The tangled web of Yemeni politics

February 1, 2015

In the backdrop of events of January 2015, it is certain that the woes of Yemen are not going to end any time soon

The tangled web of Yemeni politics

To the woes of Yemen there seems no end in sight. From the northern part’s deliverance from the Ottoman rule in 1918 to the departure of British from the Southern part in 1967, the country has seen little peace and much conflict. The drivers of conflicts are pivoted around religious division, north-south dynamics and the regional and world powers meddling in Yemen’s domestic politics. No wonder the country is in such a prolonged political mess.

The current crisis was set into motion when the Houthis, the Zaidi Shia from the North, ran on the capital Sana in September 2014. From that point onward, the Houthis have gradually tightened their noose around the city which resulted in the dramatic resignation of the president and the prime minister in January 2015. This was after the Houthis had made the government accede to their demands to change the constitution for greater representation of the Houthis and do away with reorganisation of the country into six units from going ahead weeks earlier.

However, the roots of the current crisis go far back into decades. The North Yemen, bordering Saudi Arabia, has been dominated by the Zaidi Shia. Imam Yahya, the leader of the Zaidi Shia, ruled the northern part from 1918 until 1962. Long before that, the Zaidis had ruled the region through Imamate system.

In the late 1950s and ’60s’ the country was buffeted by waves of pan-Arabism regionally and liberation movement internationally. This led to two outcomes which were to lay the seeds of current instability and conflict that plague the country. On the back of the Egyptian revolution led by Jamal Nasir, the feudal order represented by the Zaidis in the North was toppled in 1962 when Imam Yahya’s son was killed in a military coup supported by Egypt and opposed by Saudi Arabia. Thus was born the Yemen Arab Republic.

While in the south, a leftist movement rose up against the British rule which led to the departure of the British in 1967. The result was the formation of the Peoples’ Democratic Yemen Republic in the South. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s tensions remained between the North and South. Continuous border clashes between North and South characterise the two decades. It was only in 1989 that both parts of Yemen came together under one flag and Abdullah Saleh, the northern leader and a self-professed Zaidi became the president. This uneasy accommodation was over in 1994 when the Southern part announced its secession plans which were put down by President Abdullah Saleh.

The stakes for the US and Saudi Arabia are too high in the new power configuration in Yemen.

Following attack on the US vessel in 2000 President Saleh cast in his lot with the US and Saudi Arabia. This led to a huge expansion in the influence of Saudi-supported Islah party. The party, active in the northern stronghold of the Zaidis, also attracted some layers from the Zaidis. This period also saw the rise of other religious oriented parties which is owed partly to the collapse of left politics in Yemen. However, with the rise of Islah in the North, the tensions between the Zaidis and Islah party reached dangerous new high.

This period also saw the rise of intensely political Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi as the leader of the Zaidis (since then the name Houthi has become synonymous with the political project of the Zaidis). Houthi was a charismatic leader, an advocate for the Zaidi rights in the wider Yemen and a vocal critic of the US invasion of Iraq. These political positions put him on collision course with the Sana government.

In 2004, Houthi was killed by state security forces and the mantle of leadership fell to his younger brother Abdel Malik al-Houthi, the current leader of the Zaidis. In 2011, the country was convulsed with popular protest led by the youth against the long rule of President Saleh. This is where the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) jumped in with a controversial transition plan. The GCC accord was hugely favourable to the Islah party and disadvantageous to the Houthis. The accord was new gloss on politics as usual as evidenced in the preservation of the old order with the symbolic removal of president Abdullah Saleh and ascension of his deputy to the presidency. The Houthis felt totally left out of the accord which was meant to engage the political parties, with no political party to represent their interests.

The drone attack on the Houthis at the behest of Saudi authorities and the US has further complicated the situation. This provided a perfect backdrop to the Houthis siege of capitals in September 2014. The events of January 2015 that saw resignation of the government were logical result of the September seizure of capital. The Houthis enjoy wider support for bringing an end to an unsatisfactory government ushered in the wake of the GCC accord.

Presently, there exists a dangerous power vacuum which the Houthis are reluctant to fulfill by assuming full political control. Yet the seizure of government offices by the Houthis has sounded alarm bells in Riyadh which has accused Iran for backing the Houthis -- a charge denied by both sides.

The stakes for the US and Saudi Arabia are too high in the new power configuration in Yemen. The Houthis are also said to be in close coordination with the ousted president Saleh. This adds another layer of complexity to the tangled politics of Yemen. Yet one thing is clear: any solution has to dovetail national reconciliation, greater representation of minorities and power sharing between different groups to have any chance of success.

However, this is easier said than done, since Saudi Arabia, being the bankroller, is worried at the prospect of the ascendency of the Houthis in the North which borders Saudi Arabia. Irrespective of the short and medium term solutions being worked out in Riyadh and Washington, one prediction can be made with a fair degree of certainty: the woes of Yemen are not going to end any time soon. The complex web of domestic, regional and international political factors are only going to protract the agony of the people of Yemen.

The tangled web of Yemeni politics