Obama calls it a “model” for fighting terror. So why didn’t anyone notice last month’s coup?
Nobody saw it coming. On Sept. 20, Yemen’s Huthi movement executed a political coup so stealthy that the world hardly noticed, and so momentous that local commentators are dividing modern Yemeni history into before and after the Huthi assent to power. The Huthis, a Shiite-led rebel group with a power base in Yemen’s far north, have been waiting for this moment since the early 2000s, when their civil rights campaign was forced to take up arms in self-defense.
The Huthi coup is not only reshuffling the Yemen political deck, but also regional political calculations, particularly in the Arab Gulf, because the Huthi maintain good ties with Iran. And it poses problems for President Obama’s war against Yemen’s al Qaeda affiliate.
Over the last six months, Huthi militias extended their control over regions adjacent to the Huthi stronghold in Saada, 230 kilometers north of the Yemeni capital Sanaa. They wrested leadership of the powerful Hashid tribal confederation, destroyed military units allied with the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Islah Party, and ousted their Salafi opponents from the Dammaj Valley, a few miles southeast of Saada. Finally, the Huthi descended upon Sanaa, destroyed the last remaining military units loyal to Gen. Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, the once-powerful commander of the 1st Armored Division, and his allies in the Islah Party, and took control of the Yemeni government without much resistance – and surprisingly little international coverage.
Jamal Bin Omar, the U.N.’s special representative to Yemen, negotiated between President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi and the Huthi leadership to set the parameters of a new interim government and thus gave international recognition to the Huthi ascent. The resulting document, hailed by the president as a peace agreement, is now looking more like a surrender.
The Huthi’s stunning rise to power is mainly the result of four factors: the incompetence of the interim government installed in 2011, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s desire for revenge against those who ousted him in 2011, Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s sharp turn against the Muslim Brotherhood and the astute political leadership of the Huthi movement itself.
The Huthi movement began in the 1990s as civil rights movement for Yemen’s Zaydis. Zaydism is a form of Shiism adhered to by Yemen’s rulers for 1,000 years until 1962, when Yemen became a Republic. The Zaydis believed that the descendants of the Prophet Mohamed’s family through Fatima, one of his daughters, and Ali, her husband, were the only people qualified to lead the Muslim community, and thus people claiming such descent formed a religious aristocracy in northern Yemen.
The Republican leadership saw in the Zaydi aristocracy a threat from the old regime and repressed the Zaydis. Republican leaders, with Saudi support, fostered hardline Sunni Wahhabi and Salafi currents to counter Zaydi influence. The Islah Party was the main channel for the anti-Zaydi, pro-Saudi currents in Yemen. Its pillars are the Muslim Brotherhood, a portion of the Yemeni military under Gen. Ali Muhsin and the leadership of the Hashid tribal confederation under the leadership of the wealthy al-Ahmar family.
In Yemen’s liberal renaissance in the early 1990s, various Zaydi currents tried to reintegrate into modern Republican society. Some formed a political party, while others worked to spread knowledge of Zaydism among the youth who had lost the religion of their parents. Republican animosity did not abate, and in the early 2000s the Huthi movement emerged as an armed insurgency fighting against the Saleh regime. Six wars ensued between 2004 and 2010, and the Huthi emerged victorious, successfully defending themselves against a dual onslaught by the Yemeni and Saudi militaries in 2010. Fighting the Huthis weakened Saleh’s regime and brought wide support for the Huthi movement, not because of its Shiite faith, but because the Huthi provided a credible alternative leadership.
Saleh’s regime fell in the Arab Spring amid mass protests against his rule. Islah, his former close allies, led the formal opposition, along with the Huthi movement and the southern movement, a civil disobedience campaign in the portions of southern Yemen defeated in the civil war of 1994. After Saleh stepped down, the transitional government aimed to restore peace among Yemen’s elite rather than replace them; it consisted mostly of old faces of the Saleh regime. So although Yemen held a “national dialogue” to chart the country’s political future, the transitional government failed to address the grievances of those left outside looking in.
The Huthis, after watching the interim government sputter along, decided to impose a more fundamental political change of their own. Saudi Arabia’s turn against the Muslim Brotherhood helped. Though the Saudis said they still supported Islah, the Saudis put Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood, one of Islah’s main pillars, on their list of terrorist organizations, as they did for the Egyptian Brotherhood. Meanwhile, the Ahmar family struggled to contain the Huthi revolt in the north.
Former President Saleh also may have quietly aided the Huthi—motivated by the prospect of wreaking vengeance on those who helped oust him in 2011. When the Huthi entered Sanaa, the Yemeni military did not resist, with the exception of those units allied with Gen. Ali Muhsin and Islah’s militias. The Huthi quickly routed Muhsin’s forces and were then given the keys to the city. Did Saleh and his relatives convince the military to stand down? Is he planning a comeback?
Just who is playing whom in this complicated game of Yemeni politics is not clear. The Huthi themselves may have neutralized much of the military though astute leadership and by gaining the loyalty of key military leaders. The Saudis and the Saleh clan were happy to see their former allies in Islah destroyed, even if by an adversary with close ties to Iran.
The new document signed by Yemen’s main political players, including Islah, calls for a new, technocratic government headed by President Hadi that will appoint a committee of economic experts to make binding recommendations. All militias are to leave Sanaa, and all military equipment is to return to the state.
One reason the Huthi coup didn’t spark more of an outcry is that all factions in Yemen, along with Riyadh and Washington, welcomed the outlines of the agreement. But the Huthis’ behavior has left many questioning whether it’s worth the paper it’s printed on. Huthi militias still control the streets of Sanaa, and Huthi militias are moving toward key oil facilities and ports. The Huthis appear to be consolidating their coup rather than setting the stage for national reconciliation and rebuilding.
Twenty-three days after the Huthis took Sanaa, President Hadi finally appointed a new prime minister, a technocrat from the southern governorate of Hadramawt. On the same day, Abd Malik al-Huthi called for exiled southern leaders to return to the country to rebuild the south. While pressing ahead with their military advantage, the Huthis have now entered the political game as well.
The United States has said little, except to note human rights violations by the Huthi militias in Sanaa. The Huthi movement’s extreme hostility toward al Qaeda may buy it some support in Washington: Al Qaeda killed 47 Huthi followers in a suicide attack last week, and the two groups appear to be moving toward open confrontation.
For their part, the Arab Gulf states are more concerned about the Huthis’ relations with Iran, seeing the Huthi coup as more alarming evidence of Iranian meddling across the region. On Monday, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal demanded that Iran withdraw its “occupying” forces from Syria, Iraq and Yemen. But the Huthi are a homegrown Yemeni phenomenon—not an Iranian proxy force. If they succeed or fail, it will be because they built a stable Yemeni state—or helped destroy it.