Way down the page on Western news sites like BBC, CNN or NOS you may have spotted something about the Houthis and Yemen. It doesn’t sound like a particularly interesting headline, but once you go deeper you realise that without the world’s media really noticing, a Middle Eastern capital has fallen to rebels. After months of a fragile ceasefire, the Houthi rebels have taken over the presidential palace and numerous other buildings in the capital Sana’a. All transport in and out of the country has been suspended. So who are the Houthi rebels? What exactly is going on now? And just how many parties are fighting for control of Yemen?
For an insider’s perspective on the 2011 Arab Spring revolution in Yemen and the unrest that followed, see this interview I did with a American woman living in Yemen at the time.
In a divided country, the Houthis are just one of the powerful forces fighting for control. They are an armed group from the Shia Zaidi population. This group follows a different version of Shi’a Islam than the more mainstream branch found in Iran and Iraq, and their Imam ruled Yemen for more than a thousand years. However since a coup in the 1960s they have been on the retreat, fighting both secular forces and Sunni Islamists such as the current Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). During the 2011 revolution, they joined the fight against President Saleh, and managed to gain more autonomy for their homeland in the aftermath. That autonomy isn’t their only aim – somewhat worryingly, their current logo includes the words “Death to America, death to Israel, a curse on the Jews”.
The current crisis started in September last year, when the Houthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi demanded the resignation of the temporary President Hadi. Fighting broke out in the capital, and the Houthis took over some government buildings, but a fragile peace was eventually restored, with the Houthi militiamen remaining on the streets of Sana’a. That’s gone now, after the Houthis again accused the government of corruption and not working to implement promises that were in the peace deal. They attacked the presidential palace, and have also apparently taken military facilities. The President is reportedly safe, but the palace is under guard by militiamen. At this stage it looks like the Houthis are in effective control of the city.
However, the attack won’t end the complex political game that dominates Yemen. As I said, the Houthis are only one force. They are reportedly supported by the ex-President Saleh, who ruled Yemen for 36 years. He seems determined not to fade into the background, and some believe he is supporting the Houthis so that he can position himself to take power in a coup. The current president Hadi still has the allegiance of many of the Sunni population, and he is backed by the United Nations and the West. For the US the Yemeni government is an important ally against Islamic extremism in the region – especially as they tolerate the US’s drone war – and they will not want to see him go.
All of these aren’t the only parties involved. There is also the al-Islah political party, which is more hardline Sunni and anti-Houthi and Western than President Hadi. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula hasn’t disappeared either. They are one of the most active and dangerous branches of al-Qaeda, and they will see this is a good chance to spread their influence. There is a popular secession movement in the south around the city of Aden, which wants to break away completely from Yemen. Finally, regional players like Saudi Arabia and Iran are backing different parties in a bid to spread their influence. Confused? Imagine being in the middle of it.
Things don’t look too good for Yemen. In the poorest country in the Middle East, still divided from years of war and separation, having this many forces vying for power cannot end well. Unless President Hadi manages to convince the Houthis to make a deal, the country looks set to slide towards sectarian civil war.