Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1217, (16 - 22 October 2014)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1217, (16 - 22 October 2014)

Ahram Weekly


Al-Ahram Weekly

Dilemmas in Yemen

Sudden and rapid developments have swept Yemen recently as Houthi militias have seized control over large parts of the capital Sanaa and ultimately imposed their conditions on the country’s President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi. One upshot of this has been an agreement between the government and some political components of the society that have responded to the Houthi demands, among them a say in the choice of prime minister for a national unity government.
The Yemeni dilemma is multifaceted and complex. There is much more to it than the Houthis’ seizure of large tracts of the country and their march into the capital overtaking a military regiment that buckled before the onslaught. It is also about a government that is riddled with ineptitude and corruption, and one so weak that it has not even been able to safeguard the borders of Yemen’s famed capital let alone achieve security and stability.
There is another new aspect to the Yemeni dilemma that adds a complicating facet to the others, being the shift in the nature of the conflicts in Yemen. Yemen’s history is riddled with conventional, if bitter, tribal conflicts, but these have begun to change recently into something that is far more dangerous and sectarian. Recent months have brought a mounting conflict between the Reform Party, the political wing of the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Houthis, members of the Zaidi denomination of Shia Islam who are backed by Tehran. It has been as if Yemen has been destined to become another front after Iraq in the proxy wars between Iran and Turkey.   
It was clear from the outset that the Houthis had the advantage in this fight in the light of their long combat experience during the country’s civil war from their stronghold in Sadah. The Muslim Brotherhood, by contrast, has not always had a strong political presence in Yemen in spite of the prominence of its religious leader, Sheikh Al-Zindani, who has remained more of a religious than a political figure. But the fact that some members of the powerful Al-Ahmar clan joined the Brotherhood has given it some major tribal backing. This ancient clan, known for its hostility to the former imamate system in Yemen, has built strong ties with neighbouring Arab countries, and the late Sheikh Abdullah Bin Hussein Al-Ahmar long had close relations with the Arab Gulf countries.

Clearly, therefore, the conflict has significant regional dimensions. One is the Iranian bid to expand the country’s strategic depth southwards to the shores of the Bab Al-Mandeb Straits, eastwards to Afghanistan, and westwards to the Mediterranean. Arguably, Iran has now succeeded in achieving much of this strategy due to deficiencies in the Arab political system and the Arab inability to restrain Tehran’s ambitions.
However, what has happened thus far is not the end of the road. The map of tribal alliances in Yemen is as fluid as the shifting Saharan sands, and history provides ample proof that countries that are powerful and mighty one day will take their turn as backwaters the next. An objective reading of the situation indicates that the Houthis cannot expand their activities regionally at this time, since their strength resides in their solidarity and self-sufficiency within their historical borders in their stronghold in Sadah. That their ambitions have now driven them into the rest of Yemen, plunging them into the maze of Yemeni politics, may well be the first nail in their coffin.
The events in Sanaa have been less the product of the Houthis’ military strength than the failure of the Yemeni government to fight back, and they have been the result of the alliance that former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and some of his military contingents struck up with them. No real combat took place between the Houthis and government forces, which, in any other country at least, would be presumed to be able to protect the capital. In Yemen, by contrast, the Houthis met with no resistance and encountered little other besides government negligence and incompetence.

What Yemen needs most in order to emerge from its current crisis is an institutionalised state representative of all components of Yemeni society. This state must be backed by a strong national army, which is to say an army fortified by a national and patriotic creed rather than one built on tribal or sectarian allegiances. A national Yemeni army would be one that did not target the Houthi militias exclusively, but instead acted against any forces that jeopardised the security, stability and territorial integrity of the country.
No reminder is needed that Al-Qaeda in Yemen is also waiting in the wings to see how it could benefit from recent events. Its members will certainly have taken note of how easily the Houthis were able to march into Sanaa, and they will undoubtedly expect that they will be able to do something similar should the time come. Indeed, they may test just this assumption in the days to come. The recent developments in Sanaa could also inspire the country’s southern movement to give a fresh push to its desire for secession and the creation of an independent state.
This is the crux of the problem. When the state grows weak, its enemies grow bold and the agendas of fragmentation and partition grow more daring. Should this happen, the Arab and regional powers will seize the opportunity to expand their influence and will doubtless rush in to offer financial and military backing to various militias, hastening a mad spiral of destruction whose chief victim will be the Yemeni people. There is no need to point fingers or mention names since the identities of the main players are well known.
Solving the Yemeni crisis will mean solving the problems that plague the country and its people. Foremost among these are abject poverty, the marginalisation of the peripheries, the weakness of the central state, the lack of a professional and well-trained army backed by a national ideology and the absence of a general patriotic ethos that can elevate national affiliation above sectarian, tribal and other loyalties and give priority to the interests of a free and proud Yemen that is capable of steering its own fate with dignity.

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