US-Saudi Rejection Be Damned: Houthis Take Control of Yemen Without Seizing Power

by Joy Slim, Al-Akhbar English

The Houthis’ first step toward governing Yemen seems like a necessary option imposed on Ansarullah due to the failure of Yemeni parties, following days of intensive talks, to reach a solution to the political crisis and fill the power vacuum created by the resignation of the president and his government under external pressure.

After months of gaining ground throughout Yemen’s provinces, Ansarullah (the Houthis) has translated its progress into clear political gains. The Houthis have now taken control of the government, yet without assuming power themselves, and will oversee a two-year transitional phase through a “constitutional declaration.” The declaration was made in a large ceremony at the Yemeni presidential palace.

Many will no doubt describe what happened as a coup. However, events from the past few weeks show that the group’s activities are geared towards consolidating its new position in Yemen on the basis of partnership. The vacuum left by the resignation of the president and government put pressure on the Houthis, drawing it into the chaos, at a time when internal forces are preparing to engage in an armed conflict with the group.

Ansar Allah seems to have understood this as a plot. The group waited for the results of the UN-brokered dialogue between the political parties, intended to reach a solution and save the country from the vacuum. The Houthis gave them three days to put pressure on the negotiators. However, certain forces, led by the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated al-Islah Party, responded to Houthi pressure with further stalling and diffidence, insisting on leaving the country in a state of complete paralysis.

It was therefore crucial to settle the matter decisively. On Friday afternoon, the Revolutionary Committee of Ansarullah issued a constitutional declaration, organizing the transitional phase in Yemen following a two-week power vacuum.

The declaration dissolves parliament and forms a transitional national council consisting of 551 members that will replace parliament and include elements not represented in it. The national council elects a presidential council consisting of five members who will take over the president’s powers, to be confirmed by the Revolutionary Committee headed by Mohammed Ali al-Houthi. The national council will also form a transitional government of national competencies. Furthermore, subsidiary revolutionary committees will be formed for all Yemeni governorates.

The declaration and the above-mentioned measures have two important implications: First, they have set a period of a maximum of two years to complete the requirements of the transitional phase based on the reference frames of the national dialogue and the Peace and Partnership Agreement. However, there was no mention of the Gulf initiative, which means the previous transitional process has been shelved — along with the era of US-Saudi domination of the Yemeni government.

Second, the declaration outlines the features of Yemen’s foreign policy, based on commitment to the “principle of good neighborliness, non-interference in internal affairs, and pursuing peaceful means to resolve disputes.”

Questions about the timing

Ever since Ansarullah took over the Yemeni capital Sanaa, many had questions about the Houthis’ ultimate goals. Their advances on the field without significant resistance were remarkable in both their extent and their speed. There were also questions about why the Houthis had refrained from seizing power despite having the ability to do so.

Under the name of Popular Committees, they advanced to the province of Imran in the north all the way to Sanaa, Hudaydah, al-Baidaa, and Ibb, where they remain engaged in battle with al-Qaeda. The Houthis were able to push back the Ahmar clan, and reduce the influence of the Islah Party.

Yet the Houthis contented themselves at first with signing a Peace and Partnership Agreement with the Yemeni presidency. They did not ask for more than “respect” for their new position in Yemen, after decades of persecution, discrimination and war. But the state that emerged after the Gulf initiative viewed the Houthis as being too demanding, and continued to pursue the same hegemonic policies.

The regional implication of the Houthis’ move on Friday could be one of their most important achievements. For the Houthis to rule Yemen is no simple development. This is the first time since the fall of the state of South Yemen in 1991 that an anti-Saudi force has been able to rise to power in this manner, in a country seen as Saudi’s underbelly. In addition, Yemen has a great security and strategic value, not least because it controls the strategic Strait of Bab al-Mandeb.

Many questions have been raised by the new Houthi era. First of all, how will Saudi and other sponsors of the Gulf initiative respond to the constitutional declaration? Recall that there are indications of contacts between Riyadh and the group, in what seems to be a Saudi “surrender” to the reality imposed by the Houthis in Yemen, and a Saudi decision to deal with this pragmatically to secure some gains especially in relation to southern Yemen, where the kingdom seems to support secession.

Second, how will the US administration deal with the developments in Yemen? On Friday, the US announced its rejection of the Houthi move to dissolve parliament. The Houthis — whose slogans include “Death to America” — are set to rule the country, which until recently was one of Washington’s leading regional allies in the “war on terror.”

Domestically, many challenges await the Houthis in the two-year transitional phase. Reactions to the developments inside Yemen began to emerge last night with the Marib tribes announcing they would take up arms, and refused to “submit to the Houthis.”

This was a predicted outcome. Other internal forces will oppose Houthi control of the government by intensifying the battle on some of the fronts the group is fighting, either through al-Qaeda or other takfiri groups, especially in the oil-rich province of Marib.

In any case, the Houthis have managed to complete their “revolutionary mobilization,” upon realizing that foreign and domestic forces do not want them as partners in power. The movement, which began in the summer of 2014, has written the closing chapters of the Gulf domination of Yemen, culminating with the constitutional declaration yesterday, which ushers in a new era. Pending the implications of the international and regional responses, the coming period will no doubt be difficult for Yemen and its people, especially if these responses are violent and resort to armed conflict to exact revenge against the Houthis.

Revolutionary Committee headed by a former detainee

Mohammed Ali al-Houthi is the chairman of the Ansarullah Supreme Revolutionary Council, which will supervise the transitional phase and the country as a whole during that period. Houthi was born in 1979 in Saada, the Houthi stronghold. He is one of group’s most prominent leaders, and was known for his political activities during the February Revolution in 2011, overseeing protests and sit-ins.

Houthi was detained for four years by the political security service of Ansarullah. He was also detained in Jordan before he was deported to Yemen in 2002, for promoting slogans like “Death to America… Death to Israel… Curse the Jews… and Victory for Islam,” before the war between the Yemeni government and the Houthis.

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