Sunday,19 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1217, (16 - 22 October 2014)
Sunday,19 August, 2018
Issue 1217, (16 - 22 October 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Houthis in Sanaa

Yemen’s disintegration may lead to a sectarian war that could resemble the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, writes Medhat Al-Zahed

Al-Ahram Weekly

Yemen faces an uncertain future after armed Houthis swept into the capital. Despite the signing of a power-sharing agreement with the president and a security protocol, the Iranian-backed Houthis have moved to take control of key government institutions by force.

Houthi militias are now reported to be moving towards strategic oil fields and the Bab Al-Mandeb Straits.

According to some, the Houthis did not stage an armed invasion of Sanaa to display their military muscle or realise limited demands. They intend to fill the power vacuum that followed a popular uprising and ongoing conflicts between Yemen’s tribal groups that have pushed the country to the brink of disintegration.

The Houthi advance signals not only a radical shift in the distribution of power — as witnessed by the power-sharing agreement and its security annex — but the creation of a new regional balance. Traditional forces, supported by the Gulf and the US, have lost control to the Iranian-allied Houthis.

The crisis surrounding the premiership reflects the changes in the balance of power. President Hadi Mansour had planned to appoint Ahmed Awad Bin Mubarak, director of his office, as prime minister, but the political bureau of the Houthi Ansar Allah group opposed it.

Ansar Allah denounced the appointment as an “external decision”. It issued a statement calling Bin Mubarak’s promotion “a disparagement of the sovereignty and independence of Yemen [which] breaches the consensus that Yemenis have unanimously agreed should serve as the ruling principle during the interim phase and in all matters concerning the management of the affairs of the country.”

It added that the leader of Ansar Allah, Abdul Malek Al-Houthi, would deliver a speech to the Yemeni people calling on his supporters to stage mass demonstrations, bring down the government and force the president to retract his decision.

Ali Al-Bakhiti, a member of the Houthi group’s political bureau, echoed the same position on his Facebook page. His post read: “Any decision taken without consensus will have no tangible impact on the ground.”

He said that the decision to appoint Bin Mubarak as prime minister was “a clear breach of the recently signed Peace and National Partnership Agreement and proof that some parties are still attempting to impose de facto realities, a policy that has plunged the country into so many tragedies and wars.”

Al-Bakhiti and other Houthi leaders insist the decision to appoint Bin Mubarak was taken in accordance with “foreign dictates”. The US Embassy, in particular, is accused of dictating the choice of prime minister and forcing the president to renege on his pledges.


THE HOUTHI VETO: Bin Mubarak’s appointment was immediately withdrawn, showing that the Houthis now possess, if not decision-making powers, then at least an effective veto.

Bin Mubarak’s withdrawn appointment was not the only outcome of the challenge. Al-Qaeda in Yemen had undertaken military actions against Houthi targets, but these were all outside of Sanaa. But when Houthi protestors gathered in the capital’s main square a bomb, allegedly planted by Al-Qaeda, was detonated, killing 43 and wounding dozens of others.

Some analysts say that Al-Qaeda was not solely responsible for the explosion. They suggest the involvement of other groups that feel threatened by the convergence of opposing militias and grassroots protestors.

They say that traditional Yemeni forces and their allies, in their attempts to roll back Houthi influence, have resorted to sectarian terrorist bombings and are willing to turn a blind eye to the emergence if militant cells affiliated with the Islamic State (IS) group.


THE SIEGE OF SANAA: Developments in Yemen following the Houthi siege of the capital cannot be reduced to the simple binary of Shia militias versus Sunni state, or the emergence of a Houthi state at a gateway to the Gulf.

Events cannot be reduced to an Iranian-backed conspiracy to partition Yemen which somehow made the Houthi invasion of the capital as easy as passing a knife through butter. There remains the crucial questions of how the Houthis could pass through large stretches of Yemen observed, perhaps even welcomed, by the Sunni majority, and how the command of the pro-regime Sunni army and security forces has become so slack that orders were issued not to engage as strategic site after strategic site fell to Houthi forces.

What the events in Sanaa underline is the crumbling of a state based on tribal alliances and the fragmentation of the tribal/class alliances that controlled wealth and power for nearly half a century under the leadership of Al-Ahmar clan. This disintegration saw the decline of power-sharing arrangements between the palace and the tribe.

Pithily expressed by the Yemeni saying “I’m his sheikh and he’s my president”, the arrangement allowed for mutual backscratching by tribal sheikhs and the presidency, and the spread of corruption and despotism that eventually provoked the February 2011 popular uprising.

Most reports suggest that Yemenis have welcomed Houthi militia victories over the Hashed tribe and, above all, the powerful Al-Ahmar clan. The enormous influence wielded by the former tribal chief, Abdullah Bin Hussein Al-Ahmar, was the product of a close bond forged between the Hashed tribe and successive regimes in Sanaa since the declaration of the Yemeni republic in 1962.

Al-Ahmar power was uninterrupted apart from a brief hiatus from 1975 to 1977 during which President Ibrahim Al-Hamdi managed to curb tribal influence over the management of national affairs and to keep tribal elders at bay. Sobered by the lessons instilled in this two-year break, tribal leaders adopted a new approach: they refrained from direct conflict with the government unless the government deprived them of what they considered their dues.

Over time the interests of the two sides were indistinguishable. Many members of the Hashed tribal confederation entered the military corps. It takes only a cursory glance at lists of military commanders to realise how close the relationship between this tribe and political power had grown.

One of the most concrete manifestations of the saying “I’m his sheikh and he’s my president” is to be found in the fact that many Hashed members who enlisted in the Republican Guards became officers in the corps charged with protecting the president.


PALACE CONFLICTS AND MASS DEMONSTRATIONS: There are reasons for the general sense of welcome that citizens accorded Houthi successes, or at least the neutrality with which they greeted the Houthi’s arrival in Sanaa, but these are insufficient to explain the degree of state disintegration the Houthi invasion has thrown into relief. The term “paper tiger” does not even begin to describe a government that waved the white flag without even daring to bare its teeth or roar.

There is a backstory to the crumbling state that has repercussions on the sectarian, regional and international conflicts in Yemen and is tied up with Yemen’s betrayed revolution.

Palace conflicts were a major factor in the disintegration of Yemen’s centres of power. They were triggered by former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s plans to have his son Ahmed succeed him. General Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar, of Al-Ahmar tribe, rebelled against the succession project and came out in support of the revolution, mobilising the First Armoured Division and some members of the Republican Guards.

President Saleh would later accuse these parties of carrying out the bombing of the presidential mosque in which he was wounded, leading to his trip to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment.

Away from palace intrigues and conflicts, ordinary Yemeni’s filled town and city squares and demanded “the downfall of the regime”. The revolution deepened divisions in the palace and undermined longstanding political arrangements between the Hashed tribe, members of Al-Ahmar clan and the Yemeni Reform Party, the political wing of the Yemeni chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood.

There was a desperate scramble to climb aboard the revolutionary bandwagon, with key players conveniently forgetting they were partners in the regime they now claimed to want to topple.

These were the forces that jumped at the Gulf initiative calling for Saleh to step down in exchange for a safe exit and keeping the cornerstones of his regime intact. The initiative safeguarded the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) and guaranteed it a leading role in the national unity government.

This led to the promotion of Saleh’s vice president to president through elections in which he was the only candidate. The Gulf initiative’s sole raison d’etre was to replicate a regime that repression had been unable to save.

Saleh returned from Saudi Arabia in September following medical treatment. In June he inaugurated the resumption of his activities with a bloodbath reminiscent of the Friday of Dignity massacre in March 2011.


TOTAL ATTRITION: The ongoing conflict sapped the energies of the masses. Yemen’s ruling circles, caught between the blows delivered by the uprising and from a resurgent secessionist movement in the south, also wearied of their battles with each other. Al-Qaeda had also waded into the equation, staging numerous terrorist attacks against military targets.

The Houthi invasion of Sanaa came against a backdrop of state disintegration and popular frustration. The federal state had tried to undermine Houthi demographic unity and restrict their access to oil-rich areas and to seaports. Yemenis from the south were treated in a similar way, as ruling elites tried to fragment the region and cleave off Hadramawt.

The federal project redrew the borders of regions to ensure Houthis were restricted to Azal, which includes Sanaa and the Houthi bastions of Sa’dah, Amran and Dhamar, closing the sea access they had previously enjoyed through the governorate of Hajjah, which was attached to the Tahamah region. They were also stripped of influence over the oil fields in Al-Jawf.

Mohamed Al-Bakhiti voiced the Houthi reaction to this arrangement: “We reject [this partition] because it divides Yemen into poor and rich. The proof is that this division brought Sa’dah together with Amran and Dhamar, whereas Sa’dah is presumably closer, culturally, geographically and socially, to Hajjah and Al-Jawf which are oil-rich areas with outlets on the sea.”

He added that the administrative divisions had been designed to ensure Saudi Arabia has access to a large tribal/petroleum backyard. He made particular mention of the oil-rich regions of Saba and Hadramawt, which share both borders and tribal ties with Saudi Arabia.


POWER VACUUM: As happened in all Arab Spring countries, the best organised forces crushed in to fill the vacuum created by the collapse of the centres of power. How these forces did this varied from country to country, and was often determined by the degree of cohesion of the military establishment.

In Yemen, the Houthis proved to be the force that was the best organised and the least targeted by public anger. It was they, therefore, who succeeded in filling the power vacuum and enjoyed the fruits of the betrayed revolution, palace conflicts and the breakdown in tribal hegemony.

The Houthis received Iranian support but this is not what made their victory, or paved their path. Foreign conspiracies do not work unless the soil is already fertile.

The Houthis will try to build on their victory through establishing partnerships that guarantee them a central position in government and decision-making centres. Currently, they say they will build their military forces so they become the kernel of a national army that will safeguard Yemeni sovereignty and territory and confront Al-Qaeda.

But elements of the old regime and regional forces hostile to the emergence of a Houthi state at a gateway to the Gulf will not cease their efforts to undermine Houthi influence and limit Iran’s reach, which now extends from the Levant to Saudi Arabia’s backyard.

In the absence of conventional forces capable of containing the threat, Yemen faces the possibility of a clash between Houthis and Al-Qaeda, which would could lead to a sectarian war.

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