The war in Yemen, while still described as a political conflict between political factions, from the start had an underlying clash between two key identities: northern Zaidi tribes of the high plateau, historically referred to as Upper Yemen, who have dominated most of Yemen for centuries; and the Shafi’i farming communities from what was described as Lower Yemen, which served as the tax base of Zaidi rule. The time for well-meaning denials of the nature of the Yemen war as a conflict of identities has passed and we Yemenis have to face the facts to be able to deal with them.
The armed Houthi movement, Ansar Allah, despite its modern structure, ideology and regional Shia dimension, is nothing more than the most recent iteration of Northern-Tribal-Zaidi (NTZ) power. The lightning speed of its takeover of Sana’a and, indeed, of most of Yemen, was a clear indication that it was a natural heir to its predecessor, the old NTZ elites led by former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. When the Houthis pushed beyond the safe space of the north, into Marib and southern Yemen, they were quickly repelled. The traditional NTZ elites’ complicity with Houthis reveals that they thought, much in the same way as President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi did — that they could use Houthis to weaken their opponents, then absorb the group into the much larger Sana’a-based faction of that elite. By choosing to support the Houthi takeover, these elites revealed their inability to coexist with the rest of the people of Yemen on an equal basis. In a sense, they were saying to others: “Either we rule, or we destroy the unity of this country.”
In so many ways, the Islah party is the flip side of the Houthi movement. This may be a surprising statement, given the Houthis’ impressive military prowess and battlefield successes and the dismal performance of forces generally considered as part of the military arm of Islah. However, Islah is the most expressive political representation of the other large Yemeni demographic, the Shafi’i farmers of Middle Yemen, although the group’s stand against the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) in 1994 weakened its representativeness of the governorates of Aden, Lahj and Al-Dhalea.
The Houthi movement openly expresses the sectarian nature of their political system. Slogans of welayah and other Zaidi doctrines are splashed all over public buildings and in the streets of majority-Shafi’i cities such as Hudaydah. They couldn’t say any more clearly that they view the Shafi’i population as their subjects. In this climate of sectarian polarization, Islah became the main adversary of the Houthi movement.
Islah is also in the crosshairs of a dangerous regional power, the United Arab Emirates. The core of Islah is the Yemeni chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the UAE has classified as a terrorist organization and sworn to eradicate. In Yemen, Abu Dhabi has sought to empower Salafists, particularly in the south, Taiz and along the Red Sea Coast, to counter Islah. While this effort has made some inroads, Islah’s solid organization has helped it stay relevant, and in some cases, such as in Taiz, push back against such groups.
Still, the UAE’s position is only the tip of the iceberg of regional and global antagonism against Islamist parties, and thus, the dilemma for Islah is that it is in a lose-lose situation. Whether the Houthis or the internationally recognized government, supported by the Saudi-led Coalition, win the war, Islah’s very survival is at risk. To exit that doomed situation, it cannot just react. It needs to be proactive.
As Houthi forces close in on Marib, the main stronghold of Islah, the trajectory of the war is becoming clear. The Houthis will make new facts on the ground, disposing of the axiom that has dominated the thinking of many Yemeni and international observers: that peace will be one of “no-victor, no vanquished”. The Houthis will dictate the terms of the coming peace. Naturally, they will opt for the model tried and tested by their forefathers: a settlement between the ruling NTZ elites and their Shafi’i subjects.
The obvious representative of the Shafi’i subjects is a subdued Islah party. Negotiations are ongoing between Islah and the Houthis. The release of the Islah-affiliated Minister of Education Abdulrazzaq al-Ashwal by the Houthis in 2018 was the sign of the first attempt at such negotiations. More recently, Islah MP Fuad Dahaba returned in August to Sana’a to join several other Islah MPs who never left. In all likelihood, the two sides are no longer negotiating the principle of striking a deal; they are probably discussing the terms.
Islah knows full well that time is not on its side. The deal it can get today will not be on the table tomorrow. It is also probably concerned by the mystifying prisoner exchange of the son of General Ali Mohsen, a high value prisoner, for the Zaidi religious cleric and vocal critic of the Houthis, Yahya Al-Dailami. Islah would be foolish to stand by while others snatch deals with the Houthis. Therefore, it is likely to make a deal with the Houthis. Unfortunately, that is likely to be on terms not much different from the deals their forefathers struck with past Zaidi imams.
While such a deal will facilitate an end to the war, the political system that will come out of it will inevitably be a theocratic state that will frustrate socio-economic development and democratization for a generation.
Grim as the situation appears to be, there is still one possible way out. The lines of confrontation could still be rearranged to lead to a more inclusive, participatory and progressive settlement. In 1991, Islah was formed out of a number of core General People’s Congress (GPC) leaders. Though wounded and divided, the GPC remains the party with the largest popular base in Yemen, including a sizable portion of the country’s technocratic elites. Despite its sorry state, the international community, the Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative, the UN Security Council resolutions and common sense dictate that the GPC must play a leading role in any settlement. Notwithstanding its corrupt past, the GPC’s history of moderation is a reassurance to the region and to the world that Yemen can cease to be a regional security concern.
Islah has the choice: Either make a deal with the Houthis and hope they do not double-cross it in the future, or go back to its roots and merge with the GPC, where it can hibernate and wait out this formidable wave of antagonism. A merger of Islah with the GPC would hopefully provide enough assurance to the UAE that Islah would not act against its interests, and so the Emiratis would let it be. The GPC is a loosely organized bureaucratic party, and many of its leaders were previously in Islah or the YSP, or are former Baathists or Nasserites. Islah leaders will not be alone.
This option is one possible way to end the war and give Yemenis a chance for an inclusive political settlement upon which to build a civil state.
This commentary first appeared in The Riyadh Agreement’s Fading Promise – The Yemen Review, October 2020..
The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies is an independent think-tank that seeks to foster change through knowledge production with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region. The Center’s publications and programs, offered in both Arabic and English, cover diplomatic, political, social, economic, military, security, humanitarian and human rights related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.
- The author uses the term Middle Yemen to describe the area from the foothills of the High Plateau to the coast of Aden and Abyan and from the Tehama plain to Al-Mashreq, the eastern desert. That is the area that for the past three millennia has been called “Yamnat”, then, during the Islamic era, Al-Yaman. The term South Yemen is a 20th century creation, and is contradicted by the fact that Hadramawt extends farther to the north than Sa’ada governorate.
- The concept of welayah in Zaidi Shia doctrine stipulates that legitimate authority is restricted to the descendents of Ali Ibn Abi Taleb and one of his wives, Fatimah, daughter of the Prophet Mohammed, through their sons Al Hasan and Al Hussein, often referred to as Al-Batnayn (the two clans).
- The official line of the GPC is that it is a programmatic party. However, given the way that both Saleh and Hadi used it to further personal and family interests, it is more appropriate to call it bureaucratic.