Is Yemen undergoing a coup? That's what government officials in the country have alleged after a heavy outbreak of fighting in the capital Sanaa. The mainly Shia rebel group, the Houthis, have seized control of the country's state news agency and television stations. Meanwhile, street battles between rebels and government forces raged.
Unrest in Sanaa is nothing new; in September, the Houthis seized control of the capital, following months of unrest. At the time, the political parties and the Houthis signed a deal that agreed the formation of a new unity government, followed by the withdrawal of Houthi fighters from the capital. The fighters have not withdrawn.
This latest round of fighting is the worst since September and people on the ground say that the situation today is much worse. On Monday, a convoy carrying Yemen's President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi was shot at as it left the presidential palace. Over the weekend, Hadi's chief of staff was abducted by the Houthis. Around the presidential palace, dozens of residences have been damaged by the use of heavy artillery on both sides.
The Houthi group, which draws support from around 30 per cent of Yemen's population, wants the country to be divided into two regions – north, the Houthis' heartland, and south. This would give it a better chance of consolidating its support than the current draft constitution, which would see Yemen divided into six regions. It appears that the current outbreak of violence was prompted by the Houthis' rejection of this draft.
When the Arab Spring swept across the region in 2011, Yemen was hailed as a success story. After an initially violent response to the uprising it became the only state to see a negotiated transfer of power. Subsequent efforts to hammer out a new constitution appeared to be a genuinely inclusive political process; it seemed that Yemen had successfully managed to move the revolution from the streets to the negotiating table. Now, nearly four years later, this initial success is in tatters.
Yemen has long been the most impoverished state in the region, wracked by a complex web of sectarian and regional divisions. The country has only existed within its current boundaries since 1990, when northern and southern Yemen unified. This was not a happy union, with tribal powers, the military and Islamists vying for control.
Eventually, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been president of north Yemen, took control. He remained in power until the 2011 revolution. These divisions worsened and worsened under Saleh's rule, but a fragile peace was maintained. Now peace has collapsed, leaving Yemen in the volatile condition in which it finds itself today.
In the last few years, there have been six rounds of fighting between the state and the Houthis in the north, separatist unrest in the south, increasingly frequent attacks by Al-Qaeda affiliates and on-going power struggles between tribal and military factions. Together, this instability has resulted in the significant displacement of people, weak governance, poor infrastructure and the depletion of resources. All of the violent conflict ultimately stems from the same root causes of unequal access to power and resources. Continued unemployment and high food and fuel prices have fuelled the fire.
Today, non-state groups, such as the Houthis, are increasingly powerful, aided by foreign backers such as Iran and, in the case of Sunni groups, Saudi Arabia. The Houthis have, since 2011, been involved in street battles with Al-Qaeda's branch in Yemen. Meanwhile, central power is being gradually eroded. The president is looking ever weaker by the second. His calls for a ceasefire have been unheeded, with regional and international efforts to broker an agreement failing. According to media reports, some military units have refused presidential orders to attack Houthi militants.
What happens in Yemen matters, not just for the thousands of Yemenis who have now endured years of violence and deprivation, but for the region at large. There is some anxiety that the sectarian nature of the Houthis' rebellion could cause contagion, while continuing chaos provides fertile ground for extremism to grow.
Yemen's offshoot of Al-Qaeda is seen as a top priority for the US, which is carrying out a drone campaign in the country. (The gunmen who attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris were affiliated to the group.) Yemen's geographical position also makes it strategically important; it is situated by the Gulf of Aden, an important shipping stream, and shares a long border with oil-exporting Saudi Arabia. Yet for all this, no-one seems to be any closer to finding a solution that would lead to a lasting peace.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.