Last week, President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, who became head of state of The Republic of Yemen in 2012 (the result of a one-candidate presidential direct election in the wake of the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] Initiative), fled Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, for Aden after a spell of house arrest imposed by Ansar Allah, the Houthi Shiite rebel group backed by Iran. He’s found himself more welcome in Aden than in Sana’a, where Houthi leadership have declared Hadi no longer the legitimate head of state and, in fact, a fugitive from justice.
Meanwhile, Hadi’s prime minister is still under house arrest, with Houthi fighters tightening security around his residence. Other key ministers remain under house arrest, as well, as the recent UN-brokered dialogue failed to resolve the crisis. The Houthi leadership has unilaterally announced a Constitutional Declaration and appointed a Presidential Council and Legislative National Council to run the country.
In Sana’a, public anger is boiling over, and the situation feels ripe for escalating towards more violence, clashes, and confrontations, especially now that Yemen’s powerful al-Islah Party (Muslim Brotherhood) is supporting President Hadi over the Houthi militia, which attacked and humiliated al-Islah leaders, supporters and institutions when it conquered Sana’a in September (and more recently attacked an al-Islah headquarters with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenades, killing three people).
It is not clear who is currently in charge of the country. Elites and average Yemenis alike fear “the Libyan scenario” taking hold in Yemen, and it indeed feels as if things are heading that way: two or three independent “states” or power centers, each wielding armed forces and intelligence services controlling and seizing state infrastructure, services and public offices. In other words, deadly chaos.
Police fire on Houthi protesters during the struggle for Sana'a late last year. (Reuters)
Houthi rebels consolidate their hold on Sana'a. (AFP)
Some regional and international powers with strategic interests – the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the United States and others – seem to be vacillating in their strong stands against the Muslim Brotherhood movement, allowing the Houthis more victories, control and dominance on the ground. Saudi Arabia, backed by the GCC countries, seems to be indirectly leading the scene in Yemen, attempting to weaken the Houthis’ position by creating a new or alternative balance of force on the ground. The Saudis have started to support more anti-Houthi figures and voices, as Saudi media outlets are increasingly anti-Houthi. The rumor mill is churning with news and leaks that the Saudis are supporting anti-Houthi tribes in Mareb and Shabwah Governorates with modern arms and financial resources.
Though facing the al-Hirak Southern Separation Movement in South Yemen, President Hadi continues to make the case from Aden that he is the legitimate President of a “United Yemen,” issuing orders and decrees in hopes of strengthening his position, contemplating a move to make Aden Yemen’s interim capital and taking populist stands that he hopes will resonate with commoners in both the North and South.
Meanwhile, the Houthis in Sana’a City are strengthening their already powerful hold in the country, threatening all who dare support Hadi and his team in the South, with many questioning whether they’ll dare to repeat the 1994 scenario and attempt to conquer the South again militarily.
The “Final” Crisis?
After so many internal and external conflicts riddling Yemen’s history, South and North Yemen managed in 1990 to come together to declare a new, unified Republic of Yemen, attempting to galvanize the hearts and minds of all Yemenis towards a better future. There were great expectations then, in both the public and government, with respect to building a stable, developing (if not developed) country. Yet ill-advised state policies, corruption, radicalism and lack of institutionalism drove the situation from bad to worse. A void in terms of good education, suitable infrastructure, water resources and youth opportunities was filled by religious radicalism and regionalism – key factors too long left unaddressed that are now central to the current crisis.
Under the weight of shifting and conflicting regional and international strategic interests and influences, Yemen’s contemporary socio-political history from the 1960s to 2015 has seen a series of uprisings, revolutions, rebellions, coups and economic straits, culminating in the so-called “Arab/Yemen Spring” in 2011. Thousands of youth defied the police and intelligence services of long-time Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and rallied in the streets demanding better future, democracy, and human rights. For a short moment, these goals, which would typically fall under the realm of “Mission Impossible,” seemed within reach.
Fortunately or unfortunately, Yemeni society comprises a geopolitical rainbow and complex socioeconomic structure of different regions, dialects and rich cultural variations that managed, somehow, to coexist in relative peace and harmony for hundreds of years, regardless of short-term socio-political clashes and confrontations between the various historical and Islamic ruling powers. Typically, unrest has involved external, regional manipulation and the disruption of the traditional tribal balance of power. Yet, Yemen never had a severe a socio-political split based on religious sectarian conflict, which suddenly seems to be spreading like wildfire, tearing the nation into small, fragmented pieces.
In addition to an active (but not unified) separatist, or independence, movement in South Yemen, the country is stressed by the increasing influence of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and radical religious groups and factions active all over the country, from Hadramout to Al-Biadha Governorates. The Houthi movement, once relatively confined to its traditional base in Saadah Governorate in the Northern Midlands, is now heavily backed by Iran, which has facilitated its mobility, allowing them to take Sana’a, and upsetting the equilibrium.
Considering the poor development situation, enduring poverty and continuous humanitarian crises that the country has been going through, over the last two decades or so, the international community has repeatedly come together, somehow, to aid Yemen and its people. However, not that many promises were actually fulfilled, due mainly (but not exclusively) to an enduring lack of management capacity, a lack of institutionalism, and above all, corruption.
The international community came together again to support Yemen politically in 2011 with the GGC Initiative, continuing its support after that through the National Dialogue Conference, which was concluded with many hopes and expectations almost a year ago, including a path towards a new federal state, new constitution and new elections that, it was hoped, would unify the country politically once again. Yet, it seems that every time the country takes one step forward, it then takes ten steps back. The country is facing now a new, final crisis, and a deteriorating humanitarian situation on top of collapsing public services, poor public health and a lack of certainty in a better future that may never come. Expect, instead, more conflicts, clashes and confrontation in a forgotten country for the moment still called Yemen.