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What’s behind Yemen’s recent political turmoil

The resignation of Yemen’s government in late January 2015, after President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and Prime Minister Khaled Bahah (both from the south), as well as cabinet members, were held under house arrest by northern Houthi rebel forces, has led the United States and several other countries to close their embassies in the capital Sanaa. On Feb. 15, the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution demanding that Houthi forces “immediately and unconditionally” relinquish control of government institutions and release the president and other government officials. Nearly a week later, on Feb. 21, Hadi and his family managed to flee Sanaa to the southern port city Aden, where he reclaimed his post as president and denounced the “Houthi coup.”

These developments in Yemen pose a serious threat to hopes for political stability inside the country and in the wider region, but not for the reasons popularly assumed. The recent turmoil should not be understood as an Iranian-backed coup or part of the Islamic State’s spread in the region. These are broader narratives in the Middle East that have little to do with Yemeni realities. The Houthi movement’s actions follow a familiar dynamic in Yemeni politics, which closely matches those described in my 2012 book “Regionalism and Rebellion in Yemen.”

Yemen is a poor, internally divided country, where influential leaders from different regions of the country (mainly, but not entirely, tribal) have long competed for control of scarce valuable resources like oil and gas, seaports and state revenue drawn from other sources. Local power brokers have long contested control over resources within a nominally unified state. Following the formal unification of Yemen in 1990, multiple regional divisions undermined its national unity. Thus the crises today reflect problems that predate contemporary concerns about al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and expanding Iranian influence. After all, Hadi is not the first southern leader to flee Sanaa for relative safety in Aden: In late 1993, then-Vice President Ali Salim el-Beidh did exactly the same shortly before the next year’s civil war.

The current crisis is once again rooted in contestation of the balance between multiple local and regional powers. The primary reason for the recent political collapse in Sanaa was not Iranian grand ambition, but rather the Houthi leadership’s rejection of a new draft constitution derived from outcomes of a year-long National Dialogue Conference (NDC). The NDC, sponsored by the United Nations between 2013 and 2014, recommended the formation of a six-region federal state in order to better manage Yemen’s complex divisions. Similar recommendations were put forward during national dialogue conferences before the 1994 civil war, when a federal-style devolution of power may have avoided conflict.

The recently proposed federal state solution threatened the Houthis’ core interests for reasons that are familiar. In Yemen, the core problem has always been that powerful tribal groups in the highland mountains around Sanaa have few economic resources at home, so they seek to control relatively valuable resources in outlying regions. This is true of Houthi leaders and their tribal supporters today, just as it was true of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and his tribal supporters in the 1990s. That may help to explain why Houthi leaders have reportedly been working in coordination with Saleh to advance shared interests against individuals from other regions like Hadi, who comes from an area east of Aden in the southern province of Abyan. Houthi leaders and Saleh fear being restricted inside the NDC-designated region “al-Azal,” which includes Sanaa, but is land-locked, while being surrounded by “Tihama” region and its Red Sea ports to the west; “al-Saba” region and oil-rich Marib in the interior desert to the east; “al-Janad” and “Aden” regions with more prosperous agricultural and industrial lands to the south; and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the north. It is an open question if the Houthi alliance with Saleh will outlast the coming year, just as it is unclear how many outlying regions (including the resource-rich eastern region of “Hadhramaut”) one or both will control.

The Houthi seizure of power has a much longer history than is recognized by narratives that depend on the so-called Arab Spring or on Iranian grand ambitions. Since 2011, Yemen’s political transition has typically been viewed as part of the rebellions known as the “Arab Spring,” beginning in Tunisia, then Egypt and later Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. Yet among these six “Arab Spring” states, Yemen was the only one considered a “failed state” prior to 2011. The possible overthrow of old sclerotic regimes may have come as great surprise elsewhere, but in Yemen it was fully expected as early as 2009. By this time, Houthi fighters had already waged five years of armed rebellion north of Sanaa, while hundreds of thousands of southern street demonstrators known as “Hirak” had engaged in daily peaceful protests for more than two years. Prior to the Arab Spring in January 2010, the United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia and other Western and regional states formed an association called “The Friends of Yemen” to guide Yemen through very troubled waters. While the agenda steering Yemen’s current transition originated in 2011 (known as the Gulf Cooperation Council agreement), the underlying problems it addresses stretch as far back as 1990, when Yemenis grappled with the presence of multiple regional divisions during the national unification process.

It is necessary to dispel the idea that the Houthi rebel movement is an Iranian proxy, aiming to establish “rule of the Ayatollahs” on the tip of the Arabian peninsula while extending the “Shiite crescent” along Saudi Arabia’s southern border. Iran may provide funding, economic and military supplies, advice and training to Houthi leaders, who have adopted some slogans of Iran’s revolution. Yet Yemeni Shiites are not the Twelver Shiites closest to Iran in southern Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Rather they are Fiver (Zaydi) Shiites, who differ from northern Shiite in significant ways – not the least of which is that Zaydi do not own a history of animosity toward Sunnis. Thus, in the future, the Houthi political organization, Ansar Allah, is unlikely to resemble Hezbollah of Lebanon, fighting battles on behalf of sectarian interests in neighboring countries. There is a possibility that, if the Houthis retain power in Sanaa and use military force in coming months to expand their control, then the resulting conflicts could radically change the character of sectarian relations in Yemen. This has not yet happened, and it is far from inevitable because Yemeni tribes have strong traditions of conflict resolution. Yet every effort should be made to avoid fomenting the sectarianism seen in Iraq and Syria.

In addition to tribal peace-keeping traditions, another factor limiting the spread of sectarian conflict is that Houthis are one of many regional actors trying to secure their interests within Yemen’s decentralized system. As a result, Houthi leaders must be wary of upsetting complex regional balances in the country, and possibly becoming overextended, if they pursue military operations far from their home base in the mountains, and end up fighting more than one enemy at a time. The greatest regional opposition to the Houthi is southern Hirak, which since 2009 has sought a return of southern independence. Hirak remains divided with multiple leaders, yet the movement has been strengthened by the Houthi seizure of power in Sanaa and Hadi’s escape to Aden. The latter appears to confirm Hirak’s position that southern interests are best served by breaking ties with Sanaa. For Houthi leaders, there is a risk that their actions in 2015 will be blamed for the failure of Yemeni unity. Moreover, the Houthis can not afford to lose access to energy resources in the south, which hold the most promise for Yemen’s future economy.

Today’s crisis reflects the same unsolved problems of the past and is unlikely to be resolved through policies that defy those long-established dynamics. Thousands of years of Yemeni history tell of multiple local authorities governing different regions of the country. Until now, Hadi has favored the NDC six-region federal plan as the best way to move the country forward. Before he and other southern leaders change their minds, Houthi leaders would be wise to embrace some form of federalism in Yemen.

Stephen W. Day (@DaySWTweet) is a professorial lecturer at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla. He is the author of “Regionalism and Rebellion in Yemen” (Cambridge University Press, 2012).