There have been fleeting moments during Yemen’s near four-year long political transition, when, against all odds, there appeared to be real momentum behind the push towards democracy. 

In January, the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), a 10-month series of peace talks, came to a close after a four-month overrun. The talks were an important part of Yemen’s internationally-backed peace plan, brokered by the GCC during the 2011 uprising that saw the regime of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh fight within itself, leading to fears the country was on the verge of civil war. 

Few Yemenis had thought the deal would lead to substantive change, but 26 months after Saleh agreed to step down, a broad cross-section of society had agreed upon a series of 1,800 ‘outcomes’ that should provide the basis for a new constitution, due to be completed before the end of the year.

Targeting Al-Qaeda

Three months after the NDC came to a close, Sanaa launched a full-blooded assault on Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is based in Yemen. The military – to much media fanfare – bombed and seized a training camp in the south of the country, claiming to have killed several important operatives from the terror group. Later in the year, security forces killed and arrested a number of AQAP members in Sanaa, alleged to be behind a spate of kidnappings of foreigners, assassinations of local politicians and the murders of two French security contractors. 

[Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] are now planning something big… all over the country

Abdulrazzaq al-Jamal, Yemeni Al-Qaeda expert

In June, meanwhile, President Abdrabbu Mansour al-Hadi faced down protests over fuel shortages and electricity outages that people close to him viewed as the beginnings of a coup led by his predecessor. Al-Hadi responded by seizing a mosque built by Saleh and shutting down a TV station that had supposedly been encouraging the protests. 

A little over a month later, he pushed through a tough decision to cut fuel subsidies, averting fiscal and economic meltdown. Without the cut, and funding from abroad, internal official estimates had suggested Sanaa would have run out of money by October. In reducing the subsidy, Al-Hadi also unlocked a $560m loan from the Washington-based IMF, $100m from the World Bank, another $150m from the Arab Fund, and – reportedly – up to $2bn in fuel and cash from neighbouring Saudi Arabia. 

Although Yemenis briefly took to the streets to express outrage at the decision that saw fuel prices increase by up to 95 per cent, there was nothing like the kind of unrest caused by a similar 2005 move to abolish subsidies, which led to days of rioting and several deaths. Back then, Islah, Yemen’s main opposition party – a coalition of Sunni Islamists, conservative businessmen and tribal leaders – had encouraged its supporters to take to the streets. 

A decade later, neither Islah nor the General People’s Congress (GPC – Yemen’s historical ruling party led by Saleh), objected to the subsidy reforms. Between them, the two parties – allies for much of Yemen’s modern history, but bitter rivals since the 2011 uprising, when Islah called for Saleh’s removal – hold the majority of seats in a coalition government, and Al-Hadi had ensured both sides endorsed the unpopular cut before pushing it through.

Short-lived reprieve

In a display of solidarity during Eid prayers on 29 July, Al-Hadi brought together Saleh, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar – Saleh’s onetime military enforcer and a conservative Islamist who split from the regime in 2011 – and Himyar al-Ahmar, a member of the powerful Al-Ahmar family (no relation to Mohsen), which helped to found Islah. Al-Hadi, it seemed, had managed the unthinkable: he had fought Al-Qaeda, ushered in crucial economic reforms, and brought the old guard to heel. But the reprieve was to be short-lived.

The longer it takes to get an agreement, the more time everyone has to arm and the greater the chance [for] violence

Source working on the mediation talks

Unfortunately for the president, the fractured remnants of the Saleh regime are not all he has to deal with. Three weeks before Eid, the Houthis – a rebel group from the north of Yemen that began as a revivalist movement for the Zaydi Shia form of Islam, but have taken on an increasingly militant form in recent years – seized Amran city (the capital of the province of the same name). In doing so, the group completed a rout of tribal and Islamist forces that long underpinned Islah’s place in national politics and, until its implosion in 2011, the Saleh regime. The Houthis’ arrival in the city, 50 kilometres north of Sanaa, sparked fears that they had designs on the capital.

A week after the symbolic meeting, meanwhile, AQAP, which the government claimed to have decimated earlier in the year, marked its return to the national spotlight in a gruesome fashion. Members of Ansar al-Sharia, an AQAP offshoot that does much of its work on the ground, dragged 14 soldiers from a bus travelling to Sanaa from Seyyun, the capital of the eastern province of Hadramawt, before beheading them and uploading the photos to social media sites. 

AQAP has become increasingly active in Hadramawt this year, regrouping in the province after being forced out of nearby Abyan and Shabwah, according to Abdulrazzaq al-Jamal, a Yemeni Al-Qaeda expert, who believes the group’s organisational capacity was hardly dented by the April assault. “They are now planning something big, not just in Hadramawt but all over the country, in Abyan, in Shabwah, and elsewhere,” he says.

AQAP re-emerges

After the killings, Al-Hadi promised to divert more military resources to the campaign, publicly declaring he would destroy AQAP once and for all. It was a refrain Yemenis had heard all too often. AQAP seized territory in the southern province of Abyan in 2011 and 2012, declaring an Islamic ‘emirate’ led by Jalal Baladi al-Marqashi. A 2012 campaign pushed the group out of the area, but only briefly. Al-Marqashi helped set up a training camp and logistics centre in the east of Abyan – the same facility that was targeted in the April 2014 campaign.

“It looks an awful lot like a game of whack-a-mole,” says a Western diplomat based in Sanaa of the military’s attempts to uproot AQAP. “It’s aggrieving that even the same personalities keep reappearing in different locations, and it makes it look like each campaign has a pretty superficial effect.”

The president had little time to absorb the news of the killings (which were followed by clashes between AQAP and the military in Hadramawt) before he once again had to turn his attention to the north. In a 17 August televised address, Abdelmalek al-Houthi, the Houthis’ leader, demanded the president dissolve the “corrupt” government in Sanaa and lower fuel prices to their fully subsidised level.

Al-Houthi called on his supporters to enter the capital and hold demonstrations, setting up protest encampments in the city centre and around the outskirts. Thousands of his supporters poured into Sanaa, calling for the end of the “regime” and the “dose” (the fuel price increase). “Out with the corrupt government; this dose is killing us,” the demonstrators called.

The Houthis, who also go by the name Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), have said that while they have every intention of toppling the government, they will do so peacefully. But their critics – particularly Islah, which lost a big chunk of its hard power base during the fall of Amran (also the Al-Ahmars’ home province) – claim they have come to seize power by force.

“The demands of an armed group are not those of one that is serious about peace,” says Adnan al-Odaini, Islah’s chief spokesman tells MEED. “I do not see these as peaceful or popular protests, even if armed action has not taken place yet.”

“What is happening right now is a revolution of the hungry,” says Ali al-Bokhaiti, a spokesman for the Houthis. “We demand they cancel the dose and implement the NDC outcomes. Many parties and groups agree with us, even people in government. Everyone agrees to our demands, except Islah.”

Al-Hadi has made several concessions, cutting the fuel price by 12.5 per cent and offering to dissolve the government, which is widely unpopular, replacing it with a more representative body and a new prime minister, more to the Houthis’ liking. But the Houthis have held out for a bigger say in the make-up of the new government and the full reinstatement of the fuel subsidies. “These are our demands; they have not and will not change,” says a Houthi official.

Growing protests

The protests have slowly escalated. On 7 and 9 September, attempts by the security forces to push Houthi supporters back from the main road connecting the centre of the capital with Sanaa airport, and from the street in front of the prime minister’s office, dissolved into chaos when paramilitary policemen apparently fired live rounds at protesters, killing nine. Yemen held its breath, expecting reprisals from the Houthis, however, none came. Negotiations instead continued.

But Al-Hadi and the Houthis know it is only a matter of time before another incident sparks violence. If that happens, it is likely AQAP will again try to seize territory. Many Yemenis worry, meanwhile, that the group could come to Sanaa in order to fight the Houthis – its sworn enemy.

The government and the Houthis need to find a deal and fast. “The longer it takes to get an agreement, the more time everyone has to arm and the greater the chance that violence will break out,” says a source working on the talks. “That could end the transition and lead to an even worse crisis than in 2011.”