The Houthis rise to political prominence in Yemen since 2014 and their apparent alliance with former president Ali Abdullah Salih have largely occurred at the expense of the Islah party, which is considered a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Once viewed by many as the main “hijacker” of Yemen’s youth revolution and primary beneficiary of the transitional process, Islah has since been sidelined. Within a few months after the Houthi’s September 2014 takeover of the capital, Sanaa, Islah lost its grip over most government institutions, the army, and the media; its leaders were either silenced or fled abroad.
But Islah’s downfall is not just a result of the success of its Houthi rivals. It is, after all, no coincidence that in the wake of the “Arab Spring” Islah is but one of several Islamist parties that has had a reversal in fortune. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisia’s Ennahda have also been pressured, if not violently repressed, over the last two years. The Islamic State in Syria and Iraq has tried to marginalize the Brotherhood in an attempt to become the legitimate representative for Sunnis across the Muslim world. At the regional level, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with tacit approval from the West, have taken the lead in cracking down against the allegedly transnational Brotherhood, which was once their ally.
Islah’s downfall can only be understood against this backdrop, and in light of the peculiar alliances the party has built between tribal, Islamist, technocratic, military, and business groups in Yemen. Even before 2011, these factions have developed increasingly divergent political strategies.
With “Yemen on the brink,” there are few potentially constructive options. Between a Yemeni state dominated by the Houthis and/or the clan of former President Salih and one in which Sunni jihadi groups are dominant, there is space for other political actors to regain control and steer the country in the right direction. Thanks to its history and gains made during the revolutionary process, Islah can fill some of these gaps. As such, it remains a player that has the potential to help alternatives to sectarian war and chaos emerge.
The Failure of Islah’s Transitional Strategy
Islah gave the 2011 uprising against President Salih its “critical mass” and applied its significant political resources to force Salih out of office. But, it also did its best not to appear in the front line. Officially, Islah received a relatively small amount of institutional power during the country’s GCC-mandated transitional process launched in November 2011. It did not claim top positions in the national unity government, and willingly worked under the framework of the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP, al-Liqa al-mushtarak), the coalition of six parties formed in the early 2000s in opposition to President Salih. During the process, Islah let more marginal members of the JMP, like the Socialist party, appear in the political limelight both to support the transition to democracy and place pressure on Salih, who remained politically active. During the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) that began in March 2013, Islahi leadership largely advocated for consensus and pro-actively sought to support the transition process and interim President Abd Rabuh Mansur Hadi.
Islah’s “moderate” strategy did not stave off criticism, however. Not all Islahis played according to the “rules.” For instance, Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, former head of the party’s consultative council (majlis al-shura), developed a radical rhetoric on constitutional issues and relations with the United States, which departed from Islah’s new image. A disconnect also appeared between the strategy of Islah’s Sanaa based leadership and local Islahi actors.
Islah’s new dominance did not go unnoticed. The party was criticized for its governing style and high-jacking of the revolutionary process. As the transition continued, Islahi encroachment on state institutions became increasingly visible, particularly at the local level and especially on the issue of restructuring the country’s military apparatus.
The party developed a poor track record when it came to fighting corruption. Many of Islah’s opponents, including Salih supporters, some liberals, Southern Hiraki secessionists, and an increasing number of Houthis, bluntly argued that Islah was “brotherizing” the Yemeni state and blamed the party for the transition’s failures, insecurity, and collapse of the economy.
Beyond its feud with the Houthis, Islah’s relations with the Southern Hirak movement was ambivalent, if not negative. The movement emerged in the late 2000s to contest northern domination of the economy and state institutions. Over time, it evolved to support secession for those governorates that had made up South Yemen, a state that had ceased to exist in 1990. Islah member Wahid Ali Rashid’s mismanagement of local political issues while governor of the southern city of Aden in 2012-2013 did not generate sympathy for the party among citizens of the South. During the NDC negotiations, Islah’s opposition to federalism also suggested that the Islamist project was connected with a unitary Yemeni nation and disconnected from Southern independence.
Islah’s Internal Diversity and Changing Circumstances in 2014
The “Islahi” label is multifaceted. Even those who oppose the party do not share the same definition of what it represents. For some, Islah is mainly a Sunni fundamentalist movement. Others see it as headed by corrupt businessmen. Yet others depict Islah as a collection of tribal militias. In reality, Islah is an odd association of groups that have taken different positions over the years on issues as fundamental as supporting democracy and accommodating Salih. This diversity has not created substantial divisions or fragmentations, however.
As the Houthis increased their power and Yemen’s socio-economic situation continued to deteroriate in 2014, it was not Islah’s core “Brotherhood” leadership, but rather its allies in the Ahmar tribal clan and among the officers supporting General Ali Muhsin that came under the most direct pressure.
Since the Yemeni government began its war against the group in 2004, the ten sons of Abdallah al-Ahmar, founder of the Islah party and head of the Hashid tribal confederation, had taken the lead against the Houthis. General Ali Muhsin, a close relative of Salih and an Islah associate, has also led successive battles against the Houthi movement. In March 2011, the Ahmars and General Ali Muhsin joined the revolutionaries, dealing a severe blow to Salih. As the year continued, the tribal, media, and financial resources of the Ahmars and General Ali Muhsin, in coordination with Islah, played a significant role in mobilizations against Salih.
As a consequence, both the Ahmars and the General became enemies of Salih and the Houthis. This shared distaste may have encouraged the former president to engage in a strategic alliance with the Houthis, in order to target their common enemies and rout them from power once and for all.
Islah Remains Resilient Despite Political Downfall
It would be wrong to conclude that Islah’s current reversal of fortune will lead to long-term marginalization. Rather, for various reasons, the party is likely to remain resilient.
There have been no national, competitive elections in Yemen for nearly a decade (the last was the 2006 presidential election) or comprehensive opinion polling. As a result, Islah’s true political weight at the ballot box is difficult to assess. While its influence likely varies by district, the power and resources Islah accumulated before and during the revolution are likely to ensure it remains a major player.
That being said, the crisis facing the Ahmar clan is affecting Islah. Hamid al-Ahmar, the clan’s most charismatic and successful heir, was based in Turkey after the Houthi’s overran Sanaa. He only returned to Yemen, via Aden – beyond the Houthi’s reach – in late February 2015 but it remains unlikely he will be able to properly manage his Yemeni business empire. As a consequence, Islah’s access to funding and media will still be hindered.
Nevertheless, the Ahmar family’s downfall does not account for tribal politics nationwide or explain the enduring relationship between some tribes and Islah. The current stalemate in Marib, east of Sanaa, where Houthi militiamen are facing strong tribal resistance is indicative of Islah’s influence and capacity to remain a powerful player even in districts with a Zaydi majority. In Taiz, the most populated governorate after Sanaa, Islah does not face the challenges it has experienced elsewhere. Due to the city’s sectarian and social structure, Taiz (where the population is Sunni and tribal influence is limited) is unlikely to fall into the hands of Houthi militias, which have been expanding their territorial control south of Sanaa since September 2014.
Yasin al-Qubaty, head of the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen, hails from this governorate while Islahi shaykh Hamud al-Mikhlafi gained prominence in 2011 defending the revolutionaries against government repression in Taiz City’s Freedom Square (Sahat al-huriyya). The city has also long had a network of activist Salafi charities, in particular the al-Hikma association, which has cooperated with Islah.
More generally, the Muslim Brotherhood’s long-standing influence in state and traditional institutions in Yemen leaves much space for the reemergence of Sunni-leaning Islamism beyond al-Qaeda and jihadi militancy. Since the 1990s, Islah members have gained practical experience in government. This group of Islamist technocrats has helped maintain the party’s credibility. They have also been keen on seeking conciliation with the Houthi leadership since the summer of 2014.
Islah’s resilience is also reflected in its own internal, evolving structure. Despite push back from some, Islah’s internal dynamics will inevitably shift thanks to the rise of young activists who have been engaged in Internet and media advocacy, particularly during the 2011 uprising. The contacts they have established with other politically active youth and movements will inevitably be a valuable resource for Islah.
Challenges after the Houthi’s Rise to Power
Houthi control of media and state institutions since September 2014 has curbed freedom of expression and movement for the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies. As a result, self-censorship and wait and see strategies have suddenly become common among many Islahi activists. In Houthi-dominated areas, Islah’s local offices have been shut down. Some militiamen linked to Islah have also been arrested, while the party’s prominent leaders have been prevented from fleeing the country or detained by Houthi militiamen outside of the capital.
Increased distrust from Saudi Arabia, Islah’s traditional ally, has created additional difficulties, although the rupture is far from evident. Since the Houthi takeover, Ali Muhsin and ‘Abd al-Majid al-Zindani are widely believed to have found refuge in the Kingdom, highlighting the persistence of historical ties between Sunni Islamists in the Peninsula. Furthermore, the Saudi government’s recent hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood may be dissipating somewhat. Thanks to Islah’s tribal alliances in Marib in particular, regional support for the party is widely believed to be on the rise again.
Restructuring Sunni Identities Between Houthis and AQAP
Current events in Yemen are likely to restructure Sunni identity along lines that may well resemble the Iraqi matrix of sectarianism since the 2000s. While the sectarian dimension of Yemen’s conflict is tied to other issues, including regional, economic, symbolic, historical, and interpersonal factors, current circumstance are a breeding ground for Sunni jihadi groups, whether united under the label of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or the so-called Islamic State.
These jihadi organizations have a fundamentally sectarian reading of Yemen’s conflict. In the eyes of many, they risk emerging as the Houthis’ sole competitor, if alternative Islamist movements, such as Islah are marginalized. It is the responsibility of the Houthis, “moderate” Islahis, as well as regional and international players, to prevent this dark scenario from happening.
In Yemen, continuing negotiations between various political forces, including Islah, together with the international community’s involvement, through the United Nations, is likely to be a constructive strategy that Hadi’s relocation to Aden and claim to still be the president of the country should not jeopardize. Such negotiations will not solve all of Yemen’s problems but an institutional and inclusive process in which parties and political actors exchange and discuss the country’s future, however disconnected from realities on the ground, should not be discarded. It is one of the only ways to progressively rebuild mutual trust and escape deadly polarizations in Yemen.