On Oct. 7, Yemen’s President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi appointed his close ally Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak as the country’s prime minister, two weeks after fighting between Shia Houthi rebels and government troops transformed Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, into a war zone. The rebels rejected the appointment hours after it was made, dashing hopes of a swift return to order.
In a statement on Wednesday evening, leader of the Houthi rebels, Abdulmalek al-Houthi, said bin Mubarak’s nomination was a result of external pressure (noting that the president chose the new prime minister after meeting with U.S. ambassador in Sanaa) and called for mass demonstrations to protest the decision. In response to such opposition, bin Mubarak himself spurned the nomination and apologized for trying to form a new government.
The Houthis — once the target of six brutal wars under the rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s longest-ruling president at his ouster in 2012 — have recently seen a dramatic change of fortune. But as shocking as the Houthis’ capture of Sanaa was, their movement has been years if not decades in the making. Despite allegations of covert Iranian support and machinations from other external actors, the Houthi movement is largely rooted in local grievances.
Houthi fighters took control of Sanaa on Sept. 18 after a month of street protests and clashes. After a week of fighting, all sides agreed to a truce, which preserved Hadi’s presidency and called on him to form a new, technocratic Cabinet within a month, in consultation with representatives of the rebels; in exchange, they would withdraw from the capital. But the plan has stalled at the first hurdle.
Mubarak’s appointment was a key first step in the United Nations–brokered truce, signed and endorsed by Yemen’s key political factions on Sept. 21. But the Houthis’ rejection of the president’s nominee threatens to shatter Yemen’s post–Arab Spring transition, deepening cracks in a political process once hailed as a model for the region.
Shifting political landscape
But the latest crisis is not really about bin Mubarak. A university professor turned politician, he supported the protests that ousted Saleh in 2011. He quickly endeared himself to Saleh’s successor, Hadi, serving as secretary-general of Yemen’s Conference of National Dialogue, a forum tasked with drafting a new constitution and guiding the two-year political transition, and later as Hadi’s chief of staff.
Last December, bin Mubarak’s closeness with the president and the diplomatic community, most notably the U.N. envoy to Yemen, Jamal Ben Omar, fueled speculation that he would replace the current prime minister, Mohammed Basindwah. But bin Mubarak’s appointment this week came as a surprise to many Yemeni political insiders. It’s not that they couldn’t have seen the reserved academic as prime minister a year ago but that the playing field has changed.
The Houthis are an outgrowth of the Believing Youth movement, a group founded in the 1990s to reinvigorate the traditions of Zaidism (a branch of Shia Islam found almost exclusively in Yemen), which they say was threatened by the spread of Saudi-influenced ideologies. But the group’s founder, the charismatic cleric Hussein al-Houthi, soon began voicing Houthi grievances about economic and political marginalization and criticizing Yemen’s close cooperation with the United States as well. As the Houthis gained recognition, the government hit back. During the Houthis’ first round of conflict with the government in 2004, Yemeni forces killed Houthi. The group fought even more devastating wars under the leadership of Hussein al-Houthi’s younger brother and successor, Abdulmalek al-Houthi.
As old and new political actors vie for greater influence, Yemen’s once celebrated transition to democracy appears to be on hold.
As part of the power transfer deal that led to Saleh’s ouster in 2011, the Cabinet was split between representatives of Saleh’s dominant General People’s Congress (GPC) and the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), a coalition of parliamentary opposition groups. At the time, the Houthis aligned themselves with the JMP in calling for Saleh’s removal. But their relations with the JMP — particularly its largest component, the Sunni Islamist Islah party, which incorporates the bulk of the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood — grew increasingly tense over the last two years.
The Houthis accuse Islah officials of plotting power grabs and engaging in corruption and have battled Islah-affiliated tribal figures on numerous fronts north of Sanaa. The Houthis’ anti-corruption rhetoric earned them support among many Yemenis who are frustrated with instability, corruption and economic stagnation. Their successive victories against tribal militias demonstrated the group’s growing strength.
In July the Houthis took advantage of an unpopular decision by Hadi’s government to remove fuel subsidies, first calling for civil disobedience in Sanaa. When security forces responded by killing Houthi protesters, the rebels used the crackdown as a casus belli, calling for the removal of Basindwah’s increasingly unpopular government and eventually taking over Sanaa.
The peace deal kept Hadi in power, but the Houthis were in charge, reigning over the streets of Sanaa, manning checkpoints and guarding government buildings. Despite Hadi’s ongoing attempt to form a new government, Yemen’s political future appears as unclear as ever.
It is clear, though, that the Houthis do not want Hadi’s right-hand man in the driver’s seat. Officials argue that bin Mubarak was a last resort; other candidates with broader support refused to accept the position, currently seen as a poisoned chalice. The tensions risk throwing the nation back into chaos, capsizing Yemen’s already fragile political transition.
After bin Mubarak’s appointment on Tuesday, the Houthis called for a return to the revolutionary escalations that led to their takeover of the capital. To make matters worse, even the GPC has hinted at its rejection of the appointment.
The continuing cycle of protest and government reshuffles is clearly destabilizing. While it is difficult to envision a return to some modicum of stability without elections, it is equally difficult to imagine free and fair elections when the key political actors cannot agree on a new prime minister. As it is, elections planned for 2014 have been postponed until a constitution can be written and put to referendum. As old and new political actors vie for greater influence, Yemen’s once celebrated transition to democracy appears to be on hold.