With UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva involving the usual suspects and only a few new faces, it is time to raise the question of Yemen’s future as a state.
The talks involve exiled President ‘Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the Houthi movement Ansar Allah and minor figures from the long-time ruling General People’s Congress (GPC, now split into factions tied to Hadi and former President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih), the leading Sunni-identified Islamist party Islah and its ally in Hadi’s government-in-exile, the Yemeni Socialist Party.
The only representatives outside the competing would-be regimes of Hadi and the Houthis at the talks come from two recently established parties, including the salafi Rashad Union, whose popularity in Yemen remains to be seen. Hadi insists on implementing UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which would compel the Houthis to withdraw from major cities, including the capital of Sanaa, reinstate himself as head of state and continue the transition toward a federal state, as agreed at the GCC-brokered National Dialogue Conference last year. The Houthis oppose the six-part federal plan but agree on key transition issues decided upon at the Conference. From their perspective, Hadi’s regime has failed to execute the agreed-upon policies and, in any case, the situation became entirely different after Ansar Allah took over Sanaa last September. In the eyes of many Yemenis, whether they support the Houthis or not, they are right: Since the conclusion of the $24 million conference, very little has been done to address the demands put forward in the rallies gathering millions of Yemenis throughout the country in 2011.
The questions one has to ask at this stage: Is the National Dialogue Conference plan still viable as a road map for Yemen’s future? And do the delegates at the talks have the authority in the first place to set the country on this path? Many factors point in another direction. Of the Geneva negotiators, only the Houthis seem to have a strong base of political support on the ground, at least in the areas where the movement hails from. Excluded from the talks are representatives of the South, who are battling Houthi aggression under the label Southern Resistance (al-muqawama al-janubiyya). As for Hadi, his term as transitional president ended in February 2014, and amidst the current warfare, in the eyes of many Yemenis, he is a man who invited the Saudi-led coalition to kill civilians while kicking back in the luxury of a Riyadh palace. There is considerable reason to believe that he lacks the local support to return to power in Yemen.
Still, in the international media the war in Yemen is characterized as fighting “between forces loyal to the beleaguered president, ‘Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and those allied to Zaidi Shia rebels known as Houthis, who forced Mr. Hadi to flee the capital Sanaa in February.” The expression “Hadi loyalists” misleads the world about what is happening in the shadow of the Saudi air strikes. This dubious category groups together forces as different as the eastern tribes, popular committees in various regions, the Southern Resistance and even al-Qaeda. Few of these forces actually engage in fighting for Hadi and his regime of failed promises. For some, Hadi’s return to power is downright undesirable; for others, it is simply irrelevant. In central Yemen, such as in Ta‘izz, the country’s third largest city, resistance to the Houthis springs from local motivations rather than support for Hadi. While the Southern Resistance supports the air strikes and receives military aid from the Saudi-led coalition, its ideas about post-war political solutions differ from the expressed Saudi aim of restoring Hadi. Basing the Geneva talks around the reinstatement of Hadi as leader of the country simply prolongs the suffering on the ground and generates a false sense of certainty about post-war stability.
The Houthi militias, assisted by units of the Yemeni army loyal to Salih and stationed throughout the country, are facing armed confrontation in eastern and central Yemen, and in the entirety of the South. The South is the territory that, prior to Yemeni unity in 1990, formed the independent state of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. In Marib, the province east of Sanaa, local tribes have united to stop the Houthis from taking over the oil fields, motivated by the tribal ethos of self-rule and alliance with similar-minded state leadership. Further to the southeast, the tribes in Shabwa have formed a coalition with the Southern Resistance.
As applied to the South, the expression “Hadi loyalists” stems from three misconceptions. First, the fact that Hadi is originally from the southern governorate of Abyan makes some believe he must have the fealty of his fellow southerners. The second error is to read too much into the fact that Hadi fled to Aden, of all places, in February and was initially welcomed there after the Houthis introduced their five-man presidential council. That body deposed him de facto, though he had already resigned. Once in Aden, Hadi withdrew his resignation.
The Southern Resistance, the militias fighting against the Houthi-Salih invasion of the South, consists of Popular Committees and groups of local vigilantes who pledge themselves to defend “the people of the South.” The Resistance is part of the pro-independence Southern Movement that has grown steadily since 2007 with the mission of reclaiming the full independence of the South. Activists in this movement consider Hadi and his regime (which includes many southerners) responsible for the years-long marginalization of the South and the erstwhile state’s violence against peaceful demonstrators there. That violence claimed hundreds of victims in the South while the world was focused on the dialogue in Sanaa. For many, the war in the southern governorates is a replay of the 1994 civil war that ended with President Salih conquering the South and sealing Yemeni unity by force. Southerners call it “occupation.” While the Southern Resistance lacks a central command, it has unified the various territories of the South in an unprecedented way. This is a popular resistance movement that organizes locally, involves all sectors of society, men and women, and has fended off the much better equipped Yemeni army and Houthi militia for weeks. Victories in al-Dhali‘ governorate prove the steadfastness of the fighters, many of whom have no military training as a result of systematic discrimination against southerners in the army and security forces.
Here is the third misconception that gives rise to the term “Hadi loyalists.” Some assume that because the Popular Committees were initially set up by Hadi’s government to take care of security in areas without an army or police presence, and remained on the state payroll, they must support Hadi’s comeback. In central Yemen, Popular Committees fight for local concerns, too, allied with tribes and other social forces. The common denominator is resistance to Houthi-Salih aggression and protection of local territories—not an affinity for Hadi.
One of the dramatic consequences of the fighting on the ground, as opposed to the Saudi-led air strikes, is the division of the country. For the Southern Resistance, it is a war between North and South. There is no money or might in the world that would bring southerners back to “unity” under a regime in Sanaa, whether headed by the Houthis or by Hadi. Acknowledging that fact might bring the international community closer to lasting solutions to the Yemeni crisis.
The narrative of “Hadi loyalists” is propaganda aimed at lending legitimacy to the Saudis’ project in Yemen. According to this rhetoric, sadly adopted by the Saudis’ allies and the world media, the Saudis are simply “assisting” Yemenis who want to bring back the proper government. Saudi Arabia has been militarily and non-militarily involved in every single political crisis in Yemen over the past five decades, simply to ensure that a regime on its leash prevails. Yet its strategy of bombing has largely proved counterproductive as more and more civilians die and the blockade of aid convoys exacts a heavy humanitarian toll. What the Saudis could do is to sever the link between their former man in Sanaa, ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih, and the Houthis. The war in Yemen has a lot to do with power struggles in the capital. But for Yemenis elsewhere in the country, the fighting is about protecting their neighborhoods from invasion by the troops of the Houthis and Salih and achieving a decent standard of living, something Hadi and his government were never able to deliver.