The triumphant advance of the Houthi rebels

In an unprecedented demonstration of power, Houthi rebels have caused key members of Yemen's political elite to flee, negotiated a cabinet reshuffle, and laid bare the political weakness of President Hadi. By Marie-Christine Heinze

By Marie-Christine Heinze

A new era is about to begin in Yemen. The old era ended last Sunday with the Houthis temporarily occupying several ministries and other government buildings and the signature of a peace deal backed by most political parties. Parts of the political elite who have dominated (northern) Yemen since the revolution against the imamate in the 1960s and whom the upheavals of 2011 did not manage to dislodge, have either been significantly weakened or have fled.

Whether these developments actually herald the dawn of a better era for Yemen remains to be seen, but after the events of last Sunday, there was a new atmosphere of hope in the air that Yemen hadn't witnessed for many months.

According to the Peace and National Partnership Agreement, which was signed in the presence of Jamal Benomar, UN Special Envoy to Yemen, on Sunday evening, a new prime minister will be announced in the coming days. Prime Minister Ba Sindwa, who was considered weak and whose replacement was one of the Houthi's central demands, had resigned earlier in the day. Moreover, a competence-based government will be announced within one month of the signing of the agreement, during which time the current government will act as caretaker.

While the new prime minister will be a neutral person accepted by all sides, the future members of cabinet are to be selected on the basis of recommendations made by all socio-political groups, including the Houthis and the Southern Movement.

Implementation of NDC recommendations

Other articles in the agreement stipulate steps regarding the further implementation of recommendations formulated in the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), which ended in early 2014, measures against corruption, and the fostering of economic development in the country. Other reforms include a partial reintroduction of the energy subsidies that the government cut at end of July. In return for the fulfilment of the agreement, the Houthis have agreed to gradually dismantle their camps in and around Sanaa.

The signing of the Peace and National Partnership Agreement (photo: Reuters/M. Al-Sayaghi)
The Peace and National Partnership Agreement, which was signed in Sanaa on Sunday, 21 September 2014 in the presence of Jamal Benomar, UN Special Envoy to Yemen (2nd from right), stipulates among other things the nomination of a new prime minister and a new cabinet

An annex to the agreement also stipulates the peaceful resolution of ongoing conflicts in the governorates north of Sanaa and the partial disarmament of all conflict parties with regard to heavy and light weapons. This annex was, however, not signed by the Houthis, which in itself is an indication of their political endeavours in the north of the country.

The partial reintroduction of fuel subsidies, the accelerated implementation of the NDC recommendations and the reshuffling of the cabinet can at least partially explain the atmosphere of hope that has pervaded Sanaa in recent days. The national unity government, which had been in office since December 2011 and in which the pre-2011 governing party shared power with the former opposition coalition, had been unable to rise above its own trench warfare in order to cater to the needs of the impoverished nation and to put into practice the recommendations formulated by the NDC.

This is why the fuel subsidy cuts implemented at the end of July further exasperated the already frustrated Yemeni population, even though these cuts were considered an important step in the right direction as they had mainly served to enrich a small elite. With the reshuffling of a cabinet that was perceived as incompetent, with their demands to implement the NDC recommendations, and with the partial reintroduction of the subsidies, the Houthis have been able to portray themselves as a positive new force in Yemen's political landscape.

In addition to these achievements, the Houthis have succeeded in significantly weakening some of the most important members of the political elite of the Saleh era and causing some of them to flee, namely those who had sided with the "revolution" in 2011 and thus prevented a revolution in the real sense of the word.

Military success and clever tactical manoeuvring

By way of spectacular military successes and clever tactical manoeuvring, the Houthis have in recent months managed to weaken established political players such as the Ahmar family, whose home region in the governorate of Amran to the north of Sanaa was conquered by the Houthis last month. The weakening of this family, which has for many decades been among the most influential in the north of the country and of which the highest sheikh in the politically powerful Hashid tribal confederation is a member, also had serious consequences for the Islah Party.

This party unites members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists, businessmen and influential tribesmen. Since December 2011, Islah has held most of the ministerial posts allocated to the former opposition coalition within the framework of the national unity government. It was, for this reason, considered one of the big winners of the 2011 "revolution". However, the political weakening of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt also weakened its position in a post-Arab Spring Yemen.

General Ali Muhsin during a meeting with Arab ambassadors in Sanaa (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Targeted by Houthi rebels: General Ali Muhsin (pictured here) led the war against the Houthis in Saada between 2004 and 2010. For this reason, he has been a primary target of revenge for the Houthis, which probably explains why he has fled and his whereabouts is unknown

Moreover, Saudi Arabia, which had long supported Sunni Islamist players in Yemen, including members of Islah, as a bulwark against the Shia Houthis, also put the Muslim Brotherhood on its list of terrorist organisations in an attempt to control the Muslim Brotherhood in the Saudi kingdom.

With the weakening of the Ahmars, the military wing of Islah in the form of tribal militias has been curbed. These have been fighting the Houthis in violent localised conflicts in the northern governorates since 2009. To add to all this, in August of this year, the Houthis also beat the 310th Armoured Brigade in Amran, which was politically affiliated with General Ali Muhsin. Ali Muhsin had led the government's wars against the Houthis from 2004 to 2010, but defected in 2011 to side with the revolution. Since the resignation of Saleh, he was considered an important military pillar of President Hadi and the Islah Party.

House raids

Ali Muhsin has thus been a primary target of revenge for the Houthis in recent days. They not only took over the military basis of the First Armoured Brigade (called "Firqa"), as whose commander Ali Muhsin had lead the wars against the Houthis before 2011 and whose base is located right inside the capital city, but also plundered his house in Sanaa. Ali Muhsin's whereabouts remain unknown, but it is rumoured that he has fled to Saudi Arabia.

Houthi fighters also raided the house of Hamid al-Ahmar, certainly the most influential member of the Ahmar family, who is currently not in Yemen. Speculations in Yemen abound as to who will take over Hamid al-Ahmar's telecommunications company Sabafon. The Houthis have also taken control of al-Iman University, whose director, Abd al-Majid az-Zindani, seems to have fled the city. As an influential conservative Sunni cleric and member of the Islah Party, he was critically involved in the mobilisation against Houthi expansion.

To portray the conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists in the Islah Party and the Shia Houthis as a conflict between Sunni and Shia or a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran would be to completely miss the point. Although one of the initial goals of the Houthis was to give back recognition and a political voice to the religiously and culturally marginalised Shia Zaidis in the Saada region, it is important to note that some of the Houthis' opponents are also Zaidi and that there are also Sunni supporters among the Houthis.

Sights set on political power

Now, however, the Houthis want political power and access to resources at national level, and it seems that they are emulating the Lebanese Hezbollah in the process. It therefore comes as no surprise that the taking over of the Firqa basis in Sanaa as well as of the al-Iman University has allowed the Houthis to expand their control over the northern part of the city, where they have had their headquarters since 2011.

Shia Houthi rebels during a demonstration against the government in Sanaa on 19 September 2014 (photo: picture-alliance/AP)
There have been repeated clashes between the Shia Houthi rebels and the army ever since the rebels launched an uprising in 2004. At the time, hundreds of people lost their lives. In early August, Houthi rebels gained control of the provincial capital of Amran, which is about 50 kilometres north of Sanaa

The Houthis thus seem to be intent on securing their share of power in the "new Yemen" in a power-sharing agreement yet to be negotiated. Such deliberations will certainly also entail a renegotiation of the regions in a federal Yemen. Their federal structure, which was agreed after the NDC, did not cater to their political interests or their conception of identity politics, and they have been intent on forcing change on the ground in the northern governorates neighbouring Saada.

At the moment, it is impossible to say how things will pan out in the coming months. For the first time in years, however, there are voices in the South who are willing to consider co-operation with the "northern" government now that the old, hated elite has been ousted.

The role of Saleh will also have to be considered. While the Houthis would never consider striking a deal with the former president, he seems to have played a role in furthering the success of the Houthis against his political rivals. This entails the Islah Party as well as President Hadi, whose own military and political weakness had forced him to rely on the Islah Party and Ali Muhsin.

It remains to be seen how the Islah Party and the humiliated members of the political elite will react. Az-Zindani and Ali Muhsin, who has already threatened the Houthis on his Facebook page, stating that their military successes will be short-lived, both are said to have strong ties to militant Islamist actors including al-Qaida. One concern is that they might use these connections to retaliate and weaken the Houthis, thereby contributing to the creation of a conflict along sectarian lines.

Difficult start for the "new Yemen"

Finally, a share in power will have to result in a re-organisation of the Houthis themselves. Their success in recent days and months has in many ways been based on the failure of the national unity government, distaste among certain Yemenis for the Muslim Brotherhood, and a widespread hatred of the old political elite. With all of these people gone or weakened, the Houthis will now have to prove that they can constructively contribute to the building of a "new Yemen."

That a change within the Houthi camp is imminent became apparent only two days after the signing of the Peace and National Partnership Agreement. One of their most important representatives in the capital city, Ali al-Bukhayti, announced his resignation on Tuesday with the words that the building of a "new Yemen" had moved out of reach in recent days.

He and other members of the moderate wing of the Houthis felt misinformed and ignored as the Houthis expanded their control over Sanaa. Despite the inclusive words voiced by Abd al-Malik al-Houthi in his televised victory speech on Tuesday afternoon, this development within the rebel-group-turned-government-member points to more difficult days ahead for Yemen.

Marie-Christine Heinze

© 2014

Marie-Christine Heinze works at the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Studies and Languages of the University of Bonn. She is head of a project on the "revolution" and transition process in Yemen funded by the Volkswagen Foundation and co-implemented by the University of Bonn and the Yemen Polling Center in Sanaa.