Rival Islamists hold political process hostage

Today we're pleased to present a guest post by Yemeni journalist Mohammed Ali Kalfood. Guest posts do not necessarily reflect the views of the Yemen Peace Project. With the Shiite Houthi movement--apparently allied with former president ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Saleh--taking over the north of Yemen, where Sunni hard-liners are dominant, and a “legitimate” interim president in the south, where al-Qaeda's local offshoot has a strong presence, the UN-led political process in Yemen seems to have been thrown into a long-term “Islamist” rivalry that threatens the stability and security of this most impoverished Arab country.

It’s been more than three years since the process of the peaceful transition of power started in Yemen, one year after the popular uprising burst forth against former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled the country for 33 years.

The transition period has been characterized by fierce rivalries over power and territory, which have culminated in a total breakdown of law and order across Yemen, and the collapse of certain parties and factions that previously wielded significant power. Back in 2012, the Islah party—Yemen’s largest opposition party, which includes the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood—and the General Peoples’ Congress (GPC) party, chaired by Saleh, signed the GCC Initiative in Riyadh, a negotiated settlement backed by the Gulf states and the United States, which saw Saleh step down, handing the reins of government to his vice president, 'Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi, in an interim capacity.

President Hadi, in turn, oversaw the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), an assembly of 565 delegates representing political factions and social groups, in an attempt to formulate a federal system of government and constitution.

But since then, Hadi has continued to face dramatic challenges at the political, economic and security levels. Although the NDC was regionally and internationally cited as a “model,” the post-Saleh period saw sectarian conflict, military assassinations, abduction of foreigners, and acts of sabotage increase in several parts of Yemen.

Moreover, al-Qaeda’s franchise in Yemen –known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) – has carried out the deadliest attacks ever since the group began in 2009 and stationed itself in the south of the country. In fact, it had virtually taken control of the southern Abyan province by March 2011, only a month after the popular uprising got under way.

The rise of the Shiite Houthis as new powerbrokers dominating the north and apparently siding with Saleh, is also believed to be another factor that intensified rivalry with the Sunni al-Qaeda in the south. A recently-passed UN resolution intended to punish Saleh and his Houthi allies.

The Houthis, based in their stronghold in the northern province of Saʻdah, started fighting with Sunni hard-liners in the town of Dammaj early in 2013, as the NDC sessions kicked off in March. Then the Houthis advanced through Amran Province and Arhab District before capturing the capital, Sanʻa, in September of 2014. In November they steered towards Radaʻ in central al-Baydha province to fight al-Qaeda there.

As early as 2010, Sunni al-Qaeda publicly vowed to fight the Shiite Houthis, which it regards as heretics. The Houthis are also viewed as Iranian proxies. Al-Qaeda suicide attacks against the Houthis, however, increased dramatically especially in Rada', where more than a dozen attacks had been reported. The Houthi leader, though, has reiterated in his recent speeches that his group will continue to fight al-Qaeda until “it is crushed or driven out.”

Since 2012, the Islah party’s tribal armed men had battled the Houthis in all fronts when the latter advanced from Saʻdah reaching Amran to Hajjah, Sanʻa, Dhamar and Ibb in the mountainous midlands. Al-Jawf province, east Yemen, has also seen fierce clashes. Now the next bout is brewing in the oil-rich Marib province.

Such rivalry between the Shiite Houthis and the Sunni hard-liners, on one hand, is based on a sectarian ground and, on the other hand, there is a political aspect to it. Islah has lost much of its political power, largely at the hands of the Houthis, and is believed to be supporting the violent groups directly and indirectly to reshuffle cards.

The Islah party reportedly used fighters from al-Qaeda in its battles against the Houthis during the last year. While there had been no statements denying such reports, a Twitter account associated with AQAP announced in mid-December that two leading members, 'Ali al-Haniq and Abu Waleed al-San‘ani, were killed fighting alongside the Islah party’s tribesmen in Arhab district, some 35 km to the north of the capital.

The GCC Initiative was snuffed out by the UN-brokered Peace and National Partnership Agreement (PNPA) on September 21, 2014--the day the Houthi group took control of the capital. Back then, the Houthis imposed themselves as a new powerbroker, and their feud with the Islah party and its figures was intensified. The Houthis started to strengthen their presence politically, and eliminated Islah’s positions in the state institutions, which they believe the party had “encroached” on since 2012.

Since September 2014, interim president Hadi faced immense pressure by this new rising power. After a four-month stand-off, Hadi tendered his letter of resignation. Following Hadi’s resignation, the Houthis dissolved the parliament as they announced a constitutional declaration, intending to form a two-year transitional council to preside over the country.

Meanwhile, Hadi was held under house arrest for several weeks before he fled to the southern port city of Aden and established himself there as the “legitimate” president. However, the Houthis continue to rule by force as they have staged crackdowns and abducted several members of Islah party.

Backed by the GCC states, Hadi designated Riyadh as a “safe” venue to relocate the political negotiations; meanwhile the stalled talks between the Houthis, Saleh’s party, and their opponents--led by UN special envoy Jamal Benomar--have recently resumed in Sanʻa. The envoy tried to talk the involved actors into relocating the talks outside of the capital, but the Houthis and GPC parties along with four other political parties refused this proposal.

Despite the GCC and PNPA deals as well as the NDC outcomes, several local observers believe that ongoing political talks will not succeed outside of the country since it’s been over three years now and the involved parties in the capital have not yet come to real peaceful and power-sharing terms.