Houthi “Coup” Leaves Yemen on the Brink

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Last week’s attack on Yemen’s presidential palace by a Shiite tribal militia — and the subsequent resignation of the president and his cabinet — marked another tragic episode in the country’s road toward greater instability. The Houthis, who come from the north of the country, claim their attacks do not amount to a coup, but most regional observers, including the Gulf Cooperation Council, think otherwise. Many suspect the Houthis are acting with some level of Iranian support. This, for some, makes it that much more essential that Yemenis band together to keep the country intact.

Even though the Houthis have contested the notion that they have mounted a coup against the government, Arab News’ Rasheed Abou-Alsamh has little doubt that the group, whose actions he argues have been engineered by the Iranian government, are intent on a government takeover: “The Houthis insist that there was no coup, but when you use heavy weapons against the president’s palace; attack the president’s guards; keep him prisoner in his palace for days, and take control of state TV and radio stations, what should one call it then?…Beyond the threat of Houthis, Yemen also faces a secessionist movement in the south, and the brutality of Al-Qaeda. The audacity of the Houthis and their use of force show that there is not much room to negotiate with them. They want more power, period. Certainly Iran is behind this sudden show of action and courage and it is buying an ugly fight with the Gulf countries and the U.S.”

President Hadi’s resignation caught many by surprise and Arab Times’ Ahmed Al-Jarallah wonders whether the Houthis and the Iranians have overplayed their hand: “The position taken by resigned Yemeni President Abdurabbou Mansour Hadi and his insistence on the resignation are enough reasons to outrightly reject the Iranian occupation through the Houthis. His typical boldness is a challenge against all moves towards occupation. It has turned the table against Ansarllah, Muslim Brotherhood Movement and Hezbollah for them to engage citizens in a face-off.  This means the limp side of the region will not become a bridge for Iran to take over Bab Al-Mandab, [the] Arabian Peninsula and the entire Arabian Gulf….Houthis are incapable of controlling Yemen regardless of the level of killing, because they are too small to face the huge Yemeni population.”

The speed and the nature of the militias’ advance on the Yemeni capital has some scratching their heads. Osama Al-Sharif, for example, in an op-ed for the Saudi daily Arab News, believes that the United States has been too single-minded in its fight against Al-Qaeda and not done enough to stabilize the country: “It remains a riddle how this relatively small group belonging to the minority Shiite Yazidi sect had managed to expand beyond their territory in the north to overcome the army and march undeterred to Sanaa….The Houthis appear to have allied themselves with former President Saleh, who last week proposed that his son be appointed as new president. But Hadi’s resignation, which is yet to be accepted by parliament, had complicated the domestic scene even further….U.S. reaction to what is happening in Yemen is perplexing. President Obama and his aides have stressed that their priority in Yemen continues to be the fight against Al-Qaeda. But that is a huge miscalculation.”

Much of the background to the Houthi’s startling advance is not yet known, including the possible involvement of Yemen’s ousted president, who many, including Asharq Alawsat’s Mshari Al-Zaydi, believe is trying to undermine the current regime to engineer a return to power for himself or his family: “What the Houthi militia — or Ansar Allah as they like to call themselves — has done in Yemen amounts to a fully-fledged coup d’état. It is a coup against Yemen’s constitution and people; above all, it is a coup against the historical and cultural identity of Yemen…. Rumors of conspiracies abound. Some say that Hadi himself is implicitly backing the Houthis in the hope that they will support him against his political opponents. Others believe former president Ali Abdullah Saleh is backing and facilitating the Houthis in order to use them against his enemies. In reality, the Houthi movement has its own political and ideological agenda that supersedes both Hadi and Saleh. This combines elements and dimensions of Iran’s Islamic revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Yemen’s Zaydi legacy.”

Others believe that the current president’s indecisiveness and the army’s cowardice might have more to do with the Houthi’s success: “The options before the international community are now limited. Houthis are defiant, and their leader has said that they are ready to face any measures by the UN Security Council. The seizure of the palace also shows that President Hadi’s forces are too weak to confront the rebels, which means Houthis have attained an almost unassailable position….The country will plunge into a broader sectarian conflict and it will complicate American efforts to combat Al Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate, long considered the most dangerous branch of the terror network….President Hadi, who took office in 2012 under a UN- and Gulf-backed peace plan, must share the blame for his downfall. He is known as a hesitant leader who failed to impose his authority after three turbulent years in power.”

The deterioration of the security situation in Yemen is also putting the Jewish population in the country at risk. According to the Jerusalem Post’s Sam Sokol, Yemen’s Jews have been under siege for the better part of the last decade: “The takeover of the Yemenite capital of Sanaa by Houthi rebels may put the country’s Jewish community at risk given the Shi’ite group’s track record….Sanaa’s Jewish community lives in a guarded district under the protection of the central government, after fleeing to the capital from the town of Saada following Houthis threats in 2007….The Houthi logo features the phrases ‘Death to Israel’ and ‘Damn the Jews.’… Anti-Semitic violence has been a growing problem since the 2011 ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. More than 150 Jews moved to Israel between 2009 and 2013, their travels coordinated by the Jewish Agency and the Israel’s Interior, Foreign, and Immigration and Absorption ministries.”

In the face of such insecurity, many Yemenis and outside observers fear the ‘Somalization’ of the country. It is against this background that The Peninsula’s editorial makes a call for unity among all the mainstream political forces: “Events in Yemen have become unpredictable and everyone is convinced that this country is heading fast towards failure or Somalisation. The state’s public institutions are collapsing, the president has resigned, armed groups have invaded the presidential palace, the military is divided and there is no authority at all in the country….All Yemeni groups must unite behind a legitimate government to defend the gains, and should not allow smaller parties to kidnap the country, destroy its future and expose it to regional and international conspiracies, war and chaos. The international community must also work to stop the country from destroying what remains, and prevent instability in a region which day after day is becoming worse!”

A similar call for unity is made by the Gulf Cooperation Council, which after condemning the Houthi takeover, reemphasized the organization’s commitment to Yemen: “The GCC stand is very clear: Yemen’s security is an integral part of the GCC national security and Yemen’s stability and unity is a top priority for the GCC countries. Hence, the GCC would take the required measures to protect its member states’ security, stability and vital interests in Yemen. All the parties and political forces should put the interest of Yemen top of priority, work to complete the implementation of the political process and avoid Yemen sliding further into chaos and violence, including increasing the suffering of the Yemeni people. No one should be allowed to pose a threat to peace and security in the region.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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