THE LEVANT – Is A showdown brewing in Yemen? On August 17th the Houthis, a Shia rebel group based in northern Yemen, issued an ultimatum to the government in Sana’a. Yemen’s president, they said, had five days to cut fuel prices and dissolve the government—or face a rerun of the 2011 revolution that unseated his predecessor.
What’s cooking in Yemen
The Houthis have long been unhappy about being ruled by central authorities in Sana’a and accuse the current government of being ineffective. But their demands for change have grown louder since they helped Yemen’s security forces to rout tribal and Islamist militias, as well as a rogue unit of the army, from Amran province in July.
Appearing on the Houthis’ Al Masira television channel, Abdelmalek al-Houthi, the Houthis’ leader, demanded that President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi reverse a decision taken in July to remove subsidies, which hit Yemen’s poor, who amount to a half of the population. Second, he demanded the president dissolve the country’s “corrupt” government in favour of a more representative body. Mr Houthi wants cabinet posts to be divvied up between Yemen’s various groups in the same proportions as representation at Yemen’s National Dialogue, a ten-month series of peace talks that ended in January. Houthi representatives made up 6% of attendees.
Mr Houthi threatens to take “measures” if their demands are not met by August 22nd—likely a campaign of civil disobedience such as sit-ins in front of government buildings in Sana’a. In a first demonstration of the group’s ability to mobilise unhappy Yemenis, on August 18th at least 10,000 people flooded into Sana’a’s “Change Square”, a central square that was set up as a protest camp during the 2011 uprising that ousted the former president, Ali Abdullah al-Saleh. “We need a government of technocrats, for the people,” says Hamid Abdullah Hindawn, 50, a supporter from Sana’a.
The Houthis’ sentiment is widely shared by many Yemenis, who see the current government as weak, corrupt and ineffective. But they are less keen to drag the already fragile country into conflict. Many fear Mr Houthi is willing to bring the fight to Sana’a if he does not get what he wants. A spokesman for the group says the Houthis are peaceful, but that they will fight back if the government attempts to disperse them with force.
Government officials accuse Mr Houthi of trying to capitalise on successes in Amran. Islah, the country’s main Sunni Islamist party which is part of the coalition government, is especially disgruntled. Party members have long argued that the Houthis plan on taking control of Sana’a, and Islah will lose influence if cabinet positions are redistributed as Mr Houthi demands.
Mr Hadi will have to cut deals in Sana’a. “They [the Houthis] have numbers obviously and there is strong sentiment on the streets that we need the reshuffle,” says a government official. After almost a decade as the underdogs in a battle with the government, Mr Houthi’s movement is in the ascendant. But he may also learn the hard way that military gains do not always translate into political power.