Yemen's Capital Fell To A Rebel Group And The World Hardly Noticed

Hawthi Shiite rebels chant slogans at the compound of the army's First Armored Division, after they took it over, in Sanaa, Y
Hawthi Shiite rebels chant slogans at the compound of the army's First Armored Division, after they took it over, in Sanaa, Yemen, Monday, Sept. 22, 2014. Heavily armed Yemeni Shiite militiamen took over the headquarters and house of a powerful army general allied to Sunni Islamists on Monday and set up checkpoints across the capital, Sanaa, after sweeping across the city as the general and his allies fled and went into hiding. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

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Last week, a Shiite rebel group that had taken over swaths of Yemen, including its capital, signed a UN-brokered agreement with other political parties to form a new government and end the fighting that has claimed the lives of at least 300 people.

But despite the peace deal and lofty promises from all sides, Yemen's political troubles appear far from over.

Yemen's army barely resisted this September when Houthi fighters swept into the capital Sanaa and in just a few days wrested control of most major government buildings, from the offices of state radio to the central banks and the prime minister's office.

The Houthis belong to Yemen's Zaydi minority, a Shia sect that controlled the country until 1962. The group started as a Zaydi revivalist movement in the '90s, with its power base in the northern Saada province, on the border with Saudi Arabia. It was named after its then-leader Hussein al-Houthi, but its members refer to themselves as Ansar Allah, which means "Partisans Of God."

The group's recent battles against the army are merely the latest effort of a longstanding campaign. Feeling marginalized by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Houthis engaged in no fewer than six wars with the central government between 2004 and 2010. Hussein al-Houthi was killed in the first of those clashes.

The International Crisis Group explained in a June briefing that while the Houthis didn't have much of a political agenda through that turbulent decade, the group shifted its footing in 2011, after Yemenis took to the streets in the wake of the Arab Revolts in Egypt and Tunisia. The group took advantage of the political and security vacuum created by the mass protests, strengthening its military position in the northern Saada region and widening its popular appeal significantly by supporting populist measures like fuel subsidies. According to the Economist, the group even swayed many Sunnis who appreciated both its distance from Yemen's power brokers and its political positions, which are liberal when compared to those of other, more radical Sunni parties.

The Houthis were able to take full control of Saada early in 2014, and gradually extended their reach south until they arrived at the capital this summer. As Zack Beauchamp details over at Vox, the group started staging massive protests against the government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, Saleh's successor, and his policy on fuel subsidies. The protests turned into clashes, and the Houthis eventually entered Sanaa and overran an army brigade allied with the Islamist Islah party.

The peace deal signed last week by Hadi gives the Houthis a much-increased role in Yemeni politics. Since March 2013, Yemen's main political parties have been collaborating in an effort known as the National Dialogue Council, to discuss how the country should proceed in light of the 2011 protests. While the Houthis were barely represented in previous discussions, the new deal allows them and members of Yemen's southern separatist movement to name a new prime minister. Representatives of the group will also have positions as advisers to the president. In exchange, the Houthis have promised to relinquish control of the capital once a new administration is formed, and to reaffirm state authority over the entire country.

A Houthi rebel gestures from a tank at the compound of the army's First Armored Division in Sanaa, Yemen, Sept. 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

Yet, as Iona Craig points out at Al Jazeera America, Yemeni politics likely played a greater role in the Houthis' success than did the group's military capabilities or its popular support. According to Craig, Hadi may have been counting on the Houthi to reduce the influence of some of his rivals.

Craig reports:

Since their lightning takeover of the city, Houthi militias have attacked the adversaries of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and political rivals of current President Abdrahbu Mansour Hadi. But the apparent ease of the Houthi victory reveals much more about the smoke and mirrors of Yemeni politics than it does about the militiamen's fighting prowess. Indeed, by allowing the Houthis free rein of the capital, Hadi has taken a gamble that could bring more violence as the backlash against the Houthi uprising gains strength.

Observers suggest the president's political games may backfire if the Houthis don't live up to their side of the bargain. Even having signed the peace deal, the Houthis are still firmly in control. This week, the group ordered the country's finance minister to suspend all payments except salaries to state employees. It's also rumored that Houthis are keeping an eye on the state-owned Safer oil company, and reportedly froze new civil service hiring.

The Houthis' rise has sparked concerns both in Yemen and abroad.

The U.S. and Saudi governments have both expressed concern that the Shiite militia is backed by Iran. According to Buzzfeed's Gregory Johnsen, the fear is not entirely founded. "The U.S. has repeatedly expressed concern over the growth of the Houthi movement in Yemen, publicly worrying that the group is sponsored by Iran. While there is some evidence of cooperation and support from Iran, it is unclear what exactly that money buys in Yemen, where many groups accept outside funding without ever acting as proxies," he writes. "Although tempting to see the Houthis as part of larger Sunni-Shiite war, this is a local war with a regional dimension."

More concerning is the potential for intensified violence and further destabilization of the country in the wake of the Houthis' ascent. Yemen's south is home to the militants of AQAP, al-Qaeda's branch in the Arabian peninsula, and the Sunni extremists have long fought the Shiite Houthi rebels. Just last week. AQAP called on its followers to attack the Houthis where they can. "Lie in wait for them, cause harm to them on the roads, tighten the ambushes for them, and do not let them feel safe," the Sunni group said in a statement.

A Houthi rebel stands guard at a checkpoint on a street leading to the state television building in Sanaa, Sept. 21. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)


Yemen's Houthis