Wadia Mohammed / EPA

Who is in charge in Yemen?

Political tensions in Sanaa expose the country's widening ethnic and religious fault lines

January 29, 2015 2:00AM ET

The latest political developments in Yemen — which culminated in the sudden resignation of Prime Minister Khaled Bahah, his Cabinet and President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi on Jan. 22 — have left even the most politically consummate Yemenis struggling to put the pieces together.

The country’s widening fault lines are now on full display. Political officials are no longer identified solely by their position but also by their geographical origin, religious background and political history. While many continue to cling to Yemeni nationalism, any remaining sense of unifying links among the country’s various stakeholders appears to be dissipating. If there was any doubt, the succession of local governorates announcing that they will no longer take orders from Sanaa confirmed it.

The roots of the current crisis date back more than a decade before last week’s events. In June 2004 then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh dispatched government forces to arrest Hussein al-Houthi, a charismatic cleric and former member of parliament. Saleh felt increasingly threatened by Houthi’s soaring popularity, due in large part to his sharp critiques of the Yemeni government’s alliance with the United States, the marginalization of the his native province of Saada and the capital’s rampant corruption. He was killed along with more than a dozen followers in the rugged mountains of Marran, according to a statement the government released on Sept. 10, 2004. But his Ansar Allah movement — better known as the Houthis — soldiered on under the leadership of his younger brother, Abdul Malek al-Houthi, as Saleh’s regime waged a series of brutal wars that devastated much of northern Yemen over the past decade. The military campaign further intensified the feelings of marginalization and resentment that laid the seeds for the Houthi rebellion.

During Yemen’s Arab Spring–inspired uprising in 2011, the Houthis took advantage of the power vacuum and expanded their control over Saada. Emboldened by the lack of resistance, they soon began to face off against the Islamist Islah party, their former allies against Saleh. Islah is an opposition faction that incorporates the bulk of the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood — in tribal areas between Saada and the capital. After fallout with the Houthis and as the country’s internationally mediated transition sputtered on, Islah eventually forged a new alliance with Saleh and his backers. The Houthis’ success on the battlefield and astute political messaging eventually paid off big last September, when they took control of Sanaa and forced their Islah-allied adversaries to flee.

Initially, the Houthis’ rise was greeted with optimism among many Yemenis. Frustrated with the ineffective and frequently deadlocked unity government in Sanaa, many hoped that the Houthis would at least spur a positive change. But despite signing a peace accord with the government and representatives of other political factions, the Houthis continued to expand their writ, even though they offered a qualified endorsement of a new Cabinet, made up of technocrats and led by the widely respected Bahah, formed in November to bring the country on track.

Despite continued Houthi sieges and crackdowns on daily protests against their takeover, life goes on in the streets of Sanaa. But no one has the scarcest idea of what tomorrow will bring.

Events came came to a head on Jan. 17 after Houthi gunmen kidnapped presidential chief of staff Ahmed Awadh bin Mubarak while the government was preparing to announce the completion of a newly drafted constitution. As negotiations to secure the release of bin Mubarak were scuttled, the Houthis — who justified their actions by claiming that the government failed to meet the conditions of the previously negotiated accord — moved in on the presidential palace and the homes of a number of top officials, making a series of demands in return for their withdrawal. After days of violence and tension in the capital and unsuccessful negotiations came the slew of resignations, as the prime minister and president decided, apparently, that the situation was unsustainable. The Houthis released bin Mubarak on Jan. 27 after tribal mediation, but there remain no concrete signs that the crisis is nearing anything resembling a workable conclusion.

In some sense, the mass resignation of Bahah’s Cabinet robbed the Houthis of their scapegoat, forcing the group to shoulder the blame for the unrest in the country. But it has only thrown the country into further uncertainty. Efforts by prominent Yemenis from various political backgrounds to get the president and prime minister to reverse their resignations have proved fruitless. A parliamentary summit called to vote on whether to accept the resignations has been postponed indefinitely. Regardless of who ends up ruling the country, the primary challenge for Yemen’s next leaders is putting the country together again.

The vast majority of Yemenis appear to be stuck between forlorn anger and hope for a deus ex machina. International actors, including the U.S., the European Union, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the United Nations, are engaged in a fraught process of damage control, furiously attempting to broker a new deal and to get key players to adhere to the conditions they accepted in September. Frustrations with the country’s troubled political transition and the international community’s ham-fisted handling of it have been mounting for so long that many Yemenis are simply numb at this point. On the streets of Sanaa — despite continued Houthi sieges of key government buildings and crackdowns on now daily protests against their takeover of the city — life goes on. But no one has the scarcest idea of what tomorrow will bring.

Adam Baron is a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He was based in Yemen from 2011 to 2014. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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Middle East, Yemen

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