Since President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi resigned on January 22, 2015, the future of Yemen’s political transition has been increasingly uncertain. Hadi’s resignation was a result of tensions in the capital that erupted after members of the Houthi movement seized control of the presidential palace and tried to change the country’s draft constitution, which calls for a new federal state with six regions.
The coming months will undoubtedly be turbulent for Yemen. Together with various political parties, UN Special Envoy Jamal Benomar, who was responsible for overseeing the UN supported transition in Yemen, had insisted Hadi rescind his resignation and address the power vacuum exacerbating the country’s security and humanitarian crises, a stance echoed by Abdulatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). President Hadi made it clear this past week, however, that his resignation was final.
Regional and international actors, particularly the United States and Saudi Arabia, have raised alarm bells over growing chaos and the potential for Islamist militants to use the crisis to their own advantage. The territorial integrity of the Republic remains under threat as southern secessionists move forward in their bid for an independent state.
As of this writing, political parties, which were part of the transitional process, failed to meet a deadline issued by Houthi rebels on February 1, 2015 to reach a solution for the political crisis. Claiming talks mediated by Benomar were unable to determine the next steps to resolve the crisis, the Houthis called a meeting on Friday, February 6, and announced a fifteen article constitutional declaration. The declaration effectively dissolved parliament, called for a 551 member Transitional National Council (TNC), and named Mohammed Ali al-Houthi as head of a five member presidential council. The UN Security Council issued a statement the same evening threatening new sanctions if negotiations do not resume.
With this move, the Houthis have consolidated the soft coup that began on September 21, 2014 as part of a campaign to rid Yemen of corrupt government officials and restore the country’s sovereignty by rejecting foreign interference. The Houthis latest brazen move by no means solves the on-going political crisis, and only adds to growing uncertainty over two vital issues: relations between political parties under an unprecedented imbalance of power in Sana’a and uncertainty over continued security cooperation between Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. Even as the Houthis, Saudi Arabia, and the United States share a common enemy in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), prospects for overt cooperation remain marginal.
Politics as (Un)usual in Sana’a
During the course of 2014, as the Houthis began advancing from their northern stronghold in Sadah province downward to Amran and then Sana’a, power imbalances were created that have led to unusual political relations in Yemen. There is a new governing equation, uniting the Houthis with their once-nemesis, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This alliance of convenience, driven by a need to eliminate mutual rivals like the Islamist al-Islah party, will be difficult to sustain in the absence of a single legitimate actor with authority over the entire Republic.
Thanks to the new Houthi-Saleh alliance, international support for Yemen’s transition, which has mainly come from the Group of Ten Embassies (the UN, EU, the United States, UK, France, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the GCC countries) can no longer maintain a balance of power among rival parties. The political order established by the GCC Initiative, which began the transitional process and was signed on November 23, 2011, has been turned on its head. The ill administered agreement failed to produce a transparent process for Yemen’s transition toward a more democratic and just political order, and, instead, paved the way for the return of deposed President Saleh.
Benomar has been sidelined, during the current crisis, to the point that a number of political parties often refused to attend meetings in his presence. His vehicle has also been targeted by gunmen in the capital. As for the country’s political parties, Islah and its junior partners in the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) failed to agree on proposals presented by the Socialist and Nassarist parties, as well as those introduced by Benomar and the GCC. The JMP instantly rejected the Houthi declaration of February 6.
Junior members of the JMP, such as the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) and the Nassarist Party, continue jousting to find a role for themselves and remain relevant, while Islah remains weakened and unable to exert any meaningful influence during crisis negotiations. The Houthis dealt a fatal blow to Islah’s tribal and military wings toward the end of last year. On September 21, 2014, Islah’s elite supporters, including General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, were forced to leave Sana’a and the leaders of the al-Ahmar tribal leaders, who are the Houthis’ tribal and ideological rivals, were rendered powerless. The Zaydi-Shia rebels kept Islah’s political leaders under house arrest for days following the September siege. Islah has yet to recover from these attacks against its leadership and support base.
With Hadi’s resignation, Saleh and his party find themselves in a rather difficult position. Much has been written recently about Saleh’s possible return to power. It is clear, however, that no one will consent to the reemergence of authoritarian rule. Saleh’s rise to the top cannot come without consent from Yemen’s other parties.
But, if Saleh and his supporters mismanage their relationship with the Houthis, they will lose all leverage over the opposition parties. Thanks to past and present realities, the alliance between Saleh and the Houthis is fragile at best. From 2004 to 2009, the Saleh government waged six wars against the Houthis. Currently, the two sides are fighting over military equipment and strategic positions like the al-Samah mountain, which overlooks Sana’a International Airport.
Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) aimed for a peaceful constitutional transfer of power to the Speaker of Parliament, Yahya al-Ra’i, a member of the GPC. On the evening of February 7, the GPC released a statement condemning the Houthi declaration. Commentators have suggested that the move is a smoke screen, as the GPC did not reject the new transitional process. Undoubtedly, however, Saleh and his loyalists are concerned about losing their majority in the legislature, which is now being replaced by the National Council.
Mohammed Alabasi, a Sana’a-based political analyst, commented “that most of the [declaration] content does not affect GPC interests,” but it would be difficult for the party to accept the authority of the Revolutionary Committee charged with overseeing the Transitional Presidential and National Council. Conditional acquiescence may come if the Houthis commit to reengaging the dialogue process “because they can’t proceed alone,” according to Alabasi. Undoubtedly, Saleh and his loyalists are concerned over losing majority control of the legislature to be replaced by the National Council.
The Houthis, themselves, are perceived as lacking the capacity to rule directly, as evidenced by their recent inability to effectively administer state institutions. The Houthis seem to have acknowledged this problem. Their leader, Abdulmalek al-Houthi, inadvertently suggested as much when he referred to Hadi as Yemen’s president during recent televised speeches, and called his resignation a mistake damaging the people’s will. The Houthi leader reiterated this position during his latest televised speech on February 7, when he spoke about the deepening chaos and obstacles posed by “spoilers” in negotiations to solve the political crisis.
The way forward remains unclear. Young activists also remain committed to holding every party accountable and subject to scrutiny. Motivated by fears of the Houthis’ increased power and control over the state, a new youth-led protest movement, which includes members of Islah and JMP, surfaced in Sana’a soon after Hadi submitted his resignation. Protesters gathered at the gates of Sana’a University to reject the Houthi-led coup against Hadi and Prime Minister Khaled Bahah. Their persistence in the face of Houthi aggressions show that young Yemenis will do their part to prevent a return to politics as usual before the 2011 uprising. Heavy-handed crackdowns in recent days against protesters by Houthis will undoubtedly continue to challenge the resolve of young activists.
Power Vacuum Leads to Increased Security Dilemmas
In addition to upsetting the political order, the Houthi takeover has further fragmented and demoralized the armed forces. Houthi rebel gains in Sana’a have deeply fractured the command and control structures of the state security forces, and undermined their ability to respond to mounting threats around the country.
A former high-ranking security official familiar with events leading to the Houthis’ rise confirmed the breakdown of command structures and low morale among security forces. In a brief interview, he indicated that junior commanders and troops had been resentful toward Hadi and former Minister of Defense, Mohammed Nasser, for providing no support when the Houthis over-ran Amran City, less than 50km north of the capital in July 2014. Adhering to their partisan affiliations, military commanders responded, instead, to orders from political or tribal patrons, like Saleh and Islah, rather than following directions from the Minister of Defense or the President.
The Houthi takeover has also aggravated existing difficulties with deploying military equipment and personnel to deal with conflicts in remote areas of Yemen. Aggravating Yemen’s general lack of modern logistical capabilities to deploy troops beyond garrisons, Houthi militias have looted military bases in Amran and Sana’a, taking whatever equipment there was.
The security breakdown has aggravated concerns over new operational spaces for AQAP, and has already led to increasing threats from AQAP militants. This was evidenced by a coordinated attack on a military convoy on January 2, 2015 by tribes and Ansar al-Sharia elements in Mareb and then in Belhalf, Shebwa on January 14.
The Houthi incursion has created ripple effects beyond Yemen’s borders, as well. As a result of Hadi’s resignation, the United States, in particular, has lost its closest ally in the country. President Hadi had been a staunch supporter of U.S. counter-terrorism (CT) operations in Yemen since taking office in February 2012. Hadi publicly acknowledged his approval of U.S. drone strikes against AQAP militants during his first visit to the United States in September 2012. Unlike his predecessor, who was often seen as using al-Qaeda’s presence as a tool for political gain, President Hadi viewed AQAP as an existential threat to the state, as well as to his own physical safety.
As Houthis advanced on state institutions, such as the National Security Bureau (NSB) and the Political Security Office (PSO), observers began to sound alarms over the collapse of U.S.-Yemen CT cooperation. When the Houthis besieged the home of NSB director Ali Hassan al-Ahmadi in September, and later kidnapped PSO General Yahya al-Marrani in December, concerns increased over the fate of intelligence agencies partnered with the United States and Saudi Arabia for CT purposes.
With Saudi Arabia listing the Houthi rebels as a terrorist group and given the sanctions levied against Houthi military leaders, Abdullah (Abu Ali) Yahya al-Hakim and Abdul Khaleq Badr al-Din al-Houthi by the UN Security Council, few avenues seem available for direct cooperation between Yemen and its U.S. and Saudi allies.
Recently, media reports claimed U.S. intelligence officials have been maintaining a degree of contact with Houthi elements. The fact remains, however, that Houthi rebels continue to publicly object to interference and operations by foreign military forces in Yemen. This has been true even as U.S. drones target mid-level Ansar al-Sharia leaders like Nabil al-Dhahab, killed in al-Baydha in November, and militants in Mareb, which the Houthis claimed planned attacks against them.
The United States faces a complicated relationship with the Houthis, who share its interests in eliminating AQAP, but cannot afford to cooperate with the United States or Saudi Arabia even for the sake of defeating a common enemy. Abdulmalek al-Houthi, who has emphasized the evil of foreign interference, can only quietly take advantage of U.S. drone strikes. In the meantime, public anti-U.S. rhetoric from him and other Houthi leaders will continue to fuel speculation over future U.S. and Saudi operations in Yemen.
The Houthis specifically addressed the issue of foreign interference in their constitutional declaration. Although ambiguous, Article 11 emphasizes Houthi commitment to protecting national sovereignty and “maintain[ing] the state’s independence.” It is unclear as to how the new transitional government will deal with existing security agreements with international partners, or how much oversight will be delegated to Houthi loyalists.
Long-Term Fallout from the Current Crisis
As Houthis now aim to shoulder the responsibility over the post-Hadi era, it is unlikely the United States and Saudi Arabia will enjoy the same degree of support in Yemen. No matter which party ultimately imposes a degree of order, security cooperation with the two countries will change.
Nevertheless, the most vital issue in Yemen right now is consolidating command and control over the armed forces, in order to contain AQAP. Observers expect this issue to surface as the next point of conflict among political actors, as the Houthis refuse to withdraw their militias from the capital and other major cities in central Yemen. Recent gatherings organized by the Houthi movement in Sana’a, including the meeting announcing the constitutional declaration, witnessed large numbers of police and military officers often joining in chants of “Death to America.” Former President Saleh has also started to rally loyalists within the former Republican Guard, currently known as the Reserve Forces, which may impact ongoing clashes in al-Baydha and Mareb provinces where Houthis face strong resistance from a mix of AQAP and tribal elements. Beyond Sana’a, the Houthis remain highly dependent on elements loyal to Saleh, a reality the former president will use as leverage to safeguard his own interests.