Al-Houthi Lays Down the Law

The ceasefire agreed yesterday between President Hadi and Huthi Popular Committees was quickly shown to be a dead letter, as intermittent clashes began again on Tuesday. By the evening, Huthi forces had the presidential palace, President Hadi's residence, and the military camp overlooking the palace all surrounded, and had cut off all roads leading into the area, according to reports. On Tuesday night, 'Abd al-Malik al-Huthi, the leader of the movement, gave a lengthy televised speech in which he accused President Hadi and his inner circle of betraying the Yemeni people, and threatened further escalation if the president fails to meet four demands. Al-Huthi's demands are:

  1. The restructuring of the body established to monitor the implementation of the National Dialogue Conference outcomes (which makes sense, given that the Huthis are still holding former NDC Secretary General Ahmad Awad bin Mubarak, whom they kidnapped on Saturday);
  2. The revision of the new constitution (al-Huthi wasn't specific about what revisions he wants to see, but much of his speech focused on the idea that the proposed scheme of six federated regions was an assault on Yemen's unity);
  3. The full implementation of the Peace and National Partnership Agreement (PNPA), the accord signed by all parties after the Huthis drove Islah-affiliated military units out of San'a in September, and established de facto control over the city;
  4. Resolution of the security situation in Marib Governorate. This is arguably the most important of the four.

You can hear al-Huthi's ultimatum in his own words below (Arabic). You can also read Hisham al-Omeisy's archived live-tweeting of the speech (in English) here. Given the abandon with which observers have thrown around words like "coup" and "overthrow" this week, it's important to note that al-Huthi did not frame his actions in such terms, nor did he explicitly state any intention to remove President Hadi by force. He did, however, refer to "options" which would be pursued if the above demands are not met.

The first and third demands, concerning the NDC and PNPA, seem a bit silly at this point. Though al-Huthi made a big deal in this speech about adhering to the NDC outcomes and the PNPA, he also made it clear that his movement is above the law, and will not be bound by any of its prior agreements. The Huthis viewed the PNPA, despite its actual wording, as a formal surrender of the capital by the president and the Islah party leadership. The PNPA will never be fully implemented, because the Huthis will not implement their side of the agreement, which involves demilitarization.

The redrafting of the constitution is arguably more important. The Huthis see the six-region federal scheme as an attempt to limit their power to the landlocked north-central highlands (Azal Region), though I don't really think they need to worry about that anymore. Ansar Allah has established an armed presence in at least four of the six proposed federal regions already, so continued whining about this aspect of the constitution might be a bit of a smokescreen. It can also be seen as an overture toward the Southern Movement, which seeks a single southern unit, rather than a south divided between Aden and Hadhramawt.

The demand that President Hadi resolve the security situation in Marib--where, to summarize the events of the past four years, tribesmen hostile to the government routinely cut off the supply of electricity and fuel to the capital--is very interesting. Huthis and Huthi-watchers have been talking about a possible assault on Marib since September, and today's speech makes that eventuality more likely. The Huthis have fought their various adversaries (many of which have some degree of connection to the Islah party or to AQAP) on fronts all over the western part of Yemen already. Marib is the next logical battlefield. As for today's demand, it should be obvious even to casual observers that President Hadi is utterly incapable of meeting it. The president controls very little of Yemen's military (i.e. the continigent of Presidential Guards that failed to hold their tiny bailiwick in southern San'a this week), and a war in Marib would leave the army in tatters. It would seem that al-Huthi's demand can instead be read as a threat that his own forces plan to move into Marib very soon, and they want the military's support (or at least acquiescence) when they do. As weak as it is, the state's military does have a few things the Huthis don't, like an air force, and access to American aerial surveillance assets. Whether or not the Huthis can really afford such a campaign and still hold on to San'a remains to be seen. Their recent campaign to "wipe out" AQAP certainly hasn't gone as well as they'd hoped.

If 'Abd al-Malik is to be trusted, his actions this week were not a coup, but a warning to the president. We'll have to wait and see how many more warnings Mr. Hadi is afforded.