The Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen: from power to the streets

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Yemeni street vendors sell sweets on a street in the capital Sanaa on October 2, 2014, two days ahead the major Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. (Photo: AFP-Mohammed Huwais)

By: Ahmed al-Zarqa

Published Tuesday, October 7, 2014

After their defeat at the hands of the Houthis, is the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen finished?

Sana’a – “Islahis…you are not the state,” declared the head of the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Yemeni Congregation for Reform Party (al-Islah) in parliament Zaid al-Shami, shortly before Sana’a fell to Ansar Allah, the umbrella group of the Houthis. One can consider this declaration the point of inflection separating two important stages in the history of al-Islah. Indeed, Shami was admitting that the party had lost its decision-making position in the country, as well as its erstwhile influence, whether in power or in opposition.

Since the establishment of the party officially, in conjunction with the announcement of the unification of Yemen in 1990, al-Islah has played a key role in the country’s political life. The Islamist party forged a series of alliances that left their mark on Yemen’s modern history, most notably the alliance with the General People’s Congress (GPC) from 1993 to 1997.

The two parties, with their political and military alliance, were a strong contender that was eventually able to dislodge the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) from power. Removing the YSP and its allies from power took place after the victory of the GPC and al-Islah in the summer war of 1994, which was the first conflict of its kind in the north, specifically in the Saada province. There, Badr al-Din al-Houthi stood alongside the YSP against the same “enemy,” al-Islah and the GPC. The YSP and the Houthis were defeated, forcing al-Houthi to flee to Tehran for five years, before he returned on assurances from former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The Houthis in 1994

The alliance between al-Islah and the GPC did not last very long. Disputes soon emerged between them, and differences over visions and attitudes, ending the honeymoon between the “rival partners.” Al-Islah returned to the opposition, after spending close to four years in power, during which it could not secure any achievements to speak of.

Although the alliance between them ended officially in 1997, al-Islah leaders were keen to preserve their alliance with Ali Abdullah Saleh. In 1999, Al-Islah even nominated Saleh for the presidential election. At the time, one Islah leader, addressing President Saleh, said, “We are your party in prosperity and in adversity.”

However, this sycophancy did not lead to rapprochement between the two sides, prompting al-Islah to join the Supreme Coordination Council for Opposition Parties, which became the Joint Meeting of Parties (JMP). Al-Islah dominated the JMP since it had the second largest bloc in parliament after the GPC, and also a large popular base.

Later on, the party led with the opposition the stage that culminated with the ouster of Saleh in 2011, under the Gulf initiative that required sharing government posts equally between JMP and the GPC, with the post of prime minister going to al-Islah-affiliated factions. Furthermore, these forces put pressure at the time on President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the government, claiming to be the party behind the revolution. This made things go sour between the president and the prime minister on the one hand, and the factions led by Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and the leader of al-Islah Sheikh Hamid al-Ahmar, on the other.

This climate allowed new forces to coalesce, giving President Hadi an opportunity to rid himself of Islamist forces in power. This is indeed what happened when the Houthis declared war on the Ahmar clan strongmen and expelled them from their tribal stronghold in Hashed, and demolished the clan’s large house in the Khamri district of the province of Amran, which was the second stop in the Houthis’ war on the forces allied to and dominated by al-Islah politically and ideologically.

Moreover, the Houthis were able to seize the barracks of the 310th Armored Brigade, one of the largest and best-armed brigades of the Yemeni army in northern Yemen. With every step that the Houthis took closer to Sana’a, the threat of a decisive battle between the Houthis and al-Islahi grew bigger and bigger.

As the Houthis overran Sana’a without resistance, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar escaped, compelling the leadership of al-Islah to bend with the Houthi storm. Al-Islah decided not to engage in armed clashes in Sana’a. Some Islah leaders even said that they managed to avoid a plot to “get rid of party members and cadres by throwing them into battle with the Houthis.”

With the Houthis consolidating their control in Sana’a, al-Islah party headquarters were looted and burned. Al-Islah could do nothing more than condemn those acts, calling for a new phase of “coexistence, reconciliation, and partnership among all Yemenis, and the renunciation of violence and the approach of might is right in political work, as well as removing medium to heavy arms from individuals and groups.”

The curtain has not yet fallen on the intrigue in Yemen. Al-Islah is still gearing up to fight another day, albeit with different political weapons, most notably by working with its partners to hold parliamentary and presidential elections that could restore part of its lost stature. Doubtless, the most recent setbacks suffered by the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen will push them to rethink their performance in the outgoing period, especially after they had had a taste of the same bitter medicine they gave to their enemies in the summer war of 1994.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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