De Facto Authorities in Yemen

n his book The Army and Political Power in the Arab Context: Theoretical Problems, Azmi Bishara discusses Arab politics through the lense of the region's historical context . The writer examines these problems in the context of several Arab countries, including Yemen. Where he analyzes the relationship between society, the military and politics. His analysis is the basis for this examination of the de facto authorities that currently control Yemen.

In Yemen, as in most Arab countries, there is no clear separation of powers  between the military and civilian government. The army will often act to preserve the integrity of the de facto authority, as this authority allows the military to exert greater influence over civilian politics. In doing so however, the army often finds itself acting as a repressive force against the wider population.

Consistent with this idea are the many active rebel groups that operate  throughout Yemen, each united by a distinct socio-political motive. These groups have become de facto authorities, by virtue of their desire to defend their existence and power. To this end, many rebel alliances have been borne of necessity, not ideological alignment. This sets the stage for continued conflict between these rebel groups after their conflicts with external enemies are resolved. The ideological ground may be based on regional or class ideology such as Houthis and Saleh, who represents the tribes of the northern and central highlands in Yemen; al-Hirak, the Southern tribes; and Hadhramawt in southern Yemen, each of which expresses an issue or grievance. However, the ideology of political interests, or “political parties” are of more significance, as in the General People’s Congress (GPC), Islah, and Socialist parties, which include members of all stripes.

Revolution, coup, and regular army

By nature, politics has authority. Both the revolution and the military coup illustrate this point. The army has always played a prominent role in shaping political processes and social change in Yemen. Army commanders were involved in supporting and perpetuating the wave of peaceful protest in  2011. The intervention of Gen. Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmar’s was framed as a strategic positioning to protect peaceful protesters in Change Square at the University of San’a. After this intervention, the peaceful revolution devolved into a military conflict between the Republican Guard of Ali Saleh and the First Armored Division of Ali Mohsen. The youth revolution deviated from its popular and peaceful course and turned into a military coup overnight. But this conflict concealed the fact that both Saleh and Ali Mohsen had counterrevolutionary goals, and sought to undermine the Youth’s revolution.

The intervention of the First Armored Division was an attempt to seize the gains of the political revolution, allowing its generals and commanders to take advantage of the subsequent power vacuum and assert their power at the top of the political pyramid. The conflict between the Republican Guard and the First Armored Division was a struggle for power. This was the point of contention between the regular army generals.

Yemen, like other Arab countries, faces a challenge; Society is dominated and influenced by the will of a professional army. These professionals excel in the use of the army to defend their interests and by extension their power. By definition, there is no army far from political power in the Arab world. However, the army’s aspirations to practice political power through wielding, seizing or sharing it, is the opposite of democratic reality in developed countries; but the basis of reality in the Arab countries and Yemen, specifically.

The civil state illusion

The role of the military reflects the failure of the State's institutions in third world countries and the inability of the society to maintain its unity through dialectical interaction with the State’s institutions. The Arab States, and Yemen in particular, are characterized by weak national cohesion, which is not embodied by social cohesion. Instead the army represents the sociopolitical embodiment of the State. Therefore, any movement or political activity in the country against the ruling elite could result in instability, which can in turn be contained by several forms of repression, including the mobilization rural people to suppress political dissent in cities. This was done by Ali Saleh when he called tribesmen to San’a to serve as an alternative army with the purpose of  containing the ongoing revolution and coup. Such a strategy is not without risk however: if the countryside turns against the regime, the regime will face a full blown revolution rather than social instability. This is what the Houthi leadership claimed to do by launching a hungry revolution that came from Airport Road. The Houthis’ demands, when they were first declared in their “revolution,” were not consistent with the demands of the youth revolution of 2011, which called for “a civil state and a state of institutions.” The demands of the youth revolution represented the demands of the optimistic albeit deluded civil society, the dream of a civil state and the elimination of the military state. In contrast, the Houthi revolution came under the banner of the “hungry revolution” against the lifting of subsidies on oil derivatives, not for the sake of real political change. An attempt to take full control of the government and restore the Imamate that was toppled in the September 26 revolution in 1962. The desire to restore the Imamate has been demonstrated by the use of titles such as “Prince” among the youth of the Hashemites.

It is very interesting to compare between the two revolutions, 2011 and 2014. One thing to mention is the slogans and popular songs which have been used to mobilize youth to join the revolution. In 2011, modern music and songs spread among youth in cities; while 2014, the Houthis used rural music styles such as the zamal. The Hadi government also used rural music, the shilah, to mobilize youth to join the legitimacy.

 The army has always been a means of socioeconomic advancement in the rural communities. To this end, Saleh worked to attract the sheikhs and distribute army posts as quotas to the tribes in accordance to their loyalty, in order to ensure his personal control of the State military. The army was not the only viable means of tightening his control over the state. Saleh moved to strengthen social ties through political marriages that united interests between factions. The involvement of the sheikhs in the army is an inevitable consequence of their deviation from their status and role, which is determined by their traditional structure away from state and political arena. This political and social alliance formed the nucleus of the ruling elite, which became a fraternity of comrades in arms, the emerging link between officers of the same units, military colleges, and family connections formed narrow allegiances and interests, which became a tool that could be easily mobilized and directed.

Militarization and Roots:

Throughout his tenure in Yemen, Saleh worked to join political leaders and sheikhs into a cohesive army, one which can not in any way be described as “national,” by strengthening social, political and economic interests and ensuring that they remain in the hands of the elite. There is a belief of the failure of the military melting pot and the emergence of such “pre-patriotic” loyalties among officers. However, it is more accurate to say that the emergence of the new loyalties that are related to social, regional and sectarian roots, was caused by a desire to assume power, and as a result of the failure to establish a solid “national” body. These grievances were further amplified by Saleh’s intentional exclusion of most of Yemen’s tribes and minorities, thus triggering the current fragmentation of the various militant groups.

Classification of de facto authorities and armed groups:

Two years of brutal and consistent fighting in Ta’iz Governorate has created multiple paramilitary groups within the governorate. The subsequent power vacuum in Ta’iz has allowed extremist groups to take control of certain neighborhoods in the city, though much of the northern areas of Ta’iz Governorate and some of the northern neighborhoods of the city remain under the control of the Houthis and Saleh forces. Houthi-Saleh forces are also engaged in battles in the districts bordering the Red Sea coast against the national army. It is worth mentioning that the so-called popular resistance, or  pro-national army, made up of several factions: salafi fighters control the large neighborhoods in the center and north of Ta’iz city. They are also fighting against Houthi and Saleh forces in some western districts. Islah Party militias controls neighborhoods in eastern Ta'iz city and some rural areas in the south of the governorate. Small local armed groups dominate areas in Saber Mountain. The national army controls some neighborhoods in the south and the north of the city, dominating some districts in the southwest of the governorate. The national army, with the support of UAE forces, exerts absolute control over the coastal cities. Reports of human rights violations by extremist groups indicate the presence of extremist groups--Ansar al-Shari’ah in particular--in the city.

In the Southern Governorates, despite the end of large scale military engagement, the general political scene is still uncertain, especially the distribution of armed forces and groups in the south. Recent events have revealed that not all forces in southern areas are subject to President Hadi's authority. The de facto authorities could be classified into three factions, the Southern Resistance, including the UAE-sponsored Security Belt force; the national Army; and various extremist groups. The Southern Resistance controls a wide geographical sectors in the southern regions, especially in al-Dhali’ and Lahj governorates. The Southern Resistance has received a lot of support from the coalition forces, specifically the UAE forces. As a result, the Southern Resistance has become the closest to a regular army. While in Aden, the southern resistance was enabled to control the security apparatus, which control three districts in Aden city (Mu’ala, al-Tawahi, and Crater). The "Security Belt" is a predominantly made up of Salafist groups  that were formed by coalition forces to reinforce their dominance in the southern regions. It controls the districts of al-Mansurah, Sheikh Othman, and al-Burayqah. The Militia also deployed as a military brigade at the southern entrance of Aden governorate and towards Abyan governorate. Presidential Guard brigades (National Army) are military forces under the leadership of President Hadi; they control the Sirah area, where the Presidential Palace is located. The National Army currently controls the eastern part of the city of Aden and the road leading to the airport and to Solban military camp. Finally, terrorist and extremist groups control various areas of Abyan, Hadhramawt, and Shabwah governorates. These militant groups appear to be in open war against local communities and legitimate authorities.

In Marib and al-Jawf, National Army and Popular Resistance forces have taken the control over most districts. However, it is important to note that each faction derives their legitimacy from differing groups. The National Army is subject entirely to President Hadi and his government in these governorates; whereas the Popular Resistance is linked to local authority leaders and to some sheikhs who are loyal to the legitimate authority and the coalition forces.