More than a week has passed since the Houthis escalated their takeover of Yemen by besieging and then forcing their way into the presidential palace in Sanaa. It was a symbolic conquest because the militants had already spread their control over much of the capital during the past four months, in addition to at least 10 governorates in the beleaguered north.
They faced little resistance from the army and one by one the country’s state institutions fell into their hands. Politically weakened, humiliated and now facing death or incarceration President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi had no option but to resign along with his prime minister and Cabinet. There was only one conclusion to what had happened; the Houthis had carried out a coup in Yemen.
It remains a riddle how this relatively small group belonging to the minority Shiite Yazidi sect had managed to expand beyond their territory in the north to overcome the army and march undeterred to Sanaa. Their influence on the political process during the past year had become huge. Their leader, Abdel Malek Al-Houthi, spoke repeatedly of ridding the country of corruption, carrying out political reforms and preserving the integrity of Yemen. But his actions on the ground contradicted that narrative.
Since the ousting of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012, in accordance with a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) initiative that also called for national dialogue, which delivered a partnership and peace agreement overseen by UN envoy Jamal Ben Omar, the role of the Houthis, who had rebelled against the central government in the past, had grown noticeably. During most of last year, they tried to derail the political process and made many demands.
Hadi, who took over from Saleh in 2012, eventually proved to be weak and indecisive. Hailing from the south of Yemen, he had little influence over the northern tribes. More importantly perhaps he was unable to uproot key officials in the security and army who remained loyal to Saleh. With the political process in peril, the Houthis seized the opportunity to challenge Hadi’s leadership.
Last September, they marched toward the capital from their stronghold in Sadda’ and with little or no resistance they occupied the capital. Along the way they successfully took over the strategic port of Al-Hudeida in addition to a number of governorates.
But their leader continued to argue that the group was only interested in the implementation of the partnership and peace agreement. In reality, they were submitting an endless list of demands on Hadi, which gave them unprecedented control over the state and its institutions. In a last ditch compromise, Hadi agreed to amend the draft constitution and suspend an earlier agreement to divide Yemen into six provinces. But it was already too late.
The Houthis appear to have allied themselves with former President Saleh, who last week proposed that his son be appointed as new president. But Hadi’s resignation, which is yet to be accepted by parliament, had complicated the domestic scene even further. The Houthis were pondering a way out by forming a four-member presidential council. But that proposal was rejected by Yemen’s political bodies, some of which remain influential. UN envoy Ben Omar attempted to bring the parties involved in the national dialogue back to the negotiating table. His efforts proved fruitless.
The political vacuum in Yemen and the Houthi control of the state have triggered various reactions. Accused of being agents for Iran and of seeking to establish a Houthi religious state Yemenis, mostly students, have begun to demonstrate in Sanaa. In the past few days the Houthis used force to disperse them. The southern Hirak, parties and groups in the southern governorates that are calling for secession, has cut all contacts with the central government, promised to repel Houthi advance and threatened to declare independence from Yemen.
A country with complex tribal and sectarian structures, the Houthi attempt to force its agenda will trigger additional violent confrontations. The Houthis are well armed; having seized heavy weaponry from the army, but in Yemen there is no shortage of guns. Unless the Houthis back down and give President Hadi and his government a chance to jumpstart the political process the country will be heading toward civil war and disintegration.
US reaction to what is happening in Yemen is perplexing. President Obama and his aides have stressed that their priority in Yemen continues to be the fight against Al-Qaeda. But that is a huge miscalculation. A sectarian confrontation in Yemen will only empower the terrorist group and some Sunni tribes will strike an alliance with Al-Qaeda to face a common enemy. In addition to that chaos in Yemen — and the rising Iranian influence over that part of the Arabian Peninsula —constitutes a major threat to the stability of GCC countries.
The Houthis will not be able to force their agenda on Yemen, but their conspiracy will lead to violence and chaos. Saleh will also find that his alliance with his former enemies will be short-lived and that his attempt to be a power broker will fail. Unless the UN and others succeed in reversing the events of the past week, the country’s future looks gloomy and menacing.