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Houthis anxiously search for allies in Yemen

Antagonism to Ansarullah’s actions, always supported by coercion, is widespread

Manuel Almeida

Published: Updated:

A political leader clinging to power at all costs and against all odds is a familiar story in the Arab world, but during his 33 years in power Ali Abdullah Saleh was unrivalled in mastering the skill of shifting alliances and turning his opponents against one another. In the words of Yemen’s former president, ruling the country was like “dancing on the heads of snakes,” recounts Yemeni-born journalist Victoria Clark.

Four years ago on February 11, the youth from the city of Taiz in the Yemeni highlands revolted against that style of governing that prioritized keeping a grip on power over addressing the country’s pressing challenges. Abdel Malik al-Houthi, the young leader of the revivalist Zaydi movement Ansarullah (the political group of the Houthis) that took over the capital Sanaa and provoked the resignation of the president and the whole government, had called for demonstrations on Wednesday to mark the date and celebrate the latest revolution. However, Wednesday saw the biggest anti-coup demonstrations so far in Sanaa and Taiz.

Constitutional declaration

On the eve of the revolution’s anniversary, al-Houthi made a speech that was generally more conciliatory in its tone than his previous ones. At the end of last week, Ansarullah issued a constitutional declaration with a series of decrees that among other things dissolved parliament, established a transitional assembly to replace it and formed a “supreme revolutionary committee” to appoint local committees responsible for running provincial affairs. It also set a two-year deadline to complete the political transition.

Antagonism to Ansarullah’s actions, always supported by coercion, is widespread

Manuel Almeida

The leadership of Ansarullah may well reaffirm the movement’s commitment to dialogue, the political transition process and the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference. Yet other key political parties and groups such as Saleh’s General People’s Congress, al-Islah (or Yemeni Congregation for Reform), al-Hirak (the secessionist Southern Mobility Movement), and the Yemeni Socialist Party have opposed Ansarullah’s initiatives.

Antagonism to Ansarullah’s actions, always supported by coercion, is widespread. According to news earlier in the week, tribal leaders from the governorates of Marib, al-Bayda and al-Jawf could be preparing to announce the formation of the Sheba autonomous region. This represents a direct challenge to Ansarullah’s opposition to the six federal regions approved at the National Dialogue Conference (four in the north, two in the south). Ansarullah’s leaders claim instead that a two region federation would better serve the interests of all Yemenis.

Revealing intentions

The movement’s position on the number of federal regions is revealing of its intentions. A likely consequence of a Yemeni state divided into two federal regions according to the pre-unification borders would be a return to two separate states. This scenario would boost the position of Ansarullah, which is now dominant in the north but has no following whatsoever in the south. Six regions instead of two would dilute that advantage substantially. It is also an affront to the idealized northern state that Ansarullah’s ancestors, the Zaydi Imams (Hashemites), ruled for more than 1000 years until the overthrow the last Imam in 1962.

Ansarullah’s attempts to reach out to southern leaders who support secessionist claims and intentionally provide a boost to their cause is part of this vision. In his televised speech on Tuesday, al-Houthi said the movement he leads would focus on addressing Southern grievances (which date back to the post-1994 civil war period) and supporting their position.

The response of the southern secessionists has been a mixed one. Sensing the opportunity, they have used the chaos in the north as another justification for not taking any orders from Sanaa. Former South Yemen President, Ali Nasser Muhammad, said he would accept Ansarullah’s invitation to chair the presidential council if the transition moves toward a two-region federal state.

Feeling increasingly isolated and under pressure, Ansarullah has even reached out to its Islamist rival al-Islah, the coalition formed by Hashid tribal leadership, businessmen and Islamist groups of various kinds to which the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and its Salafist wing belong. It has the kind of nationwide, grassroots support that Ansarullah will never be able to gather. However, al-Islah’s leaders have refused to collaborate, probably aware that the coup is already backfiring.

Political transition

Ironically, one of the main consequences of Ansarallah’s military offensive, which extended across much of north and central Yemen, had been the reversal of the gains al-Islah attained during the political transition process and in the unelected national unity cabinet. Ansarullah fighters had conducted systematic purges of offices and buildings owned or run by the Brotherhood.

The complicity between Saleh’s supporters and the revivalist Zaydi movement also seems to be fraying. A possible scenario is an anti-Ansarullah alliance joining Saleh’s GPC and al-Islah, which could see its fortunes reversed in just a few months and orchestrate a powerful comeback. In the increasingly unpredictable Yemeni political scene, Ansarallah may well end up outplayed by Saleh and his shrewd veteran advisers who have been playing the game for far longer.

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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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