The Houthi and Hadi Confrontation is Taking Yemen to a Dangerous Place

Major General Mahmoud alSubaihi, Minister of Defense the day he arrived arrived in Aden. Tweeted by @Yemen411 on March 8, 2015.

Major General Mahmoud alSubaihi, Minister of Defense the day he arrived arrived in Aden. Tweeted by @Yemen411 on March 8, 2015.

Another key member of Yemen's government has escaped the Houthi-controlled capital Sana’a in the north for the southern port city Aden. Defense Minister Major General Mahmoud al-Subaihi arrived in Aden on March 8.

The Houthis, a ten-thousand strong tribal militia from the north, forcefully occupied the presidential palace in Yemen's capital city on January 21.

Since they first entered Sana'a on September 21, 2014, the Houthis have taken over key government buildings, the airport, Yemen Central Bank, and income-generating national corporations like the Safar Oil Company.

General Al-Subaihi's March 8 escape is seen as a big boost to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who is building a rival power center in the south with loyal army units and tribes against the Houthis. 

On March 7, a Hadi aide claimed the president said, “Aden became the capital of Yemen as soon as the Houthis occupied Sana'a.”

Hadi escaped the capital Sana'a with his family after being under Houthi-imposed house arrest for a month.

Hadi tendered his resignation a day after the Houthi took over his presidential palace. When he escaped and reached Aden, 400 kilometers away from the capital on February 24, Hadi released a statement saying Yemen’s parliament had not accepted his resignation, so he is still president. Hadi then denounced all political agreements made by the Houthis in Sana’a since they took over. 

Anti-Houthi voices celebrated Hadi’s prison break from Sana'a. Some worry that Hadi might have motivated the Houthis to invade Aden. And others believe Hadi is recklessly hijacking existing tensions between the north and south of the country.

The separatist sentiment remains popular in the south, where Yemenis feel economically and politically marginalized by the north.  The Houthis belong to tribes from the north, and Hadi belongs to a southern tribe. 

Being in Aden is symbolic and dangerous

The once-thriving coastal city Aden is Yemen’s second largest. Aden is the former capital of South Yemen, which was an independent state until 1990, when it unified with North Yemen. Unhappy with Sana’a in 1994, South Yemen declared its secession again from the north. A civil war ensued, and the north ended up occupying the south.

The Houthis’ unilateral excessive use of power in Sana'a and our northern provinces has led the south to refuse any orders coming from them and they are organizing their own armies to defend themselves if the Houthis attack.

The Houthi populist movement

The Houthi uprising against the government started in 2004. Since then, Yemen's power center in Sana'a has alleged that the Houthis want to overthrow them and implement Shia religious law. The Houthis have maintained that they are “defending their community against discrimination” and government aggression.

Most Houthis adhere to a branch of Shia Islam called Zaidism. Zaidis make up one-third of Yemen's population and ruled North Yemen for almost 1,000 years until 1962.

Yemen's government under previous President Ali Abdullah Saleh and current President Hadi has accused Iran of financing the Houthi insurgency. From 2004-2010, the government brutally tried to crush their rebellion. 

In 2011, the Houthis joined a mass uprising against Saleh. They soon expanded their territorial control in Saadah and neighbouring Amran province.

Before September 21, 2014, no one in Yemen thought that the Houthis could possibly reach the capital Sana’a and no one thought that the Houthis would even consider waging a civil war that they were bound to lose.

It was shocking when Sana’a was surrounded by the Houthi militias. They demanded that subsidies on fuel prices stay in place.

They also promised to fight corruption and to implement the outcomes from the unprecedented National Dialogue Conference (NDC), which took place after the 2011 uprising in Yemen. This also helped fuel Houthi popularity. 

The NDC was a 10-month deliberation process between Hadi, and representatives from the Houthis, political parties, and youth and women organizations. The conference was supposed to help Yemen transition fairly from 33 years of Saleh rule, but the various groups failed to reach consensus about addressing concerns of the south. 

With the Houthis popularity and power increasing, President Hadi gave into their demand to set up a technocrat government.

But that wasn’t enough; they marched into Sana’a.

Many young Yemeni citizens have questioned how the Houthi easily managed to take over the capital with little resistance. It took the group several months to finally displace the Salfies, a conservative Sunni group that was controlling Damaj, last year. The district is within Yemen's Saddah province, a Houthi heartland. Saadah is where the Houthi's first launched their armed uprising against Yemen's government in 2004.  

Why didn’t Yemen’s army stop the Houthis?

Yemen’s army is mainly made up northern tribes that were loyal to former President Saleh, who ruled the country for 33 years. Saleh made sure his supporters got prestige and entitlement within the army.

Saleh invested heavily in building the Republican Guards, through his son, who was the head of that division.

Saleh’s cousin, General Ali Muhsin, who later joined the 2011 uprising and was known to have influence over most of Yemen’s politicians, commanded the First Armored Division. Following the uprising these brigades were merged and swapped, because Hadi had to re-construct the military, according to the Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative, which was rolled out when his predecessor President Saleh stepped down.

The Republican Guard were taken aback by this decision and felt they had lost some of their privileges: better pay, training and arms. When Hadi took over, he paid close attention to army commanders from the south. This further alienated the powerful martial tribes in the north. More fragmentations happened within the army.

Houthi power was reinforced and fortified by pro-Saleh’s martial tribes. Eventually, Houthis took over most military camps that did not resist except for the First Armored Division. The commander General Ali Muhsin fled Yemen and he is still trying to take over the military from outside. 

When the Houthis moved to occupy the capital, President Hadi's power had already shrunk. He couldn't defend the Presidential Palace or his own residence.

Some analysts say that the Houthis did not want to run the country, rather just control Hadi and be the upper hand in the country. The resignation of President Hadi and the Prime Minister forced them into this role.

After they joined the uprising, the Houthi militias started to build coalitions with political powers and reached some agreements that they would build the state together. The agreements never came through. Now other political parties view the Houthis as a deceiving group, who did not live up to their commitments, so brokering deals with them are seen as a waste of time.

Yemenis in the South

While all this was happening in the northern part of Yemen, the south, which is economically and politically marginalized, was removed from the conversation, until Hadi entered Aden.

Following the 2011 uprising, southerners were sidelined in the transitional political process. Their representation in the NDC and other national assemblies was minimum, northern political leaders dominated.

The Houthis have turned Yemen’s political fight into social confrontations, which might trigger sectarian conflict. This could lead Yemen into more fragmentations.

Unfortunately, Yemen’s curse will not vanish until there is an equal playing field for all political players in our country.

Osama Abdullah is a young blogger from Yemen.

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Hadi was from a northern tribe. 

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