Yemen's Legitimacy Crisis is not New but is Critical

By Sama’a al-Hamdani Published on Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 3 March, 2015

On February 21, Yemen’s President Abd-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, escaped the Houthi-mandated house arrest and successfully fled to the southern city of Aden. A few hours later, al-Jazeera television broadcast a statement by the then resigned president. At the end of the statement, Hadi signed his name, “Abd-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, President of the Republic of Yemen”. It strongly suggested he had withdrawn his resignation. 

So Yemen is now left arguably with two former presidents (Hadi and Ali Abdullah Saleh), a hugely powerful rebel militia leader (Abdulmalik al-Houthi), several secessionist movements (a couple of Southern Hiraks, a Marib Hirak and a Tihaman Hirak), UN-backed transitional committees, and two transitional agreements (The Gulf-Cooperation Council (GCC) transitional deal of 2011 and The Peace and Partnership Agreement of 2014). In this confusion what, or rather, who, has legitimacy?

The question of legitimacy has become a focal point of Yemeni politics even though the country suffered from a legitimacy crisis long ago. Many argue legitimacy in favor of Hadi derived from the GCC agreement and other legal mandates. However, political legitimacy, as per philosopher John Locke, is not about legality but rather derives from “the consent of those who are governed”. Legitimacy is about who is recognized and accepted by the people as “right” or “proper” to rule. With several key players on the ground, Hadi may be the legal ruler of Yemen but it does not necessarily mean he is the legitimate one.

A decades-old problem

There are several modes of political legitimacy and arguably Yemen has suffered from a legitimacy crisis since 1962 in the North and 1967 in the South. Those newly formed independent states failed to continue traditional modes of governance whether these were imamates, sultanates, or distorted forms of tribalism. Saleh ruled the north of Yemen and then a united Yemen for 33 years under the pretext of democracy and constitutional legitimacy. In reality, Saleh’s sphere of influence was always city-centric and his mode of governance was a unique concoction of autocracy, theocracy, tribalism and oligarchy.

Saleh’s charismatic ability as a leader granted him elite-centered legitimacy. With him out of power in 2011, the system he devised struggled. A transition mediated by the GCC elevated Saleh’s deputy, Hadi, as Yemen’s new president subsequent to a one-man election. The newly formed National Unity Government, containing ministers from different political parties, was given an opportunity to gain public trust and to establish rule of law.

Meanwhile, the international community alongside the country’s elites devised a transitional plan to be executed over two years. The country held a National Dialogue Conference (NDC), from March 2013 to January 2014, in hopes of drafting a new constitution and establishing civil authority. Meanwhile, the government was meant to continue its functions under the scrutiny of the parliament, the Supreme National Authority for Combating Corruption (SNACC), the Court of Public Funds, and the Central Organization for Control and Auditing (COCA). In theory, it seemed foolproof.

The reality was that the NDC derived its authority from a pool of new post-revolution-elites and from external powers, i.e. the international community. In practice, the NDC was sheltered and Hadi’s government struggled to provide basic services to the public. His reign witnessed the collapse of several public institutions, including the military and justice system. Moreover, the checks-and-balances put in place failed to function. The parliament, elected in 2003, was no longer legal nor legitimate, and SNACC’s latest appointments were ruled unconstitutional for failing to meet the basic criteria of appointments. Bodies, like COCA, didn’t work for the people but benefitted instead the individuals responsible for appointing their boards.

Transitional decay

Taking advantage of the government’s decay, Houthi rebels took over the capital Sanaa in September 2014 and within days, they signed a Peace and Partnership Agreement with Hadi and members of opposition parties. In January, the month-old government and Hadi resigned, only to be kept under house arrest. Meanwhile, the Houthis, who originally derived their legitimacy from spiritual authority – from being Aal-al-Bayt, “people of the house” or members of the family of the Prophet Muhammad – decide to speak in the name of the Yemeni people, claiming their legitimacy is “revolutionary” now.

But Yemenis do not believe the Houthis (or Hadi’s government) have the “right to rule” all of Yemen. Indeed, the political elites have lost touch with the people. At their weakest, they rarely speak of elections and are quick to rush into settlements that function merely as a palliative to Yemen’s legitimacy problems.

Since 2011, the weak performance of the government forced Yemenis to search for other modes of protection. Disengagement between the ruling elites and those who are ruled resulted in the proliferation of micro-identities, a return to unconventional tribalism, and a pursuit of other forms of governance; each movement deriving its legitimacy from local adherents. There is a general sense of disintegration and the ground is fertile for conflict.

Political alliances working towards the creation of a pluralistic civil state is the only path towards peace and good governance. Holding fair transparent elections is necessary in order to move forward in hopes of creating a relationship between the rulers and those who are ruled. The answer is to give power to the people. Only then can they give legitimacy to their rulers.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

Lessons In Yemeni Machiavellianism

February 20, 2015 originally published on Fikra Forum 

Last September, a rebel militia known as the Houthis successfully captured large portions of Yemen’s north and its capital, Sana. A few months later, in January 2015, President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi and his government resigned following clashes with the Houthis. By February 10, diplomatic missions in Sana’a had evacuated the country to protest the “illegitimate Houthi takeover.” Overnight, the Houthis became Yemen’s new rulers, but very little was known about them. 

The enigmatic Houthi movement transformed from a Zaydi revivalist group in the early 1990s, to a rebel movement in the mid-1990s, to an enemy warring against the Yemeni state in the early 2000s. Following the revolution in 2011, the Houthis secured 33 seats in the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), because they had significant local influence and were considered victims of the former regime. The Houthis were granted a specialized committee in the NDC solidifying them as an influential political player. However, as soon as the dialogue concluded, the Houthis lost faith in the internationally backed political transition. Since then, the Houthis – led by Abdul-Malik al-Houthi – have employed Machiavellian tactics to gain influence in Yemen, taking advantage of the dismal performance of Hadi’s National Unity Government to seize territory and power. 

In September 2014 Hadi lifted fuel subsidies, which angered much of the Yemeni population and provided an opening for the Houthis. Cleverly, the Houthis sided with the people against the government; thereafter, within six days, they seized the capital. Months later, on February 11, they mobilized mass protests to overshadow any activities by the opposition. It is likely that a Houthi-led protest will take place on March 18, the anniversary of the “Friday of Dignity,” during which 56 protestors were killed in 2011. By hijacking public rallies, the Houthis aim to silence the opposition and, in this specific case, avoid criticism by the Gulf Cooperation Council and the United Nations Security Council.

Since the start of Yemen’s transition, the Houthis have proven to be nothing but duplicitous. After actively participating in Yemen’s transition, they quickly abandoned it. Even during the last few months of the dialogue, they engaged in bloody battles against Salafist groups in Saada governorate. Shortly after, a round of retaliatory assassinations broke out between the Islamist Islah Party and Houthis, displaying their lack of faith in a peaceful path forward for Yemen. All the while, the Houthis continued to participate actively in the NDC. 

Until 2012, the Houthi’s mortal enemy was former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. But when their interests aligned, the Houthis allied with Saleh’s forces, who still controlled a significant number of the security apparatus, in order to capture Sana and curb the influence of their shared enemies. The Houthis dub their enemies “terrorists” and “extremists.” and they so happens to reside in the oil-rich Hadramawt and Marib governorates. The Houthi leader has accused them of “trying to occupy the country and take over its resources.”

After the capture of Sana, popular committees largely composed of Houthi allies were created to “protect the Yemeni people and maintain security.” These committees monitored the movements of Houthi opponents, occupied government buildings, and kept members of the government, including Hadi himself, under house arrest. Shortly after moving into Sana, several youth and opposition movements took to the streets to protest. The Houthis responded swiftly by unlawfully detaining and torturing several demonstrators, including Fouad al-Hamdani and Saleh al-Beshry, the latter of which died as a result. Moreover, the Houthis are censoring the media. Al-Shoumou’ andAkhbar al-Youm newspapers have been shut down, as has Suhail TV channel, the national television network, and state radio. They also took control of state-run outlets, like al-Thawra newspaper. Simultaneously, the Houthis are spreading propaganda on their own television network, al-Masirah, and coerced other channels to broadcast their speeches.

But while Machiavellian tactics may have helped the Houthis attain power, they simply do not have the skills necessary to govern single-handedly. They have not issued an economic recovery plan, even though they stipulated the need for a committee to focus on the economy in the Peace and Partnership Agreement, which they signed with Hadi's government in September 2014. And while the Houthis are keen to name their opponents, they carefully conceal any political intentions. The Supreme Revolutionary Committee, a Houthi transitional body, is composed of an undisclosed number of members. 

The Houthis now face two ex-presidents jockeying for power, a burgeoning secessionist movement, sporadic attacks by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, well-financed anti-Houthi proxies, and a failed economy. In the face of these challenges, they will likely falter.

Sama’a Al-Hamdani is a Yemen analyst and the founder of the blog Yemeniaty. You can follow her on Twitter @Yemeniaty.