The primacy of stability over real change

Since 22 January, Yemen has been mired in an almost unresolvable crisis of government. After a power struggle that lasted several days, President Hadi stepped down along with Prime Minister Bahah and his whole cabinet. Marie-Christine Heinze takes a closer look at the current crisis and its wider implications

By Marie-Christine Heinze

The Houthi rebels took the capital, Sanaa, in September 2014 and seemed to be trying to consolidate their power there in the days before the resignation of the government. It was the presentation of the draft constitution on Saturday, 17 January, that triggered the current crisis. 

Article 391 of the draft constitution stipulates the division of a future federal Yemeni state into six federal regions, a division the Houthis reject. They do not reject the introduction of a federal system per se, but the division of the area in the north of the country that they would like to control into three different federal regions.

On the day the draft constitution was presented, Houthis kidnapped Ahmad Awad bin Mubarak, the director of the office of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. In the days that followed, the situation in Sanaa escalated violently and Houthi fighters occupied the presidential palace. In doing so, they received support from military units loyal to the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been supporting the Houthis since last year. 

On Wednesday, 21 January, President Hadi reached an agreement with the Houthis, namely that, among other things, the draft constitution would be revised and certain Houthis would receive jobs in ministries in return for the release of Ahmad Awad bin Mubarak and the withdrawal of the Houthis from the presidential palace.

It is important to note here, however, that it is not only the fault of the Houthis and of the former president that the situation in Yemen has escalated to such a degree and that the Houthis have been able to build up such power that they coerced President Hadi into announcing the appointment of a vice president, deputy prime minister and deputy minister of justice from among their ranks shortly before he resigned. The blame also has to be shared by President Hadi and the international community, which has supported Yemen's transition process in recent years – often with the best of intentions.

President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi (photo: picture-alliance/AP/J. DeCrow )
Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, former president of Yemen, resigned on 22 January, just days after Houthi rebels battled their way into his presidential palace. His resignation and that of his entire government has plunged the unstable Arab country deeper into chaos

The GCC and the primacy of stability

The roots of today's chaos can be found in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative, which Ali Abdullah Saleh signed in November 2011. Firstly, relevant players in the 2011 upheavals –such as the Southern Movement, the Houthis and independent youths – were not involved in the negotiations that resulted in this initiative. Secondly, the GCC Initiative granted Ali Abdullah Saleh and his family immunity in return for his resignation. He has since continued to play a significant role in the affairs of the country, among other things as the head of the former governing party, the General People's Congress, which shared power with the former opposition party al-Islah following Saleh's resignation.

The non-involvement of central players of the 2011 upheavals in the negotiation of the GCC Initiative is a result of the primacy of stability, which the international community continues to place before participation and negotiation in its dealings worldwide. The most powerful member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Saudi Arabia, shares a 1,800-km long border with Yemen and is thus particularly interested in maintaining a level of stability there. Moreover, the presence of al-Qaida in the country and Yemen's geostrategic position on one of the busiest waterways worldwide, the Bab el Mandeb, means that Western players such as the United States and European countries tend to view Yemen through the lens of stability.

This primacy of stability has resulted in the fact that the Houthis were accommodated at the very moment they should have been shown some limits. In the course of 2014, the Houthis advanced from their home governorate of Saada on the border with Saudi Arabia into neighbouring regions and took Sanaa with a sophisticated escalation strategy in September 2014. The Peace and Partnership Agreement (PNPA), which was subsequently negotiated by United Nations Special Advisor Jamal Benomar gave legitimacy to their strategy of military escalation. Benomar is now, once again, in the process of negotiating with the Houthis.

Anti-Houthi protesters shout slogans during a rally in Sanaa 24 January 2015 (photo: Reuters/M. al-Sayaghi)
Thousands of Yemenis took to the streets on Saturday in the biggest demonstration yet against the Houthi group that dominates Yemen, two days after President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi's resignation left the country in political limbo

Hadi mainly to blame for Houthi military advance

However, the military advancement of the Houthis in the past year, which has since continued beyond Sanaa into further governorates south of the capital is mainly President Hadi's fault. When the Houthis took the governorate of Amran north of Sanaa, he should have drawn a line with the help of the army. Instead, military units fighting the Houthis in Amran were left to fight without further support and fortifications. When the Houthis then took Sanaa, it seemed apparent that President Hadi was using their advancement to rid himself of other powerful players on the political scene in Yemen. This was successfully accomplished but left Hadi, who has almost no support in the northern military, without anyone willing and able to contain the Houthis.

The ease with which they were able to take the capital and a growing number of government institutions such as the central bank and state-run media in the weeks and months that followed came as a surprise to the Houthis as well. They seem even more surprised by the resignation of President Hadi and the government last Thursday because they expected them to cling to power. 

Abdel Malek El-Houthi's speech this Tuesday made it clear that he has no solution to the current crisis. It is also becoming increasingly apparent that he seems to have lost control over some of the different militias and armed groups operating under the "Houthi" umbrella. These groups often act in their own interests and do not always seem to be under Saada's control. 

Reports seem to indicate that the abduction of Ahmad Awad bin Mubarak did not happen as a result of orders from Abdel Malek El-Houthi, but was instead the unilateral action of an armed group affiliated with the Houthis. This is supported by the fact that his release on Tuesday was negotiated by tribal leaders in his home region of Shabwa. It seems to have come without conditions.

Ahmad Awad bin Mubarak (photo: Reuters/Khaled Abdullah)
Reports indicate Ahmad bin Mubarak (pictured here) was not abducted on the orders of Abdel Malek El-Houthi, but was instead carried out by an armed group affiliated with the Houthis. His release on Tuesday was negotiated by tribal leaders in his home region of Shabwa

Abdel Malek El-Houthi no longer in complete control

Now it seems that Abdel Malek El-Houthi is at just as much of a loss to know what to do with the situation he helped bring about as the rest of the (international) political players in Sanaa. This is particularly regrettable as the Houthis had the potential to bring about actual and positive change in the north of the country.

The visions of a "participatory state" they raised at the National Dialogue Conference, which ended in January 2014 and in which the Houthis played a constructive role, their adamant rejection of corruption, their ideas regarding the relationship between tribes and the state as well as their willingness to take on al-Qaida could have contributed to positive change in Yemen. The expulsion of certain corrupt elites from Sanaa in the wake of their September 2014 victory also gave rise to hope. However, it now seems as if the Houthis have become their own worst enemy.

The easiest and best solution to the current crisis would be for the Houthis to agree to withdraw from Sanaa and the governorates south of the capital they have taken since last September. This could lead to a return of the government as well as that of President Hadi, thereby "stabilising" the situation as the international community wants it to be. But even if he saw this as a viable option, Abdel Malek El-Houthi would most likely not be able to deliver as he lacks control of some of his own militias. In his speech on Tuesday, 27 January, he thus called for further demonstrations in Sanaa this Friday and for a public gathering to negotiate a solution to the problem on the same day. 

A Houthi fighter holds a rifle with a sticker portraying Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, the eldest son of Yemen's former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, Sanaa, 22 January 2015 (photo: Reuters/Abdullah)
A Houthi fighter holds a rifle with a sticker portraying Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, the eldest son of Yemen's former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. According to Marie-Christine Heinze, Houthi rebels received support from military units loyal to the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been supporting the Houthis since last year

Saleh waiting in the wings, still pulling strings

Their current partner in the political power game, Ali Abdullah Saleh, would probably like to see parliament accept the resignation of Hadi and the government. This would mean that Yahya al-Rai, the speaker of the parliament, who is close to Saleh, would be made transitional president. What's more, the current parliament, which was elected in 2003, is dominated by the General People's Congress, which is led by Saleh. The Houthis do not seem to favour such a solution because Saleh's return to (proxy) power would weaken their own position. They seem to prefer a "presidential council" made up of a variety of political players in order to achieve a participatory solution.

Such a council, however, would not be good for Yemen as it would have neither political legitimacy nor power. What's more, the military struggles for territorial control outside the capital and access to resources would continue. These struggles are currently escalating in the governorate of Maarib, which has oil and gas and of which Houthi militias are currently trying to gain control. 

The tribes of Maarib have gathered to fight this intrusion and recently seem to have gained access to new vehicles and weapons. There is speculation that Saudi Arabia might be providing both in order to put a stop to the increasingly powerful Shia Houthi militia on its southern border. The fact that Saudi Arabia lost its ruler on the same evening that the Yemeni president and government stepped down, however, seems to have resulted in a temporary lapse in their influence on events in Yemen.

And so Sanaa is now most probably heading straight into another foul compromise aimed at ensuring stability but ultimately resolving nothing. Nonetheless, such a compromise would be almost miraculous. In the meantime, al-Qaida continues to grow in size as it is able to portray itself as the only player willing to fight the Houthis. 

The chaos in Sanaa has also resulted in the fact that the disparate Southern Movement seems to be able to unite under a common leadership for the first time since its emergence in 2007. The Houthis have extended a hand towards the Southern Movement in recent months with the aim of including them in the political negotiations in Sanaa in order to preserve the unity of the country. Should the South declare secession in the wake of the most recent events, the Houthis would also have to shoulder some of the blame.

Marie-Christine Heinze
© 2015
Marie-Christine Heinze is President of CARPO, the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient. She has been working on the subject of Yemen since 2008.