Houthi gains shift the balance of power in Yemen

28 July 2014

Following successes in the field and after playing an active role in the National Dialogue Conference, the Houthis have emerged as a powerful force in Yemeni politics

In 2011, a political agreement brokered by the UN, the US and the GCC helped avert all-out war in Yemen between two loosely aligned factions that had spent much of the previous three decades working to hold together the regime of then-president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The peace plan has been a work in progress since Saleh agreed to step down in November 2011 in exchange for immunity from any crimes he might have committed in trying to quash the uprising against him. It is aimed at slowly eroding the two factions’ power and control over political life, and opening up new space for marginalised groups such as youth, women, southern separatists and northern Houthi rebels, who had fought six wars with the Saleh regime between 2004 and 2010.

Houthi advances

At the time, a casual observer would have been hard-pressed to guess that within three years it would be the Houthis, a movement that aims to revive the Zaydi Shia practices unique to the north of Yemen, who would radically alter the balance of power in the country. But since late 2013, successive victories by the Houthis over tribal and Islamist militias in the province of Amran, which separates the Houthi heartland Sadah from Sanaa the capital, have offered the potential of a permanent shift in Yemen’s political and hard power dynamics.

When people say ‘the Houthis’ are doing something, it really means the Houthis and the tribes

Tribal source from northern Amran

The Houthis’ progress has led to fears in Sanaa that the group does not plan to end its southward march in Amran, but in fact wants to take the capital. Some Yemenis mutter that the group wants to reinstate the Zaydi imamate that ruled northern Yemen for the better part of a millennium before being overturned in a 1962 revolution. Others say, with the fighting taking on an increasingly sectarian tone, retribution from the losing parties in Amran could spark a major conflict and shatter the already fragile peace that has more or less held since late 2011. Saleh’s successor Abdrabbu Mansour al-Hadi has directly accused the group of being linked to Iran, and foreign governments are so concerned that the UN Security Council has warned that it could impose sanctions on them.

The Houthis, named after their founder Hussein al-Houthi, who was killed by government forces in 2004, did not play a major role in public life before 2011. Al-Houthi, who had attracted opprobrium from Saleh for the fiery speeches he gave in mosques in Sanaa and his introduction of what would become the Houthis’ slogan and rallying cry: “Death to America, death to Israel, damn the Jews, victory to Islam”. Following his death, the group took on an increasingly militant form, not just scoring surprising victories over the Yemeni army, but in 2009, crossing the border into Saudi Arabia.

In response, the Saleh regime effectively sealed off Sadah, the Houthis’ base, forcing a media blackout on the brutal fighting and imprisoning even peaceful pro-Houthi activists outside the province. Very little was known or heard of the group. But in 2011, forces loyal to Saleh became embroiled in battles with militias loyal to the Al-Ahmars (the leading family in the Hashid, Yemen’s most powerful tribal confederation), Islah (its biggest Sunni Islamist group), and troops loyal to Brigadier-General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar (no relation to the Al-Ahmar family, but Saleh’s one-time enforcer who had led much of the fighting against the Houthis in Sadah).

Mohsen pulled troops out of Sadah to concentrate on the battle with Saleh loyalists, and the Houthis, led by Hussein’s brother Abdelmalek, took the initiative, seizing much of the province and launching a siege on a Salafist madrassa in Dammaj, a part of Sadah that had previously been protected by Mohsen and the Al-Ahmars.

Growing influence

Supporters of the movement, freed from Saleh’s oppression, also started appearing in the protest camps set up in Sanaa, the industrial hub of Taiz and elsewhere. Houthi slogans appeared around the capital and in other towns and villages, revealing the level of support the movement had quietly garnered over the previous decade. When Saleh was eventually deposed, the group had become influential enough to be invited to take part in Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference (NDC), a several months-long series of peace talks aimed at the creation of a new constitution.

We have no desire to fight with the government; we just wanted to get [Islah] out [of Amran]

Houthi spokesman

The Houthis were eventually persuaded to take part in the talks, taking on the name Ansar Allah – ‘Partisans of God’. In the view of several people who also participated and helped organise the NDC, they took on a surprisingly constructive role. They made concessions where needed and allowed other voices to be heard. But the Houthis were also engaged in internecine conflict in and around Sadah. They were fighting with Salafist groups at the Dammaj madrassa, with a similar group at nearby Kitaf, and with Al-Ahmar and Islah-linked militias on the borders of the province.

Although the Houthis were willing participants in the fighting, several people with knowledge of the fighting say Islah and the Al-Ahmars were equally trying to provoke the group into action, hopeful that their militias could crush the Houthis once and for all, especially with the backing of Mohsen, and if they forced Al-Hadi to enter the fray. But they had not reckoned with the number of people in provinces close to Sadah who still held on to their Zaydi identity, or the level of frustration among tribes and ordinary Yemenis living in areas controlled by the Hashid.

Public discontent

“The Al-Ahmars got rich under Saleh, but they did nothing to improve life in Amran, which is where their power comes from,” says a member of a minor tribe from the north of the province. “Instead, they stole our land and forced our young men to go and fight in their wars, and allowed Islah to expand their influence. It is not a surprise that when there was a chance to revolt, people did.”

Rather than nipping the Houthis’ rise in the bud, the Al-Ahmars’ ploy backfired badly, with the former making gains in Amran from September 2013 onwards. Since early 2014, the Houthis have gradually made their way south, consolidating their control over the area that includes the Al-Ahmars’ home town. Their success over the Al-Ahmar militias and the Islah-linked forces that backed them have come largely because tribes in the area have defected to their side. “It has been like a revolution against these old powers,” says the tribal source. “When people say ‘the Houthis’ are doing something, it really means the Houthis and the tribes.”

Rumours are rife that Saleh, still licking his wounds from 2011, has also aided the Houthis by instructing tribes in the area to help the group and by providing some material support. The net result has been that the Al-Ahmars and Islah have gradually lost the area.

In June, Hamid al-Qushaibi, the main military commander in Amran and widely seen as being loyal to Mohsen, started to openly use his 310th Armoured Brigade to fight the Houthis and their allies. He too was beaten back, with Al-Hadi refusing to offer his tacit support. The president is said to have been worried that the army, currently fighting a war with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the local Al-Qaeda franchise, would not necessarily prevail. In joining the fight, he would be supporting Islah and Mohsen rather than furthering his own ends.

On 8 July, the Houthis, backed by local tribes, took control of Amran city, just 50 kilometres north of Sanaa, taking on and driving Al-Qushaibi’s brigade out of the city and killing the unit’s commander in the process. But rather than continue south, they stopped in Amran, and came to an agreement with Al-Hadi to quit the city in exchange for a promise that the president would replace the 310th Armoured Brigade with a neutral unit. Al-Hadi did so and the Houthis pulled out.

“We cleansed Amran of the Brotherhood [Islah] and now we will hand it back over to the government,” a Houthi spokesman tells MEED. “We have no desire to fight with the government; we just wanted to get them out.” The spokesman adds that the Houthis do not want to reinstate the imamate, as many Islah supporters claim, but a clean government and a secure environment in which to operate.

The rout of the Al-Ahmars and Islah has been widely discussed in Sanaa, with political observers unsure as yet of how much of an impact their embarrassing failure to defend their base will have on their political future. For decades, much of Islah’s, and the Al-Ahmars’, influence has come from the perception that they are an unassailable military force. That notion has now been put to rest.

Changing dynamics

A sheikh from the Bakhil, a rival tribal confederation to the Hashid, says that in 2010 there were effectively two power centres in Yemen – Saleh and ruling political party General People’s Congress (GPC); and the Al-Ahmars and Islah. The 2011 uprising, he says, had shifted the balance of power towards the latter. But the Houthis have both carved out their own space and deflated the Al-Ahmars’ and Islah’s ambitions. This, he says, helps Al-Hadi, a nominal member of the GPC who has acted largely independently since taking the reins in 2012. The Houthis’ success has also dampened the spirits of Mohsen, who Al-Hadi had retained as a military adviser largely to balance out the continued influence of Saleh over the army, he says.

Yet Al-Hadi must now contend with an increasingly confident, organised and well-armed group that is likely to have its own demands in the near future, possibly for a place in Yemen’s coalition government. There is also the possibility that the Al-Ahmars and Islah, stung by their recent losses, will find ways of retaliating. Not for the first time since taking on the presidency, Al-Hadi finds himself maintaining a delicate balancing act in which the weights, and the floor, keep shifting.

Key fact

After Saleh’s exit, the Houthis had become influential enough to be invited to the National Dialogue Conference

Source: MEED

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