The Yemeni government and the Houthi movement signed a peace agreement on Sunday, September 21, after Houthi militias took control over government institutions, including the Ministry of Defense, in the capital city Sanaa. The Houthi movement, also known as Ansarallah, sees its actions as the continuation of the 2011 revolution and as an effort to fulfill the demands of the Yemeni people. Opponents of the group describe the takeover as a coup. Either way the events in Sanaa unfolded so quickly that observers inside and outside the country remain puzzled as to how it was possible for the Houthi movement to take over the city so quickly.
Popular support is a primary reason for the group’s success in the past weeks. Since the outbreak of the mass protests in early 2011, the Houthis continuously gained popular backing outside of their traditional support base. On the one hand, the movement represents demands and grievances that are widespread within the Yemeni population. These include a demand for the formation of a new government, about which Yemenis have grown increasingly impatient. The Houthis’ second main demand is to reinstate fuel subsidies, which the government lifted in late July 2014 causing hikes in fuel prices. Price increases caused widespread anger, which the Houthis tapped into.
On the other hand, the Houthi movement gained sympathy among those parts of the population that strongly oppose the Islah party. Parts of the predominantly Zaydi (a subgroup of Shiite Islam) population in northern Yemen increasingly see Islah as a threat, since it gained power after the 2011 protests.
A second reason for the group’s success is the government’s reluctance to enter into a conflict with the Houthis. Since 2011, the Houthis have steadily increased their territorial control outside of the northern governorate of Saada. As the group slowly crept closer to the capital, leaving hundreds dead and thousands of civilians injured and displaced, the state army did not formally intervene. Instead, President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, together with the international community, urged the Houthis to put down their weapons and come to the negotiations table.
The troops that did fight the Houthis in an attempt to stop their advancement were affiliated with General Ali Mohsin. The General had previously led the Yemeni army’s First Armoured Division and was responsible for the government’s war against the Houthis in Saada between 2004 and 2010. Other groups that fought the Houthis this round include tribes affiliated with the Islah party.
Many other tribes in the region either joined the Houthis or permitted them to pass unhindered, which is the third reason for the group’s success. Many of these tribes turned their backs to their leader, Sadeq al-Ahmar, and supported the Houthis instead. The al-Ahmar family used to be the most powerful tribal family in the country and is closely affiliated with the Islah party. In the course of the conflict, many observers alleged that former President Ali Abdullah Saleh convinced northern tribes not to fight the Houthi movement and not to support the Ahmars. And indeed, when the group entered the northern governorate of Amran, it was able to quickly take control over the stronghold of Hashid tribal leaders, who are Saleh’s main adversaries.
When the Houthis entered Sanaa, troops were described as simply standing by and not preventing the Houthis from taking control of the city. On Sunday, after the peace agreement was signed, the minister of interior immediately announced that police and security forces should not resist the Houthis and should follow the group’s orders.
When the group began its military campaign in the capital, it became clear that its main target was the Islah party, not the government. Most of the fighting within the capital took place in the area of Shamlan, in north-western Sanaa, and in Hasabah, in the north. In these areas, the Islah party and its affiliates have a strong presence. The al-Iman University, run by Abdulmajeed al-Zindani, a conservative cleric with alleged ties to al-Qaeda, is situated in Shamlan and was over run by the Houthis. The base of the First Armored Division, led by Ali Mohsin until 2012, is located in the vicinity of the university. The Islah party’s headquarters is also in this area.
Symbolically, the area around the First Armored Division is important. Change Square, an intersection on the southern side of the public university, is close to the army base. It is here where the non-partisan popular uprising of 2011 began in Sanaa. After Islah joined the protests in late February 2011, large protests took place on a highway on the northern end of the university campus – next to the military camp, as well as an Islah-run university and hospital. While these Islah-dominated areas turned into fighting zones over the last few days, Change Square has been occupied by Houthi protesters, who continue to demonstrate against the state and widespread corruption, demanding the implementation of the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference (NDC).
Thus the elites who stand accused of hijacking the 2011 revolution have been the target of the attacks by the Houthis. The houses of Ali Mohsin and Hamid al-Ahmar, a leader of the Hashid tribe, in southern Sanaa were targeted by Houthi fighters. Members of the group also entered the houses of Islah leaders, such as Mohammed Qahtan in Shamlan. Notably, the house of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who waged a war against the Houthis while president, was not attacked.
Opponents of the Houthi movement believe Saleh let the Houthis take over the city in an attempt to eliminate Islah. For Islahis, the Houthi takeover represents the end of the 2011 revolution. When looking at the agreement that was reached between the Houthis and the government, there are reasons to remain optimistic, however. At least on paper and in their speeches, the Houthis appear to be pursuing the establishment of a state that represents all parts of Yemeni society, including the disenfranchised southern movement. They demand the implementation of the NDC outcomes, to fight corruption and increase transparency. It is now up to the Houthis to prove they are genuinely interested in positive reforms that respond to the demands of the Yemeni population.