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.