Yemenis woke up Thursday with a sense of foreboding over a peace deal between the government and Houthi rebels. By the end of the day, as the country’s embattled president and government resigned, their misgivings were proved right.
The morning after Yemen’s embattled president reached yet another peace deal with Shiite Houthi rebels, Hisham Al-Omeisy sounded far from relieved.
“The situation is calm right now – it’s been calm since they signed the agreement. But regarding the security situation, there’s a general sense of dread after yesterday’s agreement,” said Al-Omeisy, a Yemeni activist, in an interview with FRANCE 24 from the capital Sanaa on Thursday.
Under the terms of the deal reached late Wednesday with rebels – who besieged the presidential palace and other key sites – Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi made major concessions on critical issues such as power-sharing and potential amendments to a draft constitution.
And that’s precisely why Al-Omeisy was having a far from jubilant day-after.
“Remember in Yemen, the gunshots, the shelling…we’re quite used to that over the past few years since the  revolution. That’s why the deal wasn’t that much of a relief as a dread because when we learned of the agreement, where basically the president has succumbed to the Houthis’ demands of having a greater say in the government and changing the constitution. He’s conceded everything. That’s why everybody’s depressed, not relieved.”
Hours later, the Yemeni activist’s misgivings over the deal proved to be prescient. On Thursday evening, Hadi resigned from the presidential post, according to a government source.
The embattled leader’s resignation came hours after Prime Minister Khaled Baha offered his government's resignation to Hadi, saying he did not want to be dragged into "an unconstructive political maze".
As confusion reigned in the Yemeni capital, government sources told Reuters that the country’s parliament had refused to accept Hadi’s resignation.
The snakes got bigger, the dance got worse
The job of leading this impoverished, parched Arab nation fraught with sectarian and tribal divides has often been likened to “dancing on the heads of snakes”.
Barely two years after he was sworn into office, Hadi has proved that he was not such an adept political dancer.
More likely though, the snakes just got bigger, deadlier and they are now threatening to sink the country to the ranks of one of the world’s failed states.
The risks of that final coup de grace are grave. Home to al Qaeda’s most dangerous branch, Yemen shot into the international spotlight earlier this month, when French officials admitted that one of the attackers in the deadly assault on satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo had travelled and trained in Yemen, where he met with senior AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) figures.
The latest crisis involving an armed Shiite rebellion in a Sunni-majority country that shares a nearly 1,500 kilometre border with Saudi Arabia threatens to embroil the region’s sectarian superpowers. As Houthi rebels besieged the presidential palace earlier this week, holding the country’s prime minister as well as the presidential chief-of-staff, Gulf Arab nations condemned what they called a coup d’etat.
Saudi authorities view the Houthis as proxies for Iran, their arch-sectarian foe, and Riyadh has cut most of its critical financial aid to its impoverished neighbour since the crisis erupted last September.
No sign of Houthis sticking to the deal
Under the terms of Wednesday’s deal, Houthi leaders agreed to withdraw fighters from the presidential palace and release Hadi’s chief of staff in return for “equal representation” in public posts.
One of the more controversial compromises was an assurance that a draft constitution could be amended to accommodate Houthi demands for a federal administrative structure.
The current draft constitution, which emerged after a UN-sponsored agreement with the group in September, seeks to divide Yemen into six regions, an arrangement the Houthis reject.
Despite the latest concessions though, there were few signs that the rebels were sticking to their side of the deal. Reporters and witnesses in the Yemeni capital said rebel gunmen were still posted outside Hadi’s house west of the capital, and a presidential aide told AP that Hadi could not leave his house because the Houthis had removed his guards. There were no signs of Prime Minister Khalid Bahah or Hadi’s Chief of Staff Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, who was abducted over the weekend.
By Thursday evening, a source close to Prime Minister Bahah told Reuters that the government had offered its resignation to President Hadi. A resignation letter posted on the prime minister’s Facebook page said the government does not want to be dragged into “an unconstructive political maze”. There was no immediate word as to whether Hadi had accepted the resignation.
Meanwhile, in the oil-rich central province of Marib, there were signs the latest tensions were brewing into a sectarian conflict in a country awash with weapons.
Deadly clashes erupted in Marib Thursday when local tribesmen launched a campaign to push back Houthi rebels.
The Houthis want to replace the Marib governor, who they say is too close to Saudi Arabia and General Ali Mohsen, a powerful Sunni Islamist-leaning general.
A local tribal leader in Marib told AP that some tribal groups had agreed with the governor and army chief to “protect” the province from “Houthi and other aggressors”. Armed tribesmen from neighbouring areas were coming in to defend the province, according to the tribal chief.
Is Saleh playing a dirty political game?
The rise of a relatively marginal rebel movement in the northeastern corner of the country to the de facto powerbroker – at gunpoint – in Sanaa has sparked deep resentment among the country’s Sunni majority.
In an interview with FRANCE 24’s Arabic channel earlier this week, Nobel Peace Prize-winner Tawakkol Karman blasted what she called a coup manipulated by former Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was ousted in 2012.
“We are facing a tragic scene,” said Karman. “It’s a coup d’etat orchestrated by Ali Abdullah Saleh. He’s manipulating Iranian-backed Houthi armed militias. Iran is trying to create divisions and extend its power in the region. It wants to colonise Yemen, that’s what it’s doing now.”
A consummate power manipulator, Saleh has long been suspected of backing the Houthis, a movement that was once his mortal foe but which has since morphed into a pawn in what many Yemenis believe is a dirty political game.
Those suspicions were reinforced Wednesday when the Arabic al Jazeera station broadcast what it said was a leaked telephone conversation showing collusion between Saleh and the Houthis.
The US threads on ‘very thin ice’
The Houthi movement – officially known as Ansar Allah – emerged in the 1990s among the country’s minority Zaydi Shiite community in response to the longstanding oppression of the Zaydis. The Houthis take their name from Hussein al-Houthi, a religious leader who was killed in a Yemeni military operation in 2004.
A staunch critic of the US, Sheikh Houthi – as he was known by his followers – accused the government in Sanaa of kowtowing to the US at the expense of the Yemeni people. In addition to staging an armed rebellion against the central authorities, Sheikh Houthi’s armed group, Believing Youth, also organised violent anti-US demonstrations.
The latest twist in Houthi ascendancy has put the US in a difficult spot, according to Al-Omeisy. “The US is threading on very thin ice,” he noted. “They’ve been backing Hadi for a while now and patronising the Houthis and now they need a quick change of policy.”
While Washington, like the rest of the international community, certainly supports Hadi, there’s little evidence of the US patronizing the Houthis – so far.
The embattled Yemeni president has been a staunch ally in Washington’s fight against AQAP and US President Barack Obama has cited Yemen as a “successful” case of his administration “supporting partners on the front lines”.
That partner though is looking increasingly weak – and that’s bad news for the Obama administration, according to former US ambassador to Yemen Stephen Seche. "The Hadi government has been a good partner of ours in the counter-terrorism arena," said Seche in an interview with CNN. "If you move President Hadi from the equation, then I think all bets are off in many respects."
Al Qaeda: A common enemy
While Houthi rebels espouse a traditionally anti-US line, they do share a common enemy with the US: al Qaeda in Yemen (AQAP).
“The Houthis and AQAP are bitter enemies,” notes Barak Barfi, a research fellow at the New America Foundation. “AQAP has attacked the Houthis – both in its magazine, Sada al-Malahim, and physical attacks. So we could see increased fighting between the two sides. We have to be clear on this: the Houthis, unlike the government, don’t have to respond to domestic public opinion, which was against the regime’s cooperation with the United States and its war against AQAP. The Houthis are unrestrained by that and they may be able to do more against AQAP.”
But while the US and the Houthis may share a common enemy, the fast-changing situation in the country, complete with internecine tribal equations played against the backdrop of a Saudi-Iranian competition for supremacy, makes Yemen a tinderbox in Washington’s quest for a reliable anti-terror ally.
All of which makes the situation even more alarming for Al-Omeisy and many Yemenis who took to the streets in 2011 to oust Saleh in nationwide displays of hope for a better future. “Even if you believe the clashes are going to stop, knowing now that they’re [the Houthis] are going to have a much greater say in the future of the country – that’s very disturbing.”
Date created : 2015-01-22