THE LEVANT EXCLUSIVE – By Catherine Shakdam – As Yemen newly appointed Prime Minister Khaled Bahah gets ready to tackle the momentous task of leading a new coalition government at a time of such great political and economic uncertainty, his arrival to the capital, Sana’a has been marred by reports of clashes in between Al Qaeda loyalists and the Houthis.
The Houthis – Zaidi group organized under the leadership of charismatic politician Abdel-Malek Al Houthi – who has worked since late September to reassert government control by cleansing Yemen towns and provinces from the presence of Islamists, in keeping it is crucial to note with President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s wishes, has over the past week been met by increased resistance in central and south Yemen.
Even though Al Islah – a Sunni radical faction which acts an umbrella for the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafi militants and pro-Saudi tribes – stood almost motionless before the Houthis’ advances in the highlands, unable to prevent the group’s takeover of the capital and subsequent political victory against the former government, the faction has since then re-grouped, determined to regain lost ground and reclaim absolute political and institutional control.
Looking at recent developments in the impoverished nation, namely the sudden rise in terror attacks and Al Qaeda related movements across the country, it has been almost impossible to ignore increasingly apparent links in between Al Islah and Al Qaeda; the latter appearing more and more to be the secret military arm of the former.
With this in mind, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s warnings back in 2011 that terror elements had worked their way to the highest offices in the republic under the influence of covert foreign powers – Saudi Arabia and Qatar – have taken an entirely new dimension.
If such allegations were at the time understood as an attempt to cling on to the presidency before increasing popular pressure, it appears now that such heedings carried a deep understanding of Yemen’s inner political dynamics.
The Al Qaeda connection
Now that Yemen’s 2011 revolutionary dust has settled, laying bear some uncomfortable truths as to the real motives of those powers who pushed and engineered what analysts understood at the time as a democratic awakening, Yemenis have realised what hold Al Qaeda truly has over their country and more importantly how deep it is rooted within their institutions.
Looking back at 2011, it is blatantly evident that Yemen uprising has served but one faction – Al Islah and one family in particular – Al Ahmar.
Until recently the most influential tribal and political family in Yemen, Al Ahmar brothers have enjoyed the backing of powerful regional allies in their eternal quest for riches and powers, namely Saudi Arabia.
Just as Riyadh has aided, financed, backed and supported Islamists across the region –Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Iraq — to act as a counter-power to budding democracies in order to control the political and ideological narrative from within and thus assert and protect its hegemonic ambitions, Yemen has lived under the shadows of Al Saud, its republic dwarfed by Riyadh’s political will and petro-dollars.
The very existence of Al Islah, a faction which was founded in 1990 by late Sheikh Abdullah Al Ahmar in reaction to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rise to power, was master-minded by Saudi Arabia as a mean to keep Saleh’s republican aspirations in check.
The most populous nation in the Arabian Peninsula, and potentially a strong regional contender in terms of political and economic traction, should it be allowed to flourish that is, Yemen has always been perceived by Riyadh as a threat to be neutralized, hence Al Saud’s determination to organized manageable chaos within Yemen borders.
As Islamists grew emboldened, radicals’ ideology degenerated into one of terror – Al Qaeda was born and the rest is history really.
Very much the hidden military wing of Al Islah, its hidden agenda one might argue, Al Qaeda was allowed to grow and flourish within Yemen tribal circles, outside the government’s reach and influence while “moderate” Islamists walked the echelon of the political ladder, encroaching themselves on all state institutions.
The Terror Tide
Having torn open the veil which Al Islah pulled on Yemen’s institutions for several decades, the Houthis have now laid bare politicians and tribal leaders’ connections to Al Qaeda, as well as the depth of President Hadi’s inaptitude as the nation’s leader.
Locked in his presidential tower, oblivious to the chaos which is fast spreading across Yemen’s provinces, President Hadi has remained deafeningly silent before the terror surge which has gripped the impoverished nation. Either unable or unwilling, Yemen’s government has utterly failed its people, adding to the degree of urgency of a strong leadership and national cohesion.
So far, Yemen has relied on the Houthis to hold back Al Qaeda.
Interestingly, foreign media have been keen to hold the Houthis’ responsible for Al Qaeda’s insurgency, arguing that if it wasn’t for the Zaidi faction, Yemen would have been allowed to continue on its transition of power.
The fact that Abdel-Malek Al Houthi answered Yemenis’ calls for change and fair political representation suddenly seem to have become irrelevant to the media, so keen have they been to play into the sectarian narrative, reducing Yemenis’ aspirations to religious labelling.
If anything the Houthis have saved Yemen from a terror autocracy by shining a light on internal political and tribal manipulations.
Very much alone, the Houthis have taken on the fight of an entire nation on their shoulders.
Need for Unity
As Yemen stands to lose the very ground the Houthis freed from under Islamists’ boots, Yemenis as a people ultimately will have to choose in between religious prejudice and freedom.
Unless Yemen can prove capable to unite as a people behind the only power which has proved capable and willing to stand for the republic and democratic values, the rowdy nation stands to fall into the abyss of terror, and become yet another dot on the dark army’s map.
Rather than look without for answers and assistance, Yemenis will need to find within themselves the strength to oppose radicalism and fanaticism to emerge a unified nation.
There is a lesson to be learnt from the Houthis –That leadership can never be exclusive and that equality can only exist when all prejudices have been overcome, religious, political and otherwise.
Just as the Houthis have pushed open the door of popular rule, Yemen needs to stand behind its fighters to win its war against terror.