Once touted as a relative success story among Arab uprisings, the internationally backed transition process in Yemen has unravelled in the wake of the September 21 Houthi takeover of Sana. Nominally there is still a political process in place, but events on the ground are moving in a different direction and the country appears poised for yet another round of upheaval, possibly more transformative than the events of 2011.
In the north, the balance of power has tipped sharply in favor of the Houthis, a predominantly Zaydi-Shi‘i movement that took control of the capital in September and has since consolidated and expanded southward and along the Red Sea coast. Supporters of the movement see the Houthis as correcting the wrongs of the country’s 2011 transition agreement, which preserved the power and corruption of old regime elites. They praise the movement’s willingness to confront corruption, combat al-Qa‘ida, and fill a security vacuum left by a feckless government.
Opponents see things differently. They view the Houthis as an Iranian-backed militia and accuse them of aligning with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh in a marriage of convenience to gain power. They are convinced that the Houthis harbor a discriminatory agenda aimed at preserving the political dominance of the northern, Zaydi highlands and, more specifically, of reviving the privileged political status of Hashemites, descendants of the Prophet Muhammad who ruled north Yemen for over a millennia before the republican revolution of 1962.
Undoubtedly, the Houthis have shaken a moribund transition process and opened new opportunities to upend the corrupt political economy. But they are also polarizing politics and compounding political and economic challenges. Saudi Arabia increasingly views them as Iranian proxies and has reportedly suspended the bulk of its financial assistance to Yemen. Support from the Kingdom has kept the country’s economy afloat to the tune of at least $4 billion since 2012. If they do pull the plug, it will almost certainly increase hardship for average Yemenis, undermine the new technocratic government formed in November, and raise the prospect of fiscal collapse in early 2015.
Inside the country, the Houthi takeover is galvanizing calls for southern independence. Separatists argue that recent events are further evidence that they cannot tie their political future to the north. They are betting that Saudi Arabia will eventually change its stance on unity and support their independence bid as a bulwark to a Houthi-dominated north. Most worrisome, by taking the lead in the fight against al-Qa‘ida, the Houthis are opening the door to a sectarian conflict that the country has never experienced. Yemen does not have a history of Shi‘i-Sunni violence—Zaydis, Shi‘i Muslims who form the majority in the far north, and Shafais, Sunnis who are the majority in the rest of the country, are close in religious practice and have lived relatively peacefully for centuries. Al-Qa‘ida, however, is explicitly framing the battle in sectarian terms and is using it as a recruitment tool. This dynamic is overlapping with historically grounded political tensions between the Zaydi highlands and the Shafai south in ways that could open new conflict dynamics.
The political and economic situation is increasingly grim, but Yemen’s post-Saleh transition has been in trouble for some time. The November 2011 Gulf Corporation Council (GCC) Initiative and UN-backed implementation mechanisms removed the long-time autocrat from power and temporarily avoided a civil war, but they failed to resolve intra-elite rivalries or to fundamentally change the corrupt political economy in which these fights are played out. Instead, over the course of three years, a shuffled deck of old regime elites belatedly ticked off a transition to-do list and fought over state spoils, while economic and security conditions for average Yemenis deteriorated, giving way to frustration with the political process and those leading it.
For a time, widespread conflict was held at bay by the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), a ten-month negotiation intended to lay the groundwork for a new constitution. The NDC succeeded in bringing together diverse political stakeholders and producing a set of principles for building a democratic, federal state. Yet results were often vague and the conference failed to produce a clear consensus on pre-election power sharing arrangements or on the contentious issue of state structure, particularly the future of the south, where the desire for independence is widespread and growing.
The conference ended in January 2014, but six months later core political agreements, such as the formation of a more inclusive and capable government, remained unmet. Worse still, a poorly-timed decision by the government to lift fuel subsidies in July proved too much for the system to bear. The Houthis took quick advantage of the national discord, organizing demonstrations demanding a reinstatement of subsidies, a new government, and a swift implementation of NDC agreements. Their demands resonated widely and far beyond their core support base.
Even before protests came to Sana, the Houthis had been gaining strength. They succeeded in attenuating the power of their political rivals in the far north through a series of battles in which they aligned with disgruntled tribesmen and Saleh loyalists against common enemies, including Salafis, the Sunni Islamist party Islah, the Ahmar family, and General Ali Mohsin al-Ahmar, a powerful commander under Saleh who defected during the 2011 uprising.
A similar dynamic played out in the capital. As peaceful protests degenerated into battles between the Houthis and fighters loyal to their arch rival, Ali Mohsin, large parts of the security forces, many with connections to Saleh, sided with or at least refused to fight the Houthis. When President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi declined to issue public orders for the military to oppose Houthi advances, thousands of Sunni militiamen affiliated with Islah chose not to enter the fray. The result was a swift Houthi victory and a virtual surrendering of the city, the implications of which are still unfolding.
In the shadow of the takeover, all parties signed the UN-brokered September 21 Peace and National Power Sharing Agreement (PNPA). On paper, the agreement is positive and long overdue. Already it has produced a new, inclusive technocratic government. It also outlines steps for addressing far-reaching economic and military-security sector reforms, to include anti-corruption measures and disarmament. Theoretically, it reopens the unresolved issue of state structure, particularly the number of federal regions.
But the agreement may be too little, too late. Confidence in and commitment to the existing political process is at a new low. The Houthis claim commitment to the PNPA, but they have little incentive to implement steps like disarmament that would impinge upon their growing power. Already they have broken the spirit of the deal by tightening their grip in Sana and expanding territorial control, ostensibly to fight al-Qa‘ida and to provide security and stop corruption until the government can carry out its responsibilities. As of December, they are the dominant authority in no less than nine of the country’s 21 governorates, with representatives in ministries and other state institutions overseeing decision making. Most recently they have directly challenged Hadi and the authority of the new government by, among other things, rejecting the president’s appointment of a new army chief of staff, storming the central bank, and ousting the director of the country’s second largest port, Hodeidah.
The two main political parties are also less than committed. Following the November 7 UNSC sanctions against Saleh for his alleged role in the Houthi takeover, his party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), is now openly hostile to the president, the UN Special Envoy Jamal bin Omar, and the newly appointed transition government. Saleh’s supporters have voted to remove Hadi from the party’s leadership and they appear to be betting on government failure, possibly waiting on an opportunity to step into the political void. The other major political party, Islah, has no confidence that the Houthis will honour the PNPA and they feel betrayed by Hadi for failing to use the military to stop Houthi advances. The party is still in shock from Houthi gains, but they are far from defeated. As they recalibrate, members worry that some of their rank and file will turn to extremism, even al-Qa‘ida, to counter Houthi advances.
In the south, calls for separation are louder than ever and what limited support existed for the NDC has largely dissipated. A minority of southern movement activists, a group seeking independence or greater autonomy for the south, are still open to the possibility of two-part (north-south) federalism, a position that the Houthis were supportive of during the dialogue. But the majority view recent events as an opportunity to galvanize domestic momentum and Gulf support for independence.
In this context, reviving a realistic, locally supported political process will be far from easy and may not be possible. Much depends on the Houthis and how they interpret their strengths and weaknesses. They are the victors for now and have rapidly filled a void left by an inept government. But their dominance is as real as it is fragile, dependent on common enemies and frustration with the transition, rather than support for a specific political program. If they realize their limitations and embrace inclusiveness and compromise, especially with Islah and southern movement activists, they would significantly improve the prospects for peaceful reform. If they do not, they risk unleashing new rounds of conflict with regional and sectarian undertones.
Yemen’s political trajectory is also tied to decisions made in the Gulf. GCC countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, are in a unique position to exacerbate or mitigate growing tensions. Unfortunately for Yemen, Riyadh increasingly views events in Sana through the prism of its regional struggle with Iran, in which the Houthis are seen as Tehran’s proxies. Based on this understanding, Saudi may be tempted to financially pull the plug on the new government, leaving the Houthis and by extension Iran holding the bag. They may also pursue divide and rule tactics by supporting anti-Houthi proxies.
Both policies are likely to backfire, worsening security conditions in Yemen and, by extension, Saudi. If the Kingdom wants to support Yemen’s political process, it should provide the new government, which is not controlled by the Houthis, with the support it needs to rebuild confidence in the state and the political process. This may not work, but the alternative is worse. If the new government falters under economic collapse, this will almost certainly open the door to a renewed power struggle in the north and possibly a chaotic disintegration into multiple regions, not just north and south.
Alternatively, Saudi could help to calm growing tensions and to channel inter-communal competition back into a political process. It has the financial leverage to demand cooperation from the government and the Houthis for implementing key economic and security sector reforms, particularly the phased disarmament and integration of Houthis fighters in to the security services, in exchange for economic assistance and investment. Saudi Arabia and the GCC also have long-standing ties with key stakeholders in both the north and the south that could help reach the informal political consensus necessary to implement agreements, or, in the case of the south, come to a more durable solution. Unfortunately, the history of Saudi-Yemeni relations as well as recent dynamics bode poorly for this option.
Unlike other countries experiencing popular mobilization in 2011, Yemen has neither a full-fledged counterrevolution nor civil war. Instead it is hanging somewhere in between. The Houthi takeover and accompanying power sharing agreement in some ways opens a new opportunity to implement reforms and to address outstanding issues, including state structure. But it has also produced a new set of domestic and regional obstacles that leave little room for optimism.
 “Yemen Faces Economic Crisis as Saudi Mulls Pulling the Plug,” IRIN, December 1, 2014, http://www.irinnews.org/report/100901/yemen-faces-economic-crisis-as-saudi-mulls-pulling-plug.