Yemen’s Houthis’ over-ambition bounces back

When the sun rose in Yemen on Thursday, the leadership of the revivalist Zaydi movement Ansarullah woke up to a reality they created but probably would have rather have avoided.

On Sunday, soon after the National Conference in a sports hall in Sanaa drew to a close, Ansarullah (also known as the Houthis) issued a final statement on the conference’s main conclusions and demands. Among those demands was a three-day-deadline, which expired on Wednesday evening, for Yemen’s political parties to reach a solution to the current crisis. Otherwise, the statement read, the “revolutionary leadership” will take over and act as decision maker during the transitional period.

Since taking over the capital in September, the Houthi’s leadership got comfortable with using Hadi’s weak government as window-dressing

Manuel Almeida

The conference’s official title might give an idea of all-inclusive gathering, but most political parties boycotted the event organized by Ansarullah. A few tribal leaders attended. So did some members of Yemen’s long-time ruling party General People’s Congress and military officers, yet another sign that there was cooperation between Ansarullah and political and military factions loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Anti-Ansarullah demonstrations

While the conference went on, anti-Ansarullah demonstrations took place in various cities, including Taiz, Ibb, Aden and Sanaa’s Tahrir Square. The violent disruption of the protests in the capital by Ansarullah fighters and their harassment campaign of local journalists and activists helped to undo the movement’s populist mantle and uncover its more disquieting side.

The U.N. secretary-general’s special adviser on Yemen, Jamal Benomar, confirmed a few days ago that recently-resigned President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi remains effectively under house arrest. Hadi said he could reconsider his resignation if Ansarullah abandons the capital and security is restored. However, Ansarullah has recently established a reputation for not honouring their part of the deals they make, another reason why Hadi’s immediate comeback looks unlikely.

Since taking over the capital in September, the movement’s leadership got comfortable with using Hadi’s weak government as window-dressing while they effectively called the shots. Emboldened by their new position, they went a few steps too far in pressuring the government to the point it had not options but to resign. Their insistence for Hadi to backtrack on the resignation he submitted last week is a sign of Ansarullah’s anxiety about a situation they did not seem to expect.

Ansarullah’s military offensive across much of north and central Yemen also added new groups to their long list of enemies. They are not only a primary target for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Powerful tribes in Marib and al-Bayda have already turned against them and serious tensions verging on armed clashes between the northern Zaydi movement and Salafist groups have resumed.

New round of talks

Despite a new round of talks (the sixth one) between Ansarullah and Yemen’s main political parties under the watch of Benomar, the political backlash against Ansarullah undermined the chances of any breakthrough in this latest round even before the three day deadline. Yemen’s main parties suspended their participation in the talks and demanded that parliament convenes to consider Hadi’s resignation. According to the constitution, if Hadi’s resignation is confirmed, the parliamentary speaker will take over until elections are held.

Adding to the already difficult situation Ansarullah leadership find themselves in, the withdrawal of the General People’s Congress from the talks might be an indication that the predictable end to the collusion between Saleh and the Zaydi movement is close. Considering the influence Saleh and his cohort still hold, this would be no insignificant development.

Southern representatives also boycotted the talks, calling it as a waste of time. They rejected Ansarullah’s proposal to form a six-member transitional presidential council. The creation last week of the National Southern Body for Liberation and Independence, under the leadership of former southern opposition politician Abdulrahman al-Jifri, is the latest attempt at forming an umbrella movement for southern secessionism.

Ansarullah’s take-over of Sanaa

The swiftness of Ansarullah’s take-over of Sanaa in September was too quickly dismissed as the outcome of chaos and lack of leadership in the capital. Yet the so-called neutrality of the army in the face of the rebels’ offensive was decisive. That neutrality is partially a matter of competing allegiances within the army. It could have also been retaliation for the Hadi government’s attempts to restructure the military. The army, or what is left of it, will not stand aside indefinitely and clashes between army units and Ansarullah fighters have been reported over the last couple of weeks.

The deadline that Ansarullah imposed on Yemen’s political parties will turn into an imposition on themselves. To live up to their ultimatum, they are now forced to form a transitional ruling council that will be illegitimate, will not be recognized by the majority of Yemenis, and will surely be un-prepared to govern. Ansarullah will be widely blamed if things go from bad to worse and there is plenty of potential for that.

While Western press coverage of this latest crisis in Yemen obsesses about the threat posed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a far greater threat afflicts 16 million Yemenis in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.

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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.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:44 - GMT 06:44
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