Where to now? Twists in the Yemen takeover

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Co-authored with Danya Greenfield, former Deputy Director, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Atlantic Council.  

We provide an overview of the rapidly-evolving situation in Yemen following the Houthi rebel takeover of government last week. We look at what this means for the US counter-terrorism strategy and how Yemen’s allies can continue to support the country through this latest political crisis.

 What is the current situation in Yemen?

 Ansarullah, the Houthi rebel group, took over the government on Friday 6th February, after the former leadership did not meet a deadline set by the rebels for a deeper power-sharing arrangement that would have given the Houthi’s more control. The takeover, the rebels announced,  would be for a two year period in order to transition the country into a new government.

Parliament has been dissolved and will be replaced by a Houthi- appointed transitional national council, which will assume responsibility for electing another transitional body- the Presidential Council. Local government will also be effected- local committees are to be appointed to oversee provincial affairs.

The rebels had also announced on friday that an amended version of the constitution – inline with the agreements reached during the National Dialogue- will be put to a vote.

On sunday, however, with the twists and turns we come to expect of this complex country,  the UN Envoy Benomar  announced that fresh political talks will kick off on monday. The point is that the Houthi’s never wanted to take direct control of the government- their demands largely are that the already agreed-upon constitutional and legislative reforms take place.

How have other political groups and the Yemeni public reacted?

Despite the fact that the Houthis had been pushing against an open door for some time, with little resistance both politically and militarily, there has already been pushback from groups around the country.

The stated changes by Ansarullah have been met with resistance from a number of factions in Yemen, many of whom refused to participate in the conference the Houthis organized in Sana’a in the three days running up to the Thursday deadline.  Yemen is politically fragmented, and the Houthis will need to ensure that they bring in to the Councils or to any further talks representatives from other tribes and smaller political parties.The political talks that UN Envoy Benomar has said will resume on monday 9th February are reported to have the commitment of all the political parties. Unless this happens, the new government and the talks will lack the legitimacy it sorely needs.

Protests have taken place on the streets of Sana’a, in Aden, Taiz and elsewhere.  In the strategically important town of Maarib, a tribes spokesperson said they reject the Houthi takeover.

Could this takeover help inch Yemen towards stability?

The divisions within the country are myriad. President Hadi, despite being seen as a ‘consensus candidate’ when he came into power, was unable to manage these and keep the main groups and actors happy-  unlike his predecessor Saleh, who managed to “dance on the heads of snakes” and maintain a strong patronage network.

In addition to the challenges in placating the main factions in the country, the Houthis do not -at least from their own ranks- have the capacity to effectively tackle the country’s deep social and economic problems. And they know this. Hadi’s government, many felt, was the strongest that Yemen had ever seen, with a cadre of technocrats that were slowly chipping away at the country’s challenges. Which is why the Houthis were happy to leave Hadi and the cabinet in power, while they dictated from behind the scenes. First Bahah’s and then Hadi’s strategic resignations last month forced the Houthi’s hand to impose the deadline for a power-sharing agreement, and now, with that unreached, they have been forced into governing.

The current reality, with the Houthis reluctantly sitting squarely and visibly in the driver’s seat, is that they have no cover for how things will unfold politically, and for the expectations from their sympathizers who want to see real change. Reaching a power-sharing agreement is still critical in moving forward, but the Houthi takeover actually makes it more difficult for that to happen.

What does this mean for the US counter-terrorism strategy in Yemen? 

The State Department has officially condemned the Houthi takeover. But that doesn’t mean that there will be, or should be, more US boots on the ground. While the US administration has added that it will continue its counter-terrorism operations (US military personnel are still in bases in the country), this could be complicated for a few reasons:

  • The Yemeni military had provided tacit support for the Houthi capture of Sana’a last September. This could have been because of discontent towards Hadi, as he drastically restructured the military to rid it of Saleh’s family members and loyal higher-ranking members. However, it still has many of the former Presidents’ sympathizers. Houthi Security Committees have reportedly been clashing with military units around the country in the past couple of days.
  • Capacity of the military was severely weakened with the restructuring. Despite ongoing military assistance by the US, it remains internally fragmented and under-effective. If the military splits, and refuses to remain under Houthi command, its capacity (and that of the Houthi Security Committees) will be stretched even further as they battle with each other to gain control. The winner in this scenario is, of course, Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP).
  • While the Houthis have been fighting AQAP and sympathetic tribes, they have vehemently opposed US intervention in the country. It’s unlikely that they will agree (at least openly) to further US military assistance, particularly a continuation of the drones program. UPDATE: drone attacks continued under Houthi take over.
What can the US and other Friends of Yemen do now?

Security and governance reforms
The security situation is obviously one of the most pressing needs. Continued assistance is certainly required for strengthening the military to be able to effectively fight AQAP.

On the governance front, continued support is required for pushing forward with the reforms agreed upon during the National Dialogue Conference. One of the key reasons for the Houthi’s discontent with Hadi’s administration is the negligible progress that has been made on the 1400 agreed-upon constitution and legislative recommendations from the National Dialogue Conference Process.

 Inclusive political process
Investing further in an inclusive negotiation process is key. All the country’s main political parties need to be at the table and be able to reach agreement. One of the lessons that continuously emerges from political transitions is that we cannot invest in a single ally in the country- Hadi, or in the case of other Arab-uprising countries, Ben Ali or Mubarak. Not only is their eventual downfall (or loss of credibility) likely in countries undergoing unpredictable and often-volatile transitions, but US support for single actors may actually be used to challenge their legitimacy over other political actors.

The accusation of the 2012 transition being simply an elite bargain may be an over simplification, but it is certainly true that Yemen did not have strong systems that would allow the wider populace to understand and to have a real voice in the National Dialogue Conference process. Continuing to open up the spaces for citizens to be brought into the political process, rather than feel marginalized by it, will be a critical factor in the long-term success of any political agreement, and also of a strategy to significantly weaken AQAP.

Social safety nets
In the meantime, Yemeni people continue to suffer from the deep structural issues – such as an undiversified economy that concentrates wealth,  land tenure systems under stress and food insecurity- that plague development in the country. Certainly many of these issues are amplified by the impacts of the conflict, and will be alleviated with greater stability. In the meantime, the strengthening of social safety nets- the provision of subsidized food and fuel, shelter for those displaced, health care for children and pregnant women, labour schemes -are essential if we are to expect people to wait for the country’s political system to start making progress on these fronts.

Related posts on Two Views Beyond the Hill

Will al Qaeda and Violent Extremism win as Airstrikes Continue in Yemen?

Why we should care about Yemen (and its not all about al Qaeda)

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