Unrest in Sanaa
8 Sep 2014
Yemen’s troubled transition is at a crossroads more dangerous than any since 2011. The Huthis, a Zaydi Shiite movement also known as Ansar Allah, are mobilising in the capital, organising demonstrations calling for the government’s demise and reinstating the fuel subsidies that were lifted in July. More worrying, their tribal supporters, many of whom have ties to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, ousted in the 2011 uprising, are setting up protest camps on the outskirts of the city, implicitly threatening a siege or military invasion. The situation is tense and the possibility of violence real. Overcoming the impasse requires returning to the basic principles agreed upon in the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) that concluded in January 2014: rejecting political exclusion and resolving differences through peaceful negotiation.
For over a year, the Huthis have been battling various foes in the far north, expanding their territorial control even as they debated the country’s future in the NDC. Many Yemenis, including Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) party and supporters of President Abdo Robo Mansour Hadi, quietly cheered as the Huthis fought and weakened a loose coalition of their common foes – the al-Ahmar clan, Salafis, and tribal and military affiliates of the Sunni Islamist party, Islah. But when Huthis captured Amran city, 50km north of Sanaa, overrunning a military base and killing its commander, the political dynamics shifted. International and domestic concern grew that the Huthis – whose positive contributions to the NDC had gained them respect in many quarters – in fact might not be committed to peaceful change or competition, as their critics long had charged.
The debate over the Huthis’ ultimate intentions escalated at the end of July, after the consensus government, split evenly between the GPC and the former opposition bloc including Islah, lifted fuel subsidies. With bankruptcy looming, the state had little choice, but the way it was implemented – suddenly and absent a public awareness campaign or a larger, transparent economic reform strategy – was politically disastrous. The Huthis quickly took advantage, mobilising Yemenis from across the political spectrum. The protests called for reinstating subsidies, replacing the government and implementing NDC recommendations, including fighting corruption and adding other groups and parties to the cabinet.
Huthi demands resonate widely and if addressed through compromise could strengthen popular support for the country’s faltering transition. This is an opportunity to build an accord clarifying post-NDC power-sharing arrangements and timelines for implementing NDC outcomes. As Crisis Group warned in June 2014, the absence of such an agreement poses a threat to the transition and has been a core driver of conflict. Yet the Huthis’ continued mobilisation around the capital is dangerous and counterproductive, threatening violence should the government rebuff their demands.
While the Huthis’ ambitions are unclear and evolving, the protests are part of a bargaining process through which the movement hopes to become dominant in the north and more powerful on the national level. Even as their leaders make demands of the central government in Sanaa, their militias are fighting Islah-affiliated tribesmen and military units in Jawf governorate in what is widely viewed as an effort to create facts on the ground to force a renegotiation of the six-region federal structure proposed by the NDC.
The protests put President Hadi in a difficult position. They initially offered him an opportunity to push for changes to his ineffective government and to strengthen his position vis-à-vis the Saleh and Islah power centres. But when he hesitated and initial negotiation efforts failed, both sides escalated. Huthis set up camps in front of government ministries and around Sanaa, while the president supported a “National Alliance” to organise counter-rallies.
On 2 September, Hadi announced a compromise that partially addressed Huthi demands. It proposed, among other things, installing a more inclusive government and lowering fuel prices by approximately 30 per cent, a price change that was implemented the following day. The initiative was far from perfect: it was presented to the Huthis as a fait accompli and granted the president extraordinary power to appoint the prime minister, as well as the defence, interior, finance and foreign ministers, with little input or oversight. GPC and Islah members signed the initiative, but some party members have expressed reservations. Huthi representatives refused the offer, calling the fuel price reduction insufficient, demanding broader economic reform and criticising the proposed method of forming the government. The movement has escalated protest activities in the capital, seemingly convinced that agitation can achieve more. On 7 September, in a dangerous sign of what could come, government forces injured scores and killed at least two in an effort to prevent protesters from setting up tents and blocking a main road to Sanaa’s airport.
The president’s initiative, with amendments, could and should serve as a basis for an inclusive settlement. The alternative is a conflict at least as grave as that of 2011, when two parts of the army, one supporting Saleh and the other the uprising, faced off in the capital. The situation today is more dangerous, since the domestic political landscape is deeply fractured and multipolar. None of the major political forces – the Huthis, Saleh’s GPC, Islah or Hadi – can alone control the capital, nor is it clear that they would be able to restrain their supporters if fighting erupts. Moreover, a conflagration in Sanaa almost certainly would lead to a chaotic independence bid in the south, which is wracked by political infighting and al-Qaeda activity. Regionally too the landscape has changed, polarised along sectarian lines; widespread violence could draw Yemen deeper into that divisive fight.
Continued mediation by UN Special Envoy Jamal Benomar is necessary to achieve a compromise, but primary responsibility lies with Yemenis to act in their national interest. Many principles already have been agreed: a new, more inclusive government with ministers whom the Huthis will have a role in nominating; clarifying the competencies of the National Authority for implementing NDC agreements; specifying an implementation timeline for NDC outcomes; and more. Finding a compromise on the fuel subsidies and guarantees for wider economic reform are the immediate sticking points. Now is the time to reach a deal on this issue so that de-escalation and talks over the details of NDC implementation can begin. Otherwise, growing tensions could undermine the progress made thus far in negotiations – and even scuttle the country’s nascent political settlement achieved through the NDC.
For his part, President Hadi should streamline negotiation efforts, which thus far have involved too many mediators and too few decision-makers. Further, the president should take additional measures to ensure the state security services do not needlessly provoke an already volatile situation. The Huthis must do their part as well. Critics have long accused the movement of nefarious intent, ranging from establishing an Iranian-inspired theocracy to building a Hizbollah-style state within a state. Now they should demonstrate otherwise by constructively engaging the president’s offer, where they disagree with it recommending clear amendments, and ultimately accepting a solution that falls short of all of their demands. The alternative is a conflict in which no group will win and Yemen will lose.