Is this a coup? That question was making the rounds on Tuesday while Houthi fighters in Sanaa took over the presidential palace and targeted the presidential residence. There were also reports that Defense Minister Mahmoud al-Subaihi escaped an assassination attempt as his convoy was leaving President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi’s residence, and that a U.S. embassy vehicle had been shot at.
That evening, Abdel-Malek al-Houthi, the young leader of the revivalist Zaydi group, made a speech that was broadcast live by various networks including Iran’s Press TV, during which he did not speak of a coup. He did, however, warn the government that all options were on the table to protect the Peace and Partnership agreement, signed by all parties on Sept. 21 last year after the Houthis took control of the capital.
In another of his typically long and convoluted speeches, the leader of the Houthis (who call themselves Ansar Allah, or Partisans of God) started by thanking the Yemeni army for remaining neutral, and condemned Western insults of the Prophet Mohammad.
He explained why the previous day Houthi fighters laid siege to the presidential palace and the residence of Prime Minister Khaled Bahah after shooting at his convoy. At least nine people were killed, including four civilians, during the exchange of artillery rounds between the Houthis and the presidential guard.
After praising the National Dialogue conference and the Peace and Partnership Agreement for laying the foundations for the future, he criticized Hadi and Bahah for being corrupt, having narrow self-interests, and undermining the political transition by avoiding implementation of the agreed measures. He also accused the prime minister of being an American agent and trying to manipulate the draft constitution agreement.
Over the weekend, Houthi fighters kidnapped Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, the president’s chief of staff, apparently to use him as bargaining chip to force Hadi to make changes to the committee in charge of drafting the new constitution.
The Houthis oppose a key provision of the draft constitution agreement that stipulates Yemen will be split into six federally-administrated regions. They call it a conspiracy to divide the country and say it violates the agreement signed in September. A Houthi spokesman on Monday said the draft should refer to Yemen as a federal state without specifying the number of regions: “Let the wise men of this people agree later on the regions and how to form them and their details.”
On Wednesday, the Houthis and the government had reached a preliminary agreement to put an end to the crisis. Predictably, the terms of the agreement are highly beneficial for the Houthis, who gain a greater say in the political transition in exchange for releasing Hadi’s chief of staff and withdrawing their fighters from a few government buildings.
It is clear that the position of the president will only grow more fragile. The neutrality of Yemen’s Defense Reserve Forces ... is a sign that Hadi has become increasingly isolated.Manuel al-Meida
So what does all this mean for the country’s near future? While it is becoming impossible to predict the next day in Yemen, the Houthis still seem disinclined to take over the key political posts, despite calling the shots in Sanaa and controlling nine provincial capitals in the north.
It is clear that the position of the president will only grow more fragile. The neutrality of Yemen’s Defense Reserve Forces (which include a few former Republican Guard brigades with strong ties to the clan of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh) is a sign that Hadi has become increasingly isolated.
Although last year his initial two-year term was extended for a further two, he has yet to appoint a vice-president. He is widely criticized for heading a government that has not actually governed, while all its focus was on the National Dialogue conference.
Another predictable outcome is an escalation of tensions in Marib province east of Sanaa, an important gas hub that is home to a number of tribes hostile to the Houthis. Tribal leaders have been calling for army support to fend off the coming Houthi offensive.
One of four demands in Abdel-Malek al-Houthi’s speech on Tuesday was for the government to address the chaos and the security situation in Marib, where local tribes have repeatedly sabotaged the province’s energy facilities and oil pipelines to deliver messages to the government. That is such a familiar practice to them that they have been threatening to sabotage electricity lines and oil pipelines in case Hadi is harmed.
If the government cannot secure official buildings in the capital, it will surely be unable to fix a crisis that has been dragging on for years. It will then be up to the Houthis, who also complain about the local tribes’ alliances with Al-Qaeda, to take the issue into their own hands.
Another likely consequence will be the emboldening of the secessionists of Al-Hirak. In their search for alliances outside their strongholds in the north, the Houthis have reached out to Al-Hirak, who according to the Peace and Partnership Agreement also gained a greater say in the political transition process.
Al-Hirak leaders have also been vocal in their opposition to a six-region federation that would split what was once the independent People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen into two southern regions, instead of one ruled by Aden.
The narrative that the Houthis are an ideologically hardened agent of Tehran is an unhelpful way to look at the current crisis and greatly exaggerates Iranian power to dictate terms to the Houthis. It carries the danger of providing a recruitment tool to Al-Qaeda and Sunni tribes determined to fight the Houthis.
However, the view that they represent the real revolution of the people against the old elite is too rosy a picture of the movement, which ignores their opportunism and populist rhetoric. Otherwise they would not have established an alliance with Saleh, even if it is likelier to be the result of a circumstantial alignment of interests rather than a long-term arrangement.
Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant on the Middle East. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science and was an editor at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.