It is important not to classify the crisis in Yemen as just another Middle Eastern country falling apart. To do so would not only misunderstand the subtlety of Arabian politics, it would do a real disservice to the people of Yemen who are fighting for a fair government and fighting, in some cases, for their very lives. The crisis in Yemen is not a cliché, it’s real.
With that in mind, it’s important to know who’s fighting who and why. As has been the case in other Mid East revolutions, powerful groups do battle for a country’s soul whilst those just trying to live their lives are bombarded, interrupted, besieged, and scared beyond measure. Both sides will claim that they are trying to secure Yemen’s future, but when the bombs begin to fall, it is the civilians who suffer. We should never forget that.
The current situation in Yemen: Green areas are controlled by Houthi insurgents, red areas are controlled by government loyalists, and grey areas are controlled by al-Qaeda.
During the Arab Spring revolutions, the Yemeni government tried to pass a constitutional amendment which would allow President Ali Abdullah Saleh to remain in office for the rest of his life, effectively ending democracy in Yemen. This amendment came at a time of widespread unemployment, poverty, and government corruption in the country, putting Yemen on the brink of revolution.
Massive protests began across the country, and were met with a severe government crackdown. In March 2011, unarmed anti-government demonstrations in the capital Sana’a were fired upon by Saleh’s forces, who killed 52 and injured a further 200. This and other massacres of civilians resulted in Saleh’s resignation as President with the help of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Saleh was replaced first by a transitional government in 2011, and then by his deputy, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, in a 2012 election where he gained 99.8% of the vote.
Hadi’s coalition government failed to live up to already low expectations, and he new government’s opposing factions lacked vision for Yemen. In 2014, the budget was in crisis and the government had to find a way to cut spending. Hadi attempted to get financial help from the IMF, who recommended a reduction in the fuel subsidy programme, one few widely available social services in Yemen. Hadi went one step further and raised the price of fuel, with both diesel and gasoline almost doubling in price.
Meanwhile, a military group in North-western Yemen called the Houthis started to gather popular support and weapons. The Houthis’ political wing, Ansar Allah, was formed as an opposition group to the American-led Iraq War, and has been vying for power in Yemen since 2004. The Houthis were enraged when Saleh’s removal from office included immunity from all criminal charges, including the massacre at Sana’a, and Hadi’s decision to raise the price of fuel was the final straw. In 2014, the Houthis began seizing territory in the North and slowly advancing towards the capital.
Houthi banner which reads: “God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam”. Former Houthi spokesman Ali al Bukhayti says the group doesn’t actually want death to anybody, and claims the slogan is just there for emotional impact. The slogan is similar to ones used in Iran during the 1979 revolution.
The Houthis’ advancement to the capital came in September 2014, and resulted in the Battle of Sana’a. Fighting between government forces and Houthis militias resulted in the deaths of about 300 people, and the Houthis eventually won out. Their forces surrounded the Presidential Palace and began shelling it, but President Hadi was able to negotiate safe passage out of the city by offering to resign.
Hadi’s resignation had to be approved by the Yemeni Parliament, but they refused, which led to the dissolution of the legislature and further political instability in the country. Once out of the capital, Hadi hastily relocated his government to the southern city of Aden and revoked his resignation, claiming he was still the legitimate head of state in Yemen.
A ceasefire between the Houthis and Hadi’s forces in January 2015 looked hopeful, and allowed the Houthis to implement some of their demands (like having Ansar Allah recognized as a political party), but it was short-lived. Fighting soon resumed and the Houthis began advancing south to Aden in order to depose Hadi for a second time. Hadi relocated his government once more to Saudi Arabia, where it now acts as a government in exile.
Around this time, the Houthis did not claim to be legitimate rulers of Yemen, and instead called on opposing political factions to unite and solve Yemen’s economic woes. Nonetheless, after negotiations with some political factions in February 2015, the Houthis announced that they were now the leaders of Yemen. There are also accusations that former President Saleh is working alongside the Houthis to further bolster their legitimacy.
Meanwhile, the two rival giants in the region, Iran and Saudi Arabia, have seized the chance to intervene in Yemen. There are allegations that Iranian forces are in Yemen training and arming the Houthis, possibly to aid the eventual power transition and have an Iran-friendly ally on Saudi Arabia’s doorstep. The Saudis themselves have responded to the situation in Yemen with air-strikes against the Houthis, who they regard as criminals, and as of April 2015, the Saudis are planning for a ground offensive to oust them.