President Donald Trump came to visit and convey a strong message against Iran and its allies. In turn, this was reflected in Saudi Arabia’s position that became more hard line towards Houthis and more lenient towards Saleh. In a recent television interview, Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman said there is a possibility of dealing with Saleh if he withdraws support from the Houthis.

The structural differences between the two powers in Sanaa and lack of trust due to shared history cause many to believe this fragile partnership will collapse. Nonetheless, the war that was the main coagulant for cohesion is still raging and becoming more complicated, which means victory will come to those who are most patient. The ability of the Sanaa partners to stand fast remains contingent on the strength of their coalition. Once regional or domestic actors drive a wedge between them, there will be a key shift that can be penetrated militarily or politically, and finally end the war in Yemen instead of the current monotony and stagnation.

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