Kingmakers’ march

Print edition : November 14, 2014

Houthi rebels chant slogans after taking over the army's First Armoured Division, in Sana'a on September 22. Photo: Hani Mohammed/AP

Houthis surround a truck carrying the coffins of people killed by a suicide bomber in central Sana'a, on October 14. Two suicide bombings in Yemen killed nearly 70 people on October 9; one of them targeted an anti-government rally by followers of the Houthi group. Photo: Hani Mohammed/AP

The Houthis, who have taken over the capital and other key cities of Yemen, want to be in a position to decide who rules the country. They themselves do not want to take up that responsibility.

AS the attention of the international community was focussed on the events in Iraq and Syria and the relentless advance of the Islamic State (I.S.), the Houthi rebel forces in Yemen took over the capital, Sana’a, and other key cities without much fanfare. The Houthi movement is an avowedly anti-Western movement having close ties with Iran. Yemen is strategically located on the Red Sea. Much of Saudi Arabia’s oil exports are transported through the sea lanes abutting the long Yemeni coastline. In late September, the Houthi forces, who hail from a region in the north of the country bordering Saudi Arabia, had forced the ineffective Prime Minister, Mohamed Salem Bassindwa, to resign. On their march to the capital, the Houthis had put down the Yemeni army and opposition militia groups, including that of the powerful Islah movement, without much of a fight. The Islah, which has close ties with militant Sunni and tribal groups, had played a key role in Yemen’s politics since independence. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh had come to depend on the Islah in the latter half of his presidency.

The Houthi leadership has repeatedly said its forces will withdraw from the capital after its demands are conceded. The demands include the formation of a “new technocratic government”, the merging of the northern part of the country into one administrative unit and the restoration of fuel subsidies. Yemen is currently divided into three administrative units. After the capital fell to the lightning advance of the Houthis, previously warring parties, including the Islah and the separatists in the south, signed a political accord that would secure the nation’s future and stave off further bloodshed and turmoil.

The Houthis take their name from Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi, who led the group’s first uprising in 2004. He was killed by the Yemeni military in the same year. His family members have held leadership positions in the Houthi movement since then. The Houthis had risen up to protect their cultural heritage from being destroyed by Sunni Islamist groups that had come to wield tremendous influence and power in many parts of the country. The Houthis are Zaidis, a branch of the Shia school of Islam. They are also known as Ansarullahs (Partisans of God). Around 45 per cent of the 25-million-strong Yemeni population is believed to be Zaidi.

Saleh, who ruled for more than two decades, was himself a Zaidi. He, however, used force initially to quell the Houthi rebellion after it first erupted in a big way in 2004. There are unconfirmed reports that Saleh is now tacitly supporting the Houthis to settle scores with friends-turned-foes who masterminded his ouster from office.

The current leader of the Zaidis is the 32-year-old Abdul Mallik al-Houthi. The Zaidis had long felt marginalised by the central government. Their movement started as a cultural movement in the 1990s. The mountainous areas in which they reside are among the most backward in Yemen. The country itself is the poorest in the Arab world.

In the last 10 years, the Houthis have fought six wars. After each uprising they have only emerged stronger militarily. They had to confront not only the Yemeni army but also outside forces. Neighbouring Saudi Arabia intervened militarily in the last decade by sending in its army and using its air force on behalf of the central government in Sana’a. The al-Saud ruling family considers the Houthis allies of their main regional rival, Iran. The air strikes by the Yemeni and Saudi air forces caused considerable damage to life and property in areas inhabited by the Zaidi populace. With the central government unable to achieve a decisive military victory, a ceasefire agreement was signed with the Houthis in 2010.

Now the situation has changed completely. After the takeover of the capital by the Houthis, the Yemeni army is in complete disarray. Like the Iraqi army in Mosul, it just melted away, leaving behind its weaponry, including tanks. The army in Yemen was one of the pillars of the state. The country’s leadership until recently came from the ranks of the army.

The “Arab Spring” uprisings in 2011 had initially shaken the foundations of the long-entrenched Saleh regime. Saleh, at the beginning of his presidency, was viewed as a progressive leader by the Arab Street. He was among the few Arab heads of state who opposed the first Gulf War of 1991. Even Syria had joined the American-led coalition against Iraq. Yemen, which was on the United Nations Security Council at the time, voted against the resolution authorising war against Iraq. The West and its regional allies exacted a high price for his principled stand. Sanctions were imposed on the country and the Saudis expelled around a million Yemenis employed in the kingdom. They were mostly workers, but their remittances were crucial to Yemen’s economy. Saleh soon reversed course and after 9/11 became a staunch ally of Washington’s “War on Terror”. Saleh’s decision contributed to the political chaos that has plagued the country since then.

Thrust against corruption and removal of fuel subsidies

The Houthi movement played a prominent role in the mass protests that eventually led to the end of Saleh’s long rule in 2011. This helped the Houthis to be part of mainstream Yemeni politics. They now have formed alliances with different political parties and Sunni tribal groups. The recent surge in their popularity was due to their spearheading of the popular protests against corruption and the removal of fuel subsidies by the government of President Abdou Rabbu Mansour Abdi. The President, who replaced Saleh, has the strong backing of the United States and the Gulf monarchies. After President Abdi was forced to sack his Prime Minister, he tried to put another ally of his in the job. He was forced to withdraw his candidate after the Houthis rejected him for being too pro-American. Khaled Bahah, the country’s ambassador to the U.N., has now been appointed the new Prime Minister with the concurrence of the Houthis.

Besides the Houthi rebellion, President Saleh had to contend with the steadily growing presence of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and renewed secessionism in the south of the country. Saleh authorised the unlimited use of American military drones to target suspected terrorists in the country. Hundreds have been killed, many of them innocent civilians. The Houthis have strongly criticised the drone attacks.

The AQAP considers both the central government and the Houthis its enemies. Initially, Al Qaeda had focussed its attacks on the central government forces in retaliation for its military alliance with the U.S.

But after the dramatic turn of events in late September and the continuing advance of the Houthi forces in areas under the control of pro-Al Qaeda forces, the AQAP has re-prioritised its enemies list. Al Qaeda and other “takfiri” groups consider the Houthis “heretics” and “agents of Iran”. To counter the Houthi advance, the AQAP is reported to have taken control over some small towns in the south of the country. The Yemeni army seems to be standing aside, as the Houthis take on the AQAP and the Sunni tribal groups sympathetic to their cause. So far, according to available indications, a war-weary populace seems to have accepted the Houthis as honest brokers. The peace plan proposed by the Houthis for the country and the setting up of a broad-based government have the backing of the Islah Party and the Separatist Front of South Yemen.

However, the southern separatists, in a bid to exploit the fluid political situation, have said that they plan to hold a referendum in November on the issue of independence. Many in the south, according to reports, would still prefer greater autonomy to outright independence. The AQAP is also concentrated in many areas in the south. There are demands that all northerners leave the territory before the end of November. Hundreds of thousands of people in Aden, the former capital of South Yemen, held a rally demanding independence, in the third week of October.

The former Marxist government of South Yemen merged with the conservative but more populous northern part of the country in 1990. Within a short span of time, the people of the south felt discriminated against and sidelined. There was a rebellion in 1994, which was put down with a heavy hand by the Yemeni army and militias owing allegiance to the Islah Party. The escalating lawlessness in the north and a deteriorating economy have given a further boost to the secessionist movement. Much of the oil and mineral resources of the country are located in the south.

In recent weeks, in a bid to halt the Houthi military advance, a spate of suicide attacks has been reported, including one in Sana’a that killed more than 56 Houthi supporters who were preparing to hold a peaceful rally. Saudi Arabia, too, has expressed its alarm over the fast-changing political scenario in Yemen. Saudi rulers have traditionally considered Yemen their strategic backyard and have been unsuccessfully trying to portray the Houthis as Iranian proxies. They have been alleging that the Houthis are being armed, trained and financed by Tehran, without providing any evidence. The Saudi government has classified the Houthis as “terrorists”. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) issued a statement criticising “outside interference” in Yemen. “The GCC states will not stand idly by in the face of factional foreign intervention as Yemen’s security and the security of the GCC states is one and the same,” the statement said.

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