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Yemen’s Houthis and their “Peaceful Revolution”

Yemen’s armed forces remain on high alert as hundreds of heavily armed rebel Shia-Zaidi Houthi fighters – supported by thousands of unarmed protesters – remain at the Northern, North-Western, Western and Southern entrances to the capital city, Sana’a. On Thursday, President Hadi urged his military forces to: “raise their level of vigilance” amid fears that Houthi rebels would either invade the capital or at least use the opportunity presented by weekly Friday prayers to destabilize the country by mobilizing the people to civil disorder and violent rampages.

People in Sana’a are frightened. The Houthis claim they are mounting a “Peaceful Revolution” but have infiltrated the city to establish strategically placed camps down-town in order to provoke the Yemeni version of the Muslim Brotherhood aka Al-Islah. The Houthis drive around parts of Sana’a using mega-phones to drum up support for protests hoping to light the flames of social unrest. Worse case, they will escalate and take the city by force. Their aim is to press the government to step down and they also seek to draw popular support through an agreement for an add-back of withdrawn fuel subsidies. President Hadi has sent a delegation to Houthi leader Abdilmalik al-Houthi to invite him and his representatives to talk with the prospect of joining Yemen’s national unity government; the discussions continue. What is to be done?

The Houthis want the government to step down amid claims of weakness, ineffectiveness and corruption.

The G10 Ambassadors – from the countries supporting the Gulf Initiative – have already issued strong statements that any civil disorder will be condemned and have reminded the rebels that they are still in contravention of a UN Security Council resolution of 11 July, 2014 which required them to relinquish territory acquired by force plus handover ill-gotten gains of weapons and ammunition.

These threats may be analogous to the “boy who cried wolf” because potential United Nations sanctions focus on travel and finance. These will not stop a Houthi group who travel infrequently outside Yemen and who – unlike other Yemeni spoilers – have few fiscal resources.

Unpacking Houthi demands is a little more complex. It is nested in the context of history and the Houth cause is eloquently described by Catherine Shakdam in Middle East Monitor. History since 2003 has set the conditions of the current Houthi cause. It is derived from tensions with Al-Qaeda, Saudi Arabia, links to Iran, clashes during 7 wars with Yemen security forces and an ongoing clash with Al-Islah. The Houthis are now capitalizing on opportunities because of the perceived power vacuum created by the departure of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Yemen's president recently approved turning the country into a federal state made up of six regions, effectively giving the south more autonomy.
Yemen’s president recently approved turning the country into a federal state made up of six regions, effectively giving the south more autonomy.

The issue right now is the Houthi opposition to the new Yemeni governance model of a proposed six-region (state) federation. They want to move out of the Tehama Region and into the Azal Region near the power base of Sana’a and their Hajah Province moved into Azal Region which will provide them access to the Red Sea. They also want their Al-Jouf Province moved out of Saba Region into the Azal Region because of the belief it has as yet untapped oil reserves. Their grievance is powered because of the success of Al-Harak supported Southern Secessionists who achieved two regions for the south, namely Aden and Hadramout Regions.

The model of Hezbollah – “my way or the highway” – appears to be their current approach – identity crisis maybe – but the next days and weeks will determine if they are capable of transitioning from military opposition to serious, responsible and credible governing and political participation. History is littered with opposition groups that were only effectual in opposition and were utter failures when participating in governance. If the Houthis wish the inclusion of thousands of their members within the Yemeni military as they have claimed then they will have to disarm first. Their route to achieve a slice of the power pie must not suggest any threat of or actual military action; it must be firmly based in politics.

President Hadi is a patient and calm man who will not renege on a deal just because it suits him. Not only that, but the international community is watching every move. The Houthis should take a risk for peace and Yemen’s future. They must trust that they will get the representative share of power they seek notwithstanding their lack of clarity about their future agendas. But a representative share can only be achieved through politics, not violence.

If the Houthis continue to attempt to bully the government with military means for concessions then very quickly Yemen will start to resemble Iraq and Syria. The worst scenario would be Al-Islah going on the offensive and even worse if Al-Qaeda steps up their recent targeting of Houthis in Al-Jouf Province. Yemen has come too far to take such a retrograde step. The government needs to find a solution in politics and accept that the Houthis are now one of the 3 major power centers in Yemen; they need be included more broadly in Yemeni affairs writ-large and – if they comply peacefully – be rewarded for their contribution and engagement within Yemen’s change.

As for their call for fuel subsidies to be reinstated, that is simply not fiscally possible now or likely ever. Yemen’s economy is really broken. Taxation of the populous at the service provision output end appears the only tangible way of generating desperately needed revenue from Yemen’s main – although dwindling – resource. Democracy is not free, but certainly worth the effort for a new Yemen and for the future generations of the Arab Felix.