Yemen’s political scene continues to rest on a knife’s edge, with a significant change but a spark away, writes Ahmed Eleiba
Sunday,10 September, 2017
اقرأ باللغة العربية
In the course of preparing for ceremonies to commemorate its 35th anniversary two weeks ago, the General People’s Congress (GPC) decided to display a huge poster of its leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in the process of handing over the Yemeni flag to the current President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi in 2012. The image is meant to signify the party’s and its leader’s commitment to the principle of the peaceful rotation of authority. The leaders of the Houthi movement read it differently. They saw the picture as a form of betrayal, so much so that some members of this movement tore up every picture of Saleh they could find in Sanaa.
What seemed at first a brief spat between allies soon escalated to mutual fusillades of insults and recriminations. At one point, the Supreme Revolutionary Committee (effectively a parallel authority alongside the Supreme Political Council) branded Saleh a traitor and vowed retaliation. Tensions spiralled between the two sides of the Houthi-Saleh alliance at both official and grassroots levels.
In spite of the heavily charged atmosphere, Saleh insisted that the rally scheduled for 24 August in Sabaeen Square in Sanaa should go ahead. And so it did. His supporters turned out in the hundreds of thousands, in a powerful indication of the shifting balances on both sides of the Yemeni conflict. While there is no sign of a fundamental change in the current political alignments in this conflict, recent developments have sent tremors through the intricate network of political relations in Yemen.
THE REPERCUSSIONS OF SABAEEN SQUARE: After the successful mass rally in Sanaa established Saleh’s political upper hand over, the Houthis in the areas under the insurgent alliance’s control, observers anticipated a resounding fissure at any moment. The thin hair that continued to bind the two sides of this alliance seemed about to break. However, the arrangements that followed the event and Saleh’s speech 24 August disappointed the many who had placed their bets on an immanent rupture between the Houthis and the GPC.
A preliminary assessment of the gains from the GPC rally indicates that Saleh has largely succeeded in recuperating a large portion of his grassroots base that had almost come to identify with the Houthis’ authority. He also recovered a large portion of the political ground that has enabled him to set the rules of the game at home and abroad.
However, the Houthis, for their part, managed to contain the effects of the rally by means of a number of pre-emptory steps. Firstly, the Houthi leader Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi convened an assembly of the wise men of Yemen, to which he resorts as a means of leverage against the parliament dominated by the GPC. The step was also intended as a precaution should Saleh and the parliament press ahead with a vote to adopt the recent initiative proposed by UN Envoy for Yemen Ould Sheikh Ahmed. In addition, the Houthis staged a counter rally at the main gateway to the capital. Although the turnout was modest compared to the one in the central square, it served as a form of challenge and a signal of the Houthis’ readiness to take on any military adventure that Saleh might contemplate in order to alter the balance of military forces in the capital, which still clearly favours the Houthis.
At the same time, the Houthis mounted a campaign to counter the GPC’s propaganda campaign. Houthi media organs accused Saleh of treachery, surrendering to the enemy and failure to support the various fronts. They also condemned his silence on the actions of members of his party abroad whom the Houthis regard as Saleh’s tool to pave the way for his engagement in a regional settlement that would enable him and his party to emerge from the war with the least possible losses and ensure him and his party a prominent place in Yemen’s political future.
Following the event, the Houthis strengthened their military profile in Sanaa. The reinforcements precipitated some limited clashes inside the capital, leading to the death of Colonel Khaled Al-Radi, a senior member of Saleh’s GPC who also belonged to the large and influential Hashid tribal confederation. Some informed political sources in Sanaa believe that Saleh’s son, Salah Ali Abdullah Saleh, was wounded in the skirmish that took place at the Misbahi roundabout in the capital.
Many have read the Misbahi incident as a message from the Houthis to former president Saleh to remind him of the balance military powers on the ground and that these cannot be easily altered. According to informed GPC sources, Saleh instructed party leaders and relatives of the late Colonel Al-Radi to hold funeral and condolence ceremonies as normal while the former president, in his last television appearance, chose to describe what happened at Misbahi as an accidental incident that should not be repeated.
The Houthis, for their part, also moved to keep the situation from spiralling out of control. The Supreme Political Council released a similar statement saying that the consequences of the clashes were “contained and what happened was an accidental incident”.
Apparently, the two sides want to avoid a futile confrontation. However, it is as yet unclear whether the restraint reflects a genuine desire to defuse the mutual tensions or merely attempts on the part of both sides to buy time.
In the wake of the GPC rally, Sanaa is looking at three possible scenarios. The first is explosion. As noted above, this possibility loomed very strongly at first, however the dictates of mutual interests between the two components of the insurgent alliance has reduced the possibility to remote, at least for the time being.
The second is to pressure the Houthis to agree to new rules for the partnership. This option still appears out of reach as Saleh has been unable to build a permanent strategic alliance with the Houthis. There are objective and subjective reasons for this, including the ideological and structural differences between both sides that hampers their ability to formulate a unified vision for managing the civil war, not to mention imagining the country as a whole. Therefore, the closeness between the two sides is still contingent on exigencies.
The third scenario is the ongoing locking of horns between the two sides in Sanaa against the backdrop of the GPC’s political upper hand and the Houthis’ military upper hand. Not only do the Houthis head both the interior and defence ministries, they also have parallel military bodies such as the “People’s Committees” that has virtually become a parallel army.
THE RESTORATION OF CALM: The intense rise in tensions in the Houthi-Saleh alliance deescalated in the space of a few days. Credit for this is due to the efforts of the Supreme Political Council headed by Saleh Ali Al-Sammad, who rapidly contained the Misbahi incident, and to the regular meetings that are held between Houthi and GPC leaders.
However, the main reason behind the restoration of calm is Saleh, by means of his speech at Sabaeen in which he pacified his followers, and by means of his pledge to reinforce the fronts with tens of thousands of fighters if the Houthis arm them and pay their salaries. The latter a reference to the problems surrounding the payment of government salaries and dwindling government revenues, which the Houthis supervise. Moreover, in his last television interview Saleh demonstrated such a conciliatory spirit that he declined to press the question of the payment of salaries.
The deescalation took place after a practical test of the balances of powers in the capital which led to the death of one of the GPC’s prominent young leaders. This has counselled Saleh to summon patience until the local and regional environment becomes conducive to a different political course. However, the question remains as to which direction he will move: towards political confrontation with his adversaries, or towards consolidating the authoritarian partnership with his allies?
For the moment, the lines of communication are severed between him and the political leaders in the countries of the Saudi-led coalition. True, Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman and the Foreign Affairs Minister Anwar Qarqash have issued important statements to the press in anticipation of Saleh’s shift away from the Houthis and the possibility of striking up understandings with him. However, such statements appear little more than political manoeuvres intended to drive in the wedge between the two halves of the Saleh-Houthi alliance. There have been no developments to indicate the likelihood of a practical collaboration.
This is borne out further by recent military developments. Abu Dhabi is sustaining its military campaign in the West after the liberation of the Khaled bin Al-Walid military camp which had been under control of pro-Saleh forces. Riyadh, for its part, has had Mutahir Al-Aqili appointed the new chief of staffs of the Yemeni army in place of Al-Maqdishi who was known to be relatively independent. Al-Aqili is an unknown military figure, although initial news reports indicate that he is close to Yemeni Vice President Mohsen Al-Ahmar. Observers believe that this appointment is a new sign of further military escalation to come, especially on Nahem and Midi fronts.