Four Weddings and a Funeral in Yemen

by Susanne Dahlgren | published March 20, 2015

For background on the hirak, see Susanne Dahlgren, “A Snake with a Thousand Heads: The Southern Cause in Yemen,” Middle East Report 256 (Fall 2010) and “Southern Yemen After the Fall of Sanaa,” MERIPblog, October 7, 2014.

For more on Yemeni national politics since the Houthi takeover of Sanaa, see Stacey Philbrick Yadav and Sheila Carapico, “The Breakdown of the GCC Inititative,” Middle East Report 273 (Winter 2014).

On February 21, 2015, the man most countries recognize as president of Yemen, ‘Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, escaped house arrest in Sanaa and fled with his family to the southern city of Aden, which he soon declared the new capital. The Houthi movement, or Ansar Allah, that holds sway in Sanaa insists that the Yemen’s seat of government is still there. Perhaps equally confusing to outsiders, however, is the decision of the Southern Movement, or hirak, to suspend its long-standing campaign of protest and civil disobedience aimed at restoration of national independence for the southern provinces that once made up the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.

Since 2007, southerners have been rallying under the banner of the hirak for separation from the state based in Sanaa. In the wake of the Yemen-wide uprising against President ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih in 2011, more and more southerners embraced full independence as the end goal. The “revolution squares” of Aden resounded weekly with chants such as “My country, my country is South Arabia / And the capital of the republic is Aden.” [1] It seems logical that southerners would strongly object to the relocation of the old Sanaa regime, which they view as corrupt and biased against them, to their self-declared national center. And, indeed, southerners have many misgivings and suspicions. Though he was born in the southern governorate of Abyan, in the south Hadi is considered a creature of Sanaa, and the person primarily responsible for southerners’ suffering during the 1994 war, when the south briefly sought to reverse the 1990 unification with the north. But, if everything were so simple, Yemen would not be Yemen. For the time being, the Houthi takeover of Sanaa has unified Hadi’s coterie and the hirak in a fight against a common enemy. 

Hadi in Aden

At first, there was some dissension among hirak leaders regarding what to make of Hadi’s sudden appearance in Aden. How had the captive president managed to evade the Houthi militiamen guarding his house, and with such a large party in tow? How did he bypass the many Houthi roadblocks along his way to the Sanaa airport, if he left that way, or the roads overland? The mystery surrounding Hadi’s escape has led some southerners to speculate that his mission in Aden is to ensure that the south will not leave unified Yemen. According to this theory, the masterminds of this plan are various elements of the northern elite that have followed Hadi to Aden.

There is indeed reason to believe that Hadi’s arrival in Aden, of all the places on earth to which he could have decamped, is no coincidence. Sometime beforehand, the governors of provinces not in the hands of Houthi forces gathered in Aden at the invitation of Aden’s new governor, ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Salih Bin Habtour. Hadi had nominated Bin Habtour, who was rector of Aden University, amidst a crisis after the previous governor, Wahid Rashid, abandoned his post in September in apparent fear that the Houthi takeover in Sanaa was prelude to a hiraki takeover in Aden. Rashid belongs to the Islah Party, a coalition of Sunni Islamist trends, which became unpopular in the south after its supporters attacked peaceful demonstrators in the main revolution square in Aden. [2] One of the first meetings Hadi held in his Aden presidential palace was with the same governors in an effort to demonstrate his territorial advantage over the Houthis. Hadi claims to control some 80 percent of Yemeni lands, including all of the oil-rich areas. Under Hadi’s domain also falls Bab al-Mandab, the strait connecting the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean and which outside powers view as a key strategic concern in the Yemeni political puzzle. Egypt has announced its readiness to intervene with military force should the strait end up in Houthi hands. [3]

In his statement from the meeting with the anti-Houthi governors, Hadi retracted his resignation from the presidency, which he had issued under house arrest in January. He called for a continuation of the national dialogue sponsored by the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and declared all decisions made by the Houthis in the name of national governance to be illegitimate. Following Hadi’s arrival in Aden, several prominent leaders of the Islah Party have shown up, too, including the former governor Rashid. Islah is a main Houthi rival. To boost Hadi’s claim to power, all of the GCC countries except Oman announced the intention to reopen their embassies in Aden. GCC financial aid is now routed to Aden instead of Sanaa.

Adding to, and complicating, the hiraki suspicions is an interview with Bin Habtour where the Aden governor said he would be first to nominate Ahmad Salih, son of the former president, as a presidential candidate if he would renounce his father’s methods. [4] Is Bin Habtour a Hadi loyalist or not? Is the aim to restore one “federal state” under Hadi or something else? And what might the former president, ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih, be up to behind the scenes? These are the questions that perplexed southerners are discussing on news websites and in social media.

Since stepping down in November 2011, as part of a GCC-brokered deal, the elder Salih has continued to act as chairman of the General People’s Congress, the erstwhile ruling party. In the 2011 deal Salih was given legal immunity and the right to keep the funds he amassed while president. A February UN report estimated those assets as worth up to $62 billion, a staggering figure which, even if exaggerated, confirms what Yemenis have thought for a long time about Salih’s personal corruption. Salih is also widely believed -- both in Yemen and abroad -- to have facilitated the smooth Houthi advance upon Sanaa in September 2014. Sanaa has already witnessed several “spontaneous” demonstrations demanding a “strong leader” in the person of Salih’s son, Ahmad. And, in a break with Hadi, under Salih’s leadership the Congress is the only political party that, together with the Houthis, opposes holding dialogue meetings in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.

Hirakis are further aware that declaring Aden the national capital is an idea floated years ago by the Sanaa regime as a way to forestall southern secession. President Salih would stay for several winter months each year in what he called the “economic capital” of Yemen, forging ties with local politicians and playing his games of balancing the country’s powers against one another. Rumor has it as well that Gen. ‘Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, the once mighty right hand of Salih who turned his coat in the midst of the 2011 uprising, is now in Aden as well, working as a “military adviser” to Hadi.

In an expression of these various, interrelated doubts, the hirak continued with its civil disobedience for about two weeks after Hadi’s arrival, closing administration buildings, schools and businesses for the morning working hours. Yemeni Special Security Forces (formerly, Central Security Forces) troops, commanded by the notorious ‘Abd al-Hafiz al-Saqqaf, persisted with violent crackdowns against the peaceful demonstrators.

Houthis in Sanaa

The Houthis, for their part, are moving to consolidate their rule, which is popular with some and abhorred by others. Ansar Allah has curried favor in the areas it controls by ensuring a steady electricity supply, purging corrupt members of the administration and army, and halting runaway inflation of the price of oil. Their opponents are many, however, and include, among others, the main tribes in the northeast and southwest, in particular in the oil-rich Marib governorate and the populous western lowlands of Ta‘izz and Ibb. The Houthis have also threatened to ban Islah, which they claim stands with their fiercest enemy, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. As proof they point to the presence in Islah of ‘Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, a reputed supporter of Yemeni jihadism.

Some see the hidden hand of ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih here as well: It would be typical of the former president to pit powerful actors against one another so as to weaken them vis-à-vis himself. The Islahis backed Salih and his top general, ‘Ali Muhsin, in six rounds of war against the Houthis in 2004-2010. Now it may be the Houthis who are Salih’s tactical ally. But the wars taught the Houthis that Salih and his men are never to be trusted. One of Ansar Allah’s first steps after taking over Sanaa was to compel ‘Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar to flee to Saudi Arabia. ‘Ali Muhsin may have betrayed Salih in 2011, but before that he was chief prosecutor of the six campaigns to crush the Houthi rebellion in the northern highlands.

The Western media shorthand designating the Houthis as “Iran-backed” and “Shiite” is misleading at best, since Houthi grievances are homegrown and the Zaydi sect to which the Houthis belong is a distant cousin of the Twelver Shi‘ism championed by the Islamic Republic in Tehran. Much huffing and puffing by Salih and Gulf media notwithstanding, there was little evidence that Iran aided the Houthis in the intermittent fighting of 2004-2010, certainly not to the extent of Saudi Arabia’s military intervention against the Houthis in 2009. The Houthis did receive some assistance from the Iranians and their allies (among others) for the television station al-Masira.

After taking over Sanaa and with Gulf aid flowing to Aden, the Houthis were staring at a depleted state treasury, however, and so they started to make open overtures to Iran. A senior Houthi delegation paid a lengthy visit to Tehran, led by Salih al-Samad, “adviser to the president of the republic and head of the Ansar Allah political council,” the official Saba News Agency, now controlled by the Houthis, reported. The delegation returned to Sanaa with promises of a year’s worth of oil supplies from Iran. [5] Beforehand, in late February, the Houthi-led civil aviation authority signed a deal with Iranian counterparts to inaugurate four daily flights between Tehran and Sanaa. This connection is frequent indeed in a country where domestic routes might be served once a day. The first Iranian flights have already arrived, and on social media Yemenis joke about the masses of “tourists” and “businesspeople” who disembark. But the flirting with Iran, the arch-enemy of Saudi Arabia and most of its GCC fellows, is serious business: Hadi and his foreign sponsors could use it as an excuse to launch a massive military attack upon the Houthis, fulfilling the Fox News fantasy of a proxy war between Saudis and Iran on Yemeni soil. Saudi Arabia seems to be preparing for such a turn, negotiating the release of a consul who had been an al-Qaeda hostage since 2012. [6] Iranian special forces freed an Iranian diplomat held by the same group some time later.

If a total war were to break out between Hadi and the Houthis, southerners would have no difficulty choosing sides. In the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, southerners back the former, despite the historical baggage of repeated Saudi interference in Yemeni affairs. The anti-Shi‘i rhetoric that has become mainstream throughout the Arab world since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq has taken root as well in southern Yemen. More than anything, southerners fear a Houthi takeover of the south.

From that vantage, southerners feel sympathy for Hadi, and for the hirak there is no question who is the legitimate leader of the country. A president who resigned under duress but regained his courage and came back to his home region to reverse himself deserves respect, southerners feel. And so, when young hirakis mounted street protests against Hadi, a senior hirak spokesman, Badr al-Din Hinda, voiced his disapproval. Such protests, he said, could only benefit the forces holding Sanaa. In early March, the hirak made a formal decision to cease its civil disobedience campaign, on the grounds that that there is no government to demonstrate against. The hirak is eager to make a good impression on the GCC and other foreign emissaries who are now present in Aden. At the same time, members of the southern independence movement hope that Hadi will eventually come to the conclusion that separation of the south -- an “Iranian-free zone” -- will promote a peaceful solution for the rest of Yemen, as well. It is noteworthy, given the hirak’s antipathy for corruption in Sanaa, that the movement pays little attention to the Houthis’ dismissals of venal officials and responses to popular demands for water, electricity and public services. Such facts have not dislodged the deep suspicion that southerners feel toward northern highlanders.

In an effort to firm up southern support, Hadi has opened recruitment into the national army to southerners, inviting 20,000 new conscripts. Since the 1994 war, southerners have faced discrimination in recruitment and former southern officers have sat at home collecting a “pension.” This measure pleases many southerners, but others, along with the Houthis, criticize the decision as incitement to open war.

In his first presidential decree after retracting his resignation, Hadi appointed Brig. Gen. Thabit Jawas as commander of the Special Security Forces in Aden replacing the Houthi-allied commander, al-Saqqaf. Jawas became known in 2004 when his troops assassinated current Houthi leader ‘Abd al-Malik al-Houthi’s brother Husayn. The change came a week after Hadi faced a mutiny by soldiers guarding his residence in the city. For hirakis the nomination deepened fears of a Houthi invasion, but Hadi’s own brother, Gen. Nasir Mansour Hadi, who heads political security in Aden, Abyan and Lahij, objected to the decision. It is rumored that Nasir and al-Saqqaf are long-time friends and allies. His brother’s challenge forced Hadi to find a compromise candidate. Meanwhile, al-Saqqaf did not take his removal lying down: It was he who ordered the airstrikes on Hadi’s palace and the attempted seizure of the Aden airport on March 19. Al-Saqqaf turned himself in after the base he occupied was stormed by troops loyal to Hadi. As for Hadi, he was removed to a safe place somewhere in Yemen.

Will History Repeat Itself?

The hirak’s alliance with Hadi notwithstanding, southerners have not given up their own activism. Street-level protests in favor of southern independence continue, and groups called the Popular Committees are engaged in securing territories and public estates for the south. In doing so, they enter into daily confrontations with troops loyal to the Houthis and, many believe, to former president Salih. The Popular Committees were set up along the model developed in Abyan to fight al-Qaeda and its ally Ansar al-Shari‘a in 2011. Since then, the Committees have been on the government payroll, and formally led by president Hadi’s brother Nasir, whose loyalties seem to shift regularly. The Committees are comprised of local men who sign up to provide security in areas now basically devoid of national army protection. In some towns the Committees have also helped to occupy sites of strategic importance, such as the Aden municipality building, the Aden TV building and the Hiswa power station outside the city. The Committees engaged in heavy fighting with al-Saqqaf’s Special Security Forces units at the Aden airport on March 19. Lastly, the Committees, together with local tribes, have effectively closed the former national border between north and south.

For all the hopes placed in Hadi, some southerners dread that history will repeat itself and that Hadi will end up like the leader of the southern separation move in 1994, ‘Ali Salim al-Bid. Al-Bid, too, received political support from northern tribes and political forces during the initial phases of his confrontation with Sanaa, but was later betrayed by the same forces, who then participated in intensified looting of southern land and resources.

In the current scenario, if Aden indeed becomes the national capital of Yemen, the administrative elite of Sanaa that southerners loathe would hardly be content to run a provincial center. These privileged cadres would move to Aden to stage what could be called a final takeover of Aden and the south by the north. In any case, as Aden was left to decay in 1990, reconstructing its infrastructure and services to suit a national capital will take years.

Yemeni politics are never boring, and doubtless there are more dramatic developments to come. One such indication was the devastating March 20 bomb attack on two mosques in Sanaa frequented by Houthis. At least 137 people were killed, according to al-Masira. For the time being, in the wake of the Houthi advance, the four weddings of new or repaired alliances -- Hadi and the hirak, Hadi and Islah, Salih and the Houthis, the Houthis and Iran -- accompany the funeral of the revolutionary vision for a profoundly different future for Yemen, whether presented in the squares of Sanaa or the streets of Aden.


[1] Anne-Linda Amira Augustin, “Chanting for Southern Independence,” Middle East Report 273 (Winter 2014).
[2] See Islah leader Sa‘id al-Amiri’s perspective on the incident in Yemen Times, March 4, 2013.
[3] Aden al-Ghad, February 5, 2015.
[4] Yemen 24, March 15, 2015.
[5] Al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 14, 2015.
[6] Reuters, March 2, 2015.

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