This month marks the fourth anniversary of the Yemeni revolution — part of the wider Arab Spring demonstrations and protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East. Since then, two Yemeni presidents have resigned under pressure from protesters and political opposition, most recently in January 2015. The Houthis, the current group in charge of the country’s capital, are currently in UN-mediated negotiations with other political parties, negotiations “regarded as crucial to reverse deepening political anarchy in Yemen, the Arab world’s most impoverished country and an incubator of Qaeda militants who are a frequent target of American drone strikes,” as the New York Times reported earlier this week. Meanwhile, on Feb. 10, the United States announced the closing of its embassy in Yemen due to the “uncertain security situation in Sana,” as Jen Psaki, a State Department spokesperson, said that day.
In a recent essay on the Washington Post‘s political blog “The Monkey Cage,” Associate Professor of Political Science Stacey Philbrick Yadav wrote, when “…the Houthis successfully compelled the government to renegotiate the terms of the transitional agreement originally brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 2011 [in September 2014], American and European media framing…suggested that Yemen’s future (or at least the future of central state institutions) was being shaped by Shiite militants bent on eliminating their Sunni rivals. As Sheila Carapico and I, and several others, have argued, this was then and remains now a blunt oversimplification of sectarian dynamics that masks important institutional power-politics.”
Here, Philbrick Yadav helps identify the complicated nature of the most recent events in Yemen since the January 2015 crisis and what they might mean for the country’s future.
Philbrick Yadav, who has lived in Yemen and is a member of the executive committee of the American Institute of Yemeni Studies, has been writing about Yemen’s opposition politics for more than a decade. Since Yemen’s uprising in 2011, she’s published a book exploring the dynamics of Islamist activism and alliance building, and articles in several academic journals, including the latest issues of International Journal of Middle East Studies and Middle East Report. A member of the HWS faculty in 2007, Philbrick Yadav earned a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Pennsylvania and a B.A. in anthropology and Middle Eastern studies from Smith College, and has spent several years conducting field research in Yemen, Lebanon and Egypt. Before joining the Colleges, she taught at Mount Holyoke College, and in 2008 was a visiting scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies.
How does the Houthi ideology differ from previous Yemeni government’s ideology? What are the main goals of the Houthis’ takeover? How likely are they to retain power?
I’m not sure it’s quite fair to characterize the current situation as a Houthi “takeover” at all. The Houthis have compelled the collapse of an ailing transitional government that enjoyed low levels of domestic support, have taken physical control of some (but by no means a majority) of Yemen’s territory, and have issued a declaration outlining their plan for a new transitional government in quite vague terms. The collapse of one government is not equal to the formation of another, and right now it is not at all clear that the Houthis will be able to pull that off.
On the question of ideology, neither the prior government nor the Houthis are particularly driven by ideology (and, indeed, because Yemen’s transitional government was just that — transitional — it was not really one of ideological vision). But as political movement more than a decade old, the Houthis have stressed the need for more accountable government, a more equitable distribution of resources, and greater Yemeni sovereignty (whether in terms of the threats from Al Qaeda, Saudi interference, American drone strikes, etc.). These claims aren’t particularly unique. While the movement originates in a part of the country that is predominantly Zaydi Shi’i in demographic terms, their claims have had little to do with establishing Zaydi supremacy or, as their critics sometimes suggest, the restoration of a Zaydi imamate, like the one that ruled Northern Yemen until 1962. Their political claims have helped to attract some non-Zaydi supporters to their political movement, called Ansar Allah. They are generally republican in their outlook, though not secular.
How much support do the Houthis have, locally, regionally, and internationally? How substantial is their support from Iran? How great an opposition do AQAP (and/or other opponents) pose?
It’s difficult to estimate their support, and one thing that troubles me about prevailing media accounts is the straightforward assumption that support for the Houthi movement is equal to the demographic share of Zaydi Muslims. That does a disservice to the Houthis (who’ve attracted some non-Zaydi members) and to Zaydis (who have other relevant forms of political affiliation). My most honest answer is that we don’t know how much local support the Houthis have. One of the best estimates probably comes from mapping resistance to Houthi militias — where do they face protest and/or armed resistance? This suggests that the Houthis are still constrained largely to parts of Northern Yemen.
Regionally, the Houthis don’t have much support at all, at least in part because regional media has consistently framed the movement as a bid for Shi’i sectarian dominance. It may not be surprising that Americans don’t know much about Yemen, but neither do many people in the Middle East. For a complicated set of reasons, Yemen is often characterized in regional media as lawless and “backward” without much detailed analysis of its domestic politics — and regional media often relies on convenient scripts, in this case “sectarianism.” This is beginning to change, as more Yemeni journalists are going to work for regional media outlets, but so far, they haven’t done much to disrupt this narrative.
The issue of Iranian support is thorny. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh played the “Iran card” for domestic and international consumption, long before there appeared to be much truth to it. In the six wars that Saleh’s military fought with the Houthis over the course of the 2000s, he was able to generate Saudi and American military support and avoid international condemnation of human rights abuses in part by framing the Houthis as an Iranian proxy. Today, it’s pretty clear that Iran is providing material support for the Houthis. But the Houthis are doing well and it’s easy to support a winner, particularly when Saudi Arabia’s relationship to the Houthis is tense. It’ll be more interesting to see what happens if the conflict becomes more costly to Iran in diplomatic terms. There isn’t much ideological overlap between Zaydi Shi’ism and the more common 12er Shi’ism in Iran, and I don’t see this as much more than pragmatic support.
As a Shi’ite minority in a Sunni majority country, how much does the Houthis’ takover arise out of religious disputes? How much out of territorial? How much out of underrepresentation in the government? Other factors?
I don’t think “minority/majority” dynamics are the most useful way of thinking about sect in Yemen, for two reasons. First, the Sunni/Shi’i distinction lumps all Sunnis together, when there is tremendous difference between different kinds of pious attachments. Second, this underestimates the effect of other identities (including class, tribal affiliation, urban/rural status, education level, political ideology, etc.) that pull Yemenis in different directions. In this case, political and cultural marginalization in the Northern region of Sa’ada is central to the conflict. This was at the basis of Houthi grievances against former President Saleh’s regime, and it has been in some ways exacerbated by the transitional process. The Houthis played a substantial role in the 2011 uprising, yet they were excluded from the transitional government established by the Gulf Cooperation Council framework adopted by the United Nations. The transitional government then failed to address issues important to the Houthis (and many others who are not aligned with the movement). This contributed to the limited legitimacy of the transitional government and made it easier for the Houthis to compel its ouster. One way of reading the Houthi crisis — from September until now — is as an armed effort to renegotiate the terms of the transitional agreement.
At this point, with the U.S. closing its embassy and simultaneously vowing to continue drone strikes in the country, what does the future hold for relations between the U.S. and Yemen under the rule of the Houthis, whose slogan vows “death to America”?
The U.S. drone strategy in Yemen is a bit of a domestic unifier, actually — it is widely criticized as a violation of Yemeni sovereignty in which Yemeni leaders have been complicit, stretching from Saleh to transitional President Hadi. It’s not that Yemenis don’t want to see AQAP leave Yemen. In fact, Yemenis pay a tremendously high price for their presence in Yemen, not just in terms of American drones. But the methods that have been used have terrorized the countryside and substantially damaged the future of U.S.-Yemeni relations. In this regard, the slogan, provocative as it is, is a mobilizational claim that captures the emotion of people who live under conditions of profound daily insecurity. I’m not sure the Houthis will ever govern Yemen (alone, at least), but if they do find themselves in power in any real sense, I would expect pushback against drone policy. That said, the Houthis are themselves deeply threatened by AQAP (who do whatever they can to escalate sectarian rhetoric), so I would expect at least some continuing counterterrorism cooperation. I’ve long wished that American policymakers (and the public) could engage Yemen on more comprehensive grounds, not just through the lens of counterterrorism. But I suspect that this latest chapter will be a real setback.