It’s finally time to start drafting the political obituary of the modern Yemeni state. The country now faces a perfect trifecta of fatal maladies – civil war, terrorism and secession.
A civil war is starting to look inevitable. The announcement by the Houthi militia, a Zaidi Shiite rebel group, that it has dissolved parliament and taken over the government will probably eventually provoke an armed backlash from Sunni groups. The Houthis began the process in September by storming the capital Sanaa. And they have now all but completed their takeover.
The alliance and a reported recent agreement between the Houthi militia and former president Ali Abdullah Saleh give some observers hope that an understanding of sorts can be reached. But it’s increasingly difficult to see how Mr Saleh could play a role in brokering a stable new governing arrangement.
Instead, it looks as if his attempt to use the Houthis as a way to return to power is backfiring because his allies lack any clear incentive to defer to him on major issues. Friday’s announcement seems calculated to emphasise that, whoever they are dealing with, the Houthis see themselves alone as the decision-makers. And for now at least, they seem to be exercising virtually uncontested power in the capital.
Judging by the recent history of other failed states in the Middle East, this is highly alarming. Once sectarianism strongly takes hold in a country that is experiencing broad-based power struggles between groups defined by their religious identity, it is extremely difficult to contain. Whatever Mr Saleh may have been hoping to achieve, it’s much more likely that Sunni forces loyal to him in the military and elsewhere will eventually get drawn into a broad-based sectarian confrontation with the Houthis.
A power struggle based on confessional divisions appears to be already brewing. Friday’s “coup” announcement prompted the widespread expression of outrage by demonstrators in urban centres as well as in rural and tribal areas. It may well be that Mr Saleh believes that he has manipulated the formation of the new “national council”, which will operate in place of the presidency. But there is so much opposition that such an arrangement is unlikely to prove viable.
And even if Mr Saleh were to be somehow returned to a nominal position of power in a new Houthi-dominated system, he would almost certainly discover that he is either just a figurehead or that his alliance with the Shiite group cannot be sustained in the long run.
These tensions, and a brewing civil conflict, play perfectly into the hands of violent extremist and terrorist groups. Al Qaeda in Yemen is widely regarded as the most potent and dangerous Al Qaeda franchise currently in operation. It is one of the few that is regarded as having the ability and the willingness to attempt major terrorist acts throughout the region and in the West. Most recently, for example, Al Qaeda in Yemen claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack on the offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo.
The ability of Al Qaeda in Yemen and other extremist terrorist organisations to claim to be the champions of the Sunni community against a “Shiite onslaught” will be greatly strengthened by the Houthi takeover. And it’s impossible to imagine that ISIL too, does not regard the developing situation in Yemen as perfectly suited to its own twisted modus operandi.
This, in turn, raises the highly disturbing prospect that the United States – following the logic of the current Obama administration’s policies – could find itself drawn into a strategic alliance with a Houthi-dominated government in Sanaa, or even the Houthi militia directly. There is already alarming evidence of an intelligence relationship, and maybe more, developing under the rubric of fighting common enemies such as Al Qaeda.
But the greatest threat of all to the survival of the contemporary Yemeni state is Al Hirak, the powerful southern movement. It is an umbrella group that is seeking to restore independence to South Yemen, which existed as a separate country, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, for a few decades from the mid-1960s. Southerners were never fully reconciled to the national unity arrangement that, many of them feel, was effectively imposed on them in 1990. Even with noteworthy southerners having served in key positions, the south perennially felt marginalised and disenfranchised.
Most southern groups have been blunt about their redoubled determination to secede because of the rise of the Houthis and the strengthening of Al Qaeda. And, as Amal Mudallali, a senior scholar at the Wilson Centre’s Middle East programme, has pointed out, some of Yemen’s neighbours, including the Arab Gulf states, may reluctantly conclude that they have little choice but to support the breakaway of the south.
Most of Yemen’s neighbours would like to see the country remain intact. But if southern secession means that at least a part of Yemen could be saved from Iranian hegemony, civil war and an expanding fertile ground for terrorist fanatics, it might be viewed as a necessary evil. External support, of course, would greatly enhance the prospects of success for secessionists, which would mean the break-up of the country.
What will take its place very much remains to be seen. But the Yemeni state as we have known it almost certainly can’t survive the emerging triple threat of civil war, terrorism and secession.