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Yemen teeters on the brink of implosion

September 3, 2014 at 4:00 pm

When the Arab Spring swept across the region in 2011, Yemen was already home to a complex web of factional and regonal tensions. In particular, a group of Zaidi Shia rebels known as the Houthis had been staging periodic uprisings since 2004, with the aim of winning greater autonomy for their province Saada, in northern Yemen. The group consolidated its control over Saada during the 2011 uprising, when mass protests – including Yemenis from different regions and tribes – forced long-time President Ali Abdullah Saleh to stand down, as part of a US-backed deal giving him immunity from prosecution.

A bloody civil war on the same scale as that in Syria or Libya was averted in Yemen – but unrest remains. For weeks, thousands of Houthi supporters have been holding protests across the country, calling for the government to be dissolved and for fuel subsidies to be restored. Protesters have taken part in sit-ins in front of government buildings in the capital, Sanaa, and have demonstrated in Change Square, where a protest camp was set up during the 2011 revolution. The subsidies were cut in July, in an attempt to shore up the country’s floundering economy, but the sharp increase in the cost of fuel – which affects transport, water, and good – threatens to plunge hundreds of thousands into poverty. In mid-August, the Houthi’s leader, Abdul Malik al-Houthi, demanded that the subsidies be reinstated and that the “corrupt” government be replaced with a body more representative of Yemen’s different factions.

In an attempt to end the protests, Yemen’s president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, this week effectively agreed to these demands. He dismissed his cabinet and promised to ease petrol prices by about 30 per cent. State media reported that Hadi would name a new prime minister to form a national unity administration that would include Houthi ministers, and members of the southern seperatist movement. “The nation is passing through tough times,” Hadi was quoted as saying. “It is standing at a crossroads: either walk the path of life, development, and a new Yemen, or chaos, lawlessness and the unknown.”

But the Houthis rejected the offer to form a unity government, with a spokesman saying on Facebook: “We do not agree to it. Our position is still that we stand by the Yemeni people who have gone out in a blessed popular revolution to demand their legitimate and just rights.” On Sunday – before the decision to dismiss the government – Houthi had called for a campaign of civil disobedience. Security officials in Yemen warn that the Houthis are planning a “Ukraine-style revolution”, where they will storm government buildings.

The refusal to accept the president’s capitulation to their demands indicates that the Houthis are not simply protesting about fuel subsidies. One way of looking at the current unrest is through the lens of sectarian divides. The Houthis are a Shiite rebel group that has fought – and recently defeated – Sunni militias in the north. It has been alleged that the Houthis have links to Iran and Hezbollah. The Islamist militias they have been fighting, for months, are linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and to its political arm in Yemen, the Islah party, which is part of the government. Critics of the Houthis see the current push against the government as an extension of its recent battlefield win in the north.

Certainly, the group’s rejection of Hadi’s ambitious offer does increase the likelihood of the stand-off descending into violence. With the AP news agency reporting that a senior Yemeni security official says that the Houthis are planning to storm the cabinet and parliament over the coming days, clearly, the period of unrest in Yemen is not over yet.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.