Yemen’s UN-backed transition has unravelled and the country has entered a new, highly unstable phase. On 22 January President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the prime minister resigned after Huthi fighters seized the presidential palace and consolidated control of the capital. This has upended the troubled transition and raises the very real prospect of territorial fragmentation, economic meltdown and widespread violence if a compromise is not reached soon. At this point, there is little external actors can do, with the possible exceptions of Saudi Arabia and Iran, to influence the calculus of Yemeni stakeholders, and the choice for the Yemenis is stark: either agree to an inclusive political settlement based on compromise, or suffer a descent into Libyan-style violent conflict and national fragmentation. It is in no party’s interest, with the exception of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and, to a lesser extent, some components of the southern Hiraak, to let things go that far.
THE MOST RECENT crisis was triggered by a dispute between the Huthis, a predominantly Zaydi/Shiite movement also known as Ansar Allah, and President Hadi over a draft constitution that has controversial language concerning the divisive, unsettled issue of the country’s future federal arrangement. It started when the Huthis kidnapped presidential adviser Ahmed Bin Mubarak earlier this month, which sent a message to Hadi that they would not accept a constitution based on six-region federalism, a division that Mubarak supported and that the Huthis suspected him of trying to push through without their consent. But the political challenge quickly morphed into a military confrontation between Huthi fighters, who had largely controlled the capital since September 2014, and Hadi’s special guards. The Huthis easily won, completing their military dominance and placing the president under virtual house arrest.
"There is little external actors can do, with the possible exceptions of Saudi Arabia and Iran"
The two sides signed an agreement on 20 January in which the president capitulated to Huthi demands, all of which focused on speedy implementation of the Peace and National Partnership Agreement (PNPA), an accord signed in the wake of the September Huthi takeover of Sanaa and built on the country’s National Dialogue Conference (NDC) completed in January 2014. In theory, their demands were reasonable, but any pretext of a political process had dissipated. The Huthis’ leader, Abdul-Malik al-Huthi, gave Hadi one week to implement the agreement, or “all options are on the table”, a thinly veiled threat of violence. Rather than implementing Huthi commands at gunpoint, Hadi and the prime minister resigned, throwing the political system into crisis.
Until now, the Huthis have been pushing against an open door politically and militarily, facing only pockets of resistance as they have spread south. They have capitalised on widespread frustration with the transition as well as the state’s weakness to rapidly expand their political support and territorial control far beyond their northern strongholds. Their anti-corruption and anti-old-regime narratives resonate widely, and in some ways the Huthis have now shifted power dynamics far more even than the 2011 uprising that precipitated the end of the Ali Abdullah Saleh regime. Indeed, and somewhat paradoxically, they aligned with disgruntled tribesmen and supporters of Saleh in 2013 and 2014 to defeat common enemies in the north – enemies including tribal elements affiliated with the Sunni Islamist party, Islah, the Ahmar family and General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a general who led the fight against the Huthis under Saleh but turned against his boss during the uprising. In September 2014, Huthi fighters took Sanaa easily. Large parts of the security forces – many affiliated with Saleh and all frustrated with President Hadi and the transition – either joined them or refused to fight.
But now the Huthis may have pushed too far and become victims of their own unexpected success. Already, their post-September consolidation of power in Sanaa and rapid expansion along the Red Sea coast and southward from the capital has sparked resistance, especially in predominantly Shafai (Sunni) areas like Taiz and Marib. In the latter, where Islah-affiliated tribesmen are aligning with AQAP to defend their areas against Huthi advances, the conflict is taking on a dangerous sectarian tone previously not present in Yemen. Southern separatists wary of their fate under a Huthi-dominated north and sensing a political opportunity to unify their divided ranks within the umbrella Hiraak movement and possibly gain regional support from Saudi Arabia, have redoubled their calls for independence.
Now the leadership vacuum has placed the Huthis and the country in a bind. The president and government ministers are under house arrest, and there is no consensus among the political groups on how to resolve the crisis. Parliament scheduled a session for 25 January to either confirm or reject Hadi’s resignation, but then was forced to postpone it, in part because of a boycott by southern members, thereby deepening the constitutional crisis and paralysis. Moreover, hours after Hadi announced his resignation, the security council of Aden governorate, a governmental body that includes the mayor and local security officials, declared it would no longer take orders from Sanaa.
SIMILAR REACTIONS are coming from central parts of Yemen, where the Huthis’ main political adversary, Islah, is seeing a new opportunity to fight back, organising popular demonstrations. Even Saleh, who has benefited from the Huthis’ victories against common enemies, is giving signals he may use the current circumstance to move against them and organise a comeback for his allies through elections.
The current situation is dire, but it offers opportunities as well. All political groups, as well as the majority of average citizens, are dissatisfied with Hadi’s stewardship of the transition. Since the September takeover, especially, he is widely perceived as weak and unable to put the political process back on track. His departure, while destabilising, offers a chance to Yemenis to select a more broadly acceptable and effective leadership. This, in turn, would make it possible to forge the informal political consensus necessary to implement and clarify existing transitional agreements.
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Until now, the Huthis have had little incentive to compromise. As the victors, they have increasingly been enforcing their interpretation of existing agreements, while claiming to speak for all Yemenis. In doing so, however, they are alienating and even radicalising their opponents, particularly Islah and southern separatists. Under the current circumstances, any attempt by the Huthis (Ansar Allah as they prefer to be called) to form a military or presidential council without genuine buy-in from other parties would result in a significant domestic and international backlash against them.
They cannot run the government without participation from the political parties. Equally important, they need to maintain the support of donors to prevent a financial freefall and humanitarian disaster. Saudi Arabia, which has kept Yemen’s government afloat with over $4 billion since 2011, cut direct support to the government already in response to the September takeover. Were the Huthis to insist on unilateral control now, it would only toughen the Saudi position and encourage other donors to follow suit. Domestically it would fortify the south’s resolve for separation and could provide the incentive for Saudi Arabia to support its independence against a Huthi-dominated north. Central parts of the country also could fracture, especially oil-rich Marib. None of this would serve the Huthis’ interest. Huthi representatives say they want an inclusive solution, but their actions are what matter now.
The only peaceful solution that could halt centrifugal forces and economic collapse is a genuinely inclusive political settlement between all major stakeholders, including Ansar Allah, Saleh’s General People’s Congress party, the Joint Meeting Parties bloc (of which Islah is the main part) and as many southern movement components as possible. Until now, the Huthis undisputedly have had the upper hand. But their rash overextension offers other groups the opportunity to push back and make demands in return for their participation.
"Until now, the Huthis have had little incentive to compromise"
The most immediate issue is executive authority, as the vacuum at the top is leaving a country already teetering on the economic abyss rudderless and dangerously adrift. A number of options are available, the most prominent of which are convincing Hadi to withdraw his resignation, forming a presidential committee to guide the transition until elections can be held or, alternatively, following the constitution by holding presidential elections 60 days after parliament meets and its speaker becomes acting president. Of these, reverting to Hadi after all that has transpired is probably the least desirable, as it is unlikely to change the transition’s downward spiral. Between the other two, there is no easy choice: both have advantages and disadvantages. There are also variations of these three positions under discussion. The most important thing is for Yemenis to agree together on the best path and to ensure that any solution reached produces an executive broadly acceptable to all parties. To the extent possible, it is also best that the solution chosen is accommodated within the framework of the constitution.
An agreement on the executive would be only the first step. Any durable settlement must address unresolved issues, particularly pre-election power sharing as well as the contentious matter of state structure and the future of the south. To the extent possible, the settlement also should reflect the NDC outcome, which benefited from wide participation not limited to those with guns. These issues have been a persistent source of conflict and will continue to plague any political process until they are addressed. If the heightened threat of fragmentation and serious conflict does not persuade all groups to make greater concessions, the country is likely to slide into sectarian conflict, egged on by regional powerhouses Saudi Arabia and Iran.
It is up to the Yemenis to reach a compromise. External actors, with the possible exception of Saudi Arabia and Iran, have little leverage to influence the calculus of key players. Saudi Arabia theoretically has the financial clout and connections with all of them to encourage an inclusive settlement over unresolved issues, but until now it has chosen not to do so. Riyadh seems spooked by a perceived Iranian role in the Huthis’ victory, and therefore appears intent on reversing that victory by any means, whereas it is probably overstating Tehran’s hand and might be much more successful in keeping Yemen safely within its geostrategic orbit if it sought to negotiate with the Huthis, using the power of the purse. Encouraging the Huthis to be a constructive component within an inclusive national government would also work to resist al-Qaeda, a group anathema to both Saudi Arabia and the Huthis.
THUS FAR, the Huthis have had notable success in battling al-Qaeda. But, their willingness to lead the fight has also resulted in a recruitment boom for their adversary, who is aligning with tribes that view Huthis as invaders and is using explicit sectarian language against Shiites generally to catalyse the fight. U.S. interests would be well served by encouraging the Saudis to reach out to the Huthis and incentivise their integration into an inclusive government that can fight al-Qaeda. The Friends of Yemen group (which includes the GCC, members of the G8, and representatives of the UN, the EU, the Arab League, IMF and World Bank), should also urge the Saudis to support Yemen economically as a way of preventing an economic collapse and tying the Huthis into the state to avoid its disintegration.
Iran, too, could play a constructive role, namely by advising the Huthis against overstretch and exclusion, which is threatening the movement’s significant political gains. Irrespective of its exact relationship with Ansar Allah, Iran is enjoying a political and propaganda boost regionally as a result of the Huthis’ victories. Neither Iran nor the Huthis would benefit from the economic collapse and conflict that is sure to come if an inclusive national compromise is not reached soon.
The UN special envoy can also help to bring actors together, but the final decision to either fight or compromise lies squarely with the Yemenis. The Huthis, first and foremost, need to be convinced that their own long-term interest is to pursue a negotiated solution. If they can be, the other political parties and some of Hiraak’s components are likely to follow suit. But if, on the contrary, the Huthis proceed on their current perilous course, it will be “game on”, and their opponents will continue to gear up for a struggle no one can win.