Autopsy of a Revolution: Yemen's Winding Road Towards Change

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A Yemeni supporter of the separatist Southern Movement poses for a picture in front of a road blocked with rocks in the southern city of Aden on January 26, 2015. AFP

By: Catherine Shakdam

Published Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Hours after announcing that Yemen’s coalition government had reached a tentative deal with Ansarallah (Houthis) — Sayyed Abdel-Malek al-Houthi's powerful faction — embattled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi abandoned his presidency, followed closely by his prime minister Khaled Baha and a flurry of government officials.

In the third year of his tumultuous presidency, Hadi, a man who spent most of his political career in the shadow of ousted strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, simply called it quits, unwilling or unable to see though his mandate.

While Yemen, the poorest and most unstable country of the Arabian Peninsula, is no stranger to political drama, especially at a time when al-Qaeda militants have been rumored to be gathering momentum, has completely thrown off the nation, leaving millions to look to the future with much uncertainty and apprehension.

The question on everyone's lips: What could have possibly pushed President Hadi to give up on his people? Why now, and what now?

If most have already chosen to blame Yemen's institutional and political unravelling on Ansarallah, demonized out of deep-seated sectarian prejudices, experts have argued instead that Yemen's momentous failure stems from the inherent inadequacies of the 2011 GCC-brokered transition of power agreement.

Assessing Yemen's unravelling, April Alley, an analyst with the International Crisis Group told the New York Times, “The Yemeni state has always been weak, but now there’s a real danger of economic meltdown, and of the kind of fragmentation that could ultimately make Yemen almost ungovernable."

And indeed, four years after Yemenis took to the streets to demand that democratic reforms be implemented in the spirit of social justice and national unity, the impoverished nation is a shadow of its former self, a hollow institutional shell, fractured alongside political, tribal, regional, and sectarian lines.

By all accounts, Yemen has never been in a more dire situation.

To better understand today's crisis, one needs to go back to 2011, at a time when Yemen's revolutionary wind blew through the golden halls and great palaces of its oil-rich neighbors, forcing the fear of democratic change deep into the heart of the world's most absolute monarchies — the GCC countries.

"After twelve months of steadily ratcheting up the pressure on Hadi and the beleaguered transitional governments that have come to define a failing political transition (as mapped out under the terms of the 2011 GCC Agreement), the Houthis now find themselves in the uncomfortable position of leading from the front. Of course, this could all change in the matter of hours, let alone days," warned Anthony Biswell, an expert on Yemen in comments to Al-Akhbar English.

Doomed to fail

Like many countries that experienced uprisings in 2011, Yemen's revolution was hijacked by political powers whose intentions were to pervert the course of democratic change to better affirm and assert their control over the Middle East.

"If 2011 was hailed a revolutionary year, it was also a year of grand political manipulation and propaganda as Gulf monarchies, in line with Saudi Arabia's will, worked to derail change, stall reforms and fail transitions of power to introduce their own puppet politicians and thus secure their regional hegemony," stressed Mohammed al-Awadhi, an independent analyst based in Yemen.

"From Cairo to Tunis and Sana'a, no capital was really ever allowed to move away from Saudi Arabia's political mold. The Middle East became a revolutionary parody. Western powers under the cover of the United Nations began to interfere with popular will, claiming to stand with the people when really they sought to reframe their alliances and restore their order," he added.

Indeed, looking at Yemen's GCC-brokered power transfer proposal — signed in November 2011 by then-President Saleh and several members of the opposition — one can wonder which interests such an agreement was ever intended to serve: the old political order or the people of Yemen? Saudi Arabia's hegemonic interests or that of an independent and sovereign Yemen?

Under the signed agreement, which was essentially carved and negotiated to ensure institutional continuity rather than change, Yemen's political factions, not its people, agreed that, upon president Saleh's early resignation, his designated vice-president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, would rise as Yemen's new caretaker leader, while the government would get ready to hold new presidential elections. The agreement also provisioned for the formation of a National Dialogue Conference (NDC).

Although Yemenis came out in their hundreds of thousands to denounce such political fallacy, furious that their demands could be so easily bypassed to meet the imperious will of the political elite, the international community hailed the initiative as a historic breakthrough, a victory over nepotism and autocracy.

As Awadhi put it, "It was anything but."

"Yemenis were lied to, fooled into believing that their politicians and tribal leaders would abandon their old corrupt ways and suddenly began to care for their people. The NDC has been nothing but a smokescreen. How can anyone expect Yemen's political elite to devise their own demise? Social justice, transparency and equality before the law essentially means that Yemen's high and mighty would lose their privileges. Why would they ever do that? Why have we even considered that they would ever follow through on such promises?" stressed Hassan Abdelsalam, a retired professor of political sciences based in Yemen.

Their wings cut-off, their will spent, and their determination broken, Yemenis slowly returned to their homes, leaving "change" in the hands of their officials, trusting that the very people who shaped, organized and partook in the former regime would abide by their revolutionary vows.

But while Yemen's revolutionary engine might have slowed for a while, its fire was not quite extinguished: rather its embers gave birth to a different light altogether.

The rise of the Houthis

Just as al-Islah — a radical faction — thought its master stroke complete, just as its leadership, the powerful tribal house of al-Ahmar, thought itself unparalleled with President Saleh now gone, a new power rose from the highlands: the Houthis.

With Yemen's old balance of powers evaporated — al-Islah versus the General People's Congress (Saleh's own faction) — the country's political ley lines suddenly shifted in favor of Sa'ada, where for over a decade the Houthis waited to settle a few important scores against their oppressors — al-Saud royals.

A Zaidi faction hailing from the northern province of Sa'ada, the Houthis were born in reaction to state oppression. Unlike other tribes, whose ambitions are often bound to their sheikh's financial interests, the Houthis found themselves animated with a different purpose — they sought to reclaim their right to religious freedom.

Sitting directly on Saudi Arabia' southern border, the Houthis have long troubled Sunni Riyadh — the house of late Sheikh Hussein Badr Eddin al-Houthi, most of all. Imbued with the spirit of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, Sheikh al-Houthi's desire to model Yemen on the successes of Tehran as well as his religious connection to Shia Islam profoundly irritated al-Saud, to the extent where Riyadh pressured former President Saleh into waging a series of wars against the group.

"His hands tied by Saudi Arabia's Wahhabis, Saleh, himself a Zaidi, had no choice but abandon his former political allies. The Houthis suffered a decade long oppression and repression by the hands of Saudi Arabia's Islamic fundamentalists," noted Abdelsalam.

He added, "Riyadh is paying the price for its sectarian hatred. Far from breaking Yemen' Zaidi heritage, Saudi Arabia fed the fire which is now threatening to crumble its Arabian empire. Yemen is breaking free from under the al-Saud shadow. This is what we're seeing today, the end of Al Saud's reign in Yemen."

Following two decades spent in the shadows and one in revolution, the underdogs of Yemen's political arena, the very undesirable Houthis, have successfully built a mountain on the ashes of the former regime. With Yemen's two powerhouses sinking in quicksand — the General People's Congress and al-Islah — the Houthis have gained both in strength and numbers, feeding from their adversaries' shortfalls and reveling in the ever-expanding power vacuum left by Saleh's departure.

The deep state falters

Made stronger by the coalition government's failures to address and resolve Yemen's growing crises — the collapse of the national economy, high unemployment, state corruption, injustice, abuses of power, internal population displacement, radicalism, political unrest — the Houthis carved a hole through the state's house of cards, laying its politicians' agendas bare.

It all came to a gigantic crash this past September, when, following weeks of violent clashes against al-Islah tribesmen, the Houthis organized under the political banner of Ansarallah. They set up camp in the Yemeni capital, Sana'a, determined to bring down Ahmar's powerhouse and dislodge Islahi politicians from their positions in the coalition government.

If most media organizations painted Ansarallah's revolutionary efforts as mere manifestations of Iran's influence in Yemen, proof that Tehran had its eye set on controlling the political fate of the Arabian Peninsula — allegations both Sayyed al-Houthi and Iranian President Rouhani have denied at length — hundreds of thousands of Yemenis nevertheless lent their voices to the Houthis.

As the Houthis committed their men and growing power to the defense of the streets, standing for those who officials had chosen to ignore, even President Hadi's media repartees against Iran and the Houthis lost their appeal.

Facing inflation, poverty and rising social injustices, President Hadi's promises lost all their former luster.

For all its efforts at disputing the Houthis' popular legitimacy, President Hadi was left with no other choice but to engage the faction, forced to negotiate a truce in order to avoid his own institutional downfall.

In hindsight, it appears that Hadi's bargaining — or, as analyst Abdelsalam argued, his lack of commitment to his pledge — only served to delay his inevitable resignation from power.

Under careful watch, President Hadi had to restore Yemen's oil subsidies policy and swear off his plan to divide the country into a 6-states federation, which plan Seyyed Al Houthi equated to the balkanization of Yemen.

In late September 2014, a deal was finally brokered in between the Houthis and the coalition government, signaling a new move in Yemen's democratic process.

If Yemenis breathed a sigh of relief, comforted by the idea that the worst had been averted, Yemen's respite would prove to be short-lived. Three months into the agreement, president Hadi reneged on his word, prompting Ansarallah to make good on their threats: all state officials would be held accountable.

"Prisoner to powers he did not control, President Hadi found himself caught in a storm he was not equipped to weather. Hadi was always a puppet-president. He never had any real political power. To make matters worse his legitimacy has long been a controversial topic. Let us all remember that he was elected in a one-man presidential race … it's not like Yemen had a real choice. His resignation was inevitable … his whole presidency has been a sham, a cover for foreign powers to play war-games in Yemen," said analyst Awadhi.

“Political betrayal”

Yemen's unravelling first began on January 17, 2015, with the kidnapping of Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, President Hadi's adviser and former secretary-general of the National Dialogue Conference. Bin Mubarak was hand picked in 2014 to become Yemen's new prime minister, only to be fiercely opposed by the Houthis.

One of the youngest politicians in Yemen, the 46-years old businessman rose to power on the back of the revolution, an emerging political figure born out of the 2011 uprisings. One of President Hadi's closest ally, Bin Mubarak is believed to have great influence over a president whose political circle has run ever thinner.

But why was Bin Mubarak kidnapped in the first place? Why would the Houthis, who have de facto controlled the Yemeni capital since last September, attempt to shatter an elusive status quo at such a difficult juncture?

Broken financially, Yemen's economy is in dire straits. Despite much pleading and bargaining with its regional allies — particularly Gulf countries — the impoverished nation has been unable to secure enough funding to meet its most basic obligations, such as paying its civil servants. For the past three months, diplomatic staff have not yet been disbursed their salaries.

Earlier this month, Mohammed Awad bin Humam, Governor of Central Yemen, warned that foreign currency reserves had reached such a critical level that the economy would collapse under Yemenis' feet should foreign powers remain idle.

"From a purely tactical point of view the Houthis would have had a better chance at deposing the government back in September 2014 when they benefited from unparalleled popular support," noted Abdelsalam.

And indeed, at the very height of their popularity, as hundreds of thousands of Yemenis took to the street to profess their solidarity to the Houthis, the faction chose to lay no claim on the government. Instead they promised that President Hadi would heed his people’s demands — a return of state-sponsored oil subsidies and a renunciation of the 6-regions federal make-up put forward by the NDC.

So why move now? Abdelsalam says: "political betrayal!"

Behind the smokescreen

According to Mohsen Kia, a Tehran-based analyst, two main events led to January 19's clashes: the threat of al-Qaeda and President Hadi's decision to renege on his agreement with Sayyed al-Houthi.

Hossain al-Bukhaiti, a high-ranking member of Ansarallah, confirmed that his group intercepted documents which identified the disbursement of government funds to tribal leaders affiliated with al-Qaeda, thus directly pointing to state officials' involvement with Islamic radicals.

Moreover, military equipment coming both from Sana'a and Saudi Arabia was to be delivered to tribes allied with al-Qaeda in both the provinces of Shabwa and Marib, indicating an impending and aggravated terror threat. In a statement on his personal Facebook page, Mohammed Abdulsalam, Ansarallah' senior spokesman, directly accused President Hadi of colluding with terrorists to further his political ambitions.
More troubling yet, Bukhaiti revealed that a military base located in Arhab, less than an hour drive from the capital, Sana'a, had been turned into a terror training camp.

"Bearing in mind the peril al-Qaeda militants have posed Yemen since 2011 and the recent explosions in terror attacks, it is not difficult to imagine that the Houthis felt unnerved by such a discovery," noted Kia.

"And while President Hadi's involvement remains unclear, it is painfully obvious elements within the government have aligned their interests with that of terror radicals," he added.

To add fuel to an already red-hot fire, President Hadi was about to betray his peace agreement with the Houthis by moving his federal agenda forward. Despite the express promise that he would not implement Yemen's regional dismantlement plan, president Hadi was about to do just that. Hence the kidnapping of his loyal lieutenant.

According to Awadhi, Bin Mubarak's kidnapping was intended as a message to President Hadi, a statement of intent on the part of Sayyed Abdel-Malek al-Houthi: any violation of the peace agreement would be met with utmost resolve and, if necessary, force.

"What happened after that was President Hadi's choice as he unilaterally chose to target Houthi's positions in Sana'a," said Awadhi.

As Bukheiti pointed out, "Clashes in Sana's were not the manifestation of al-Houthi's political ambition but rather the result of Hadi's political deceit."

As the Yemen’s parliament decided to postpone when MPs will choose whether or not to accept President Hadi's resignation, Yemenis are bracing themselves for the storm ahead.

Catherine Shakdam is a political analyst with over seven years of experience. Her writings have appeared in a number of publications, among which Middle East Monitor, Middle East Eye, Majalla, Foreign Policy Association, Yemen Post, and the Guardian UK. She is currently the associate director of the Beirut Centre for Middle East Studies.


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