The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How war is changing Yemen’s largest Islamist coalition

A person inspects a destroyed house after an alleged Saudi-led airstrike hit a funeral reception on the northern outskirts of Sanaa, Yemen, on Feb. 16. (Yahya Arhab/European Pressphoto Agency)
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Two years ago, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen after the collapse of the political transition it had spearheaded. The intervention, which followed the Houthi insurgents’ seizure of the capital and displacement of the transitional government, has produced massive humanitarian trauma, involved a major air campaign and small numbers of military forces on the ground.

Yet relatively little is understood about the complex set of Yemeni partners fighting alongside the Gulf coalition. One of the most important of these local partners has been the Islah party, itself a complex coalition that includes, but is not limited to, affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood. Long considered the largest and most significant Islamist player in the country, Yemen’s Islah party is hardly the organization it was at the beginning of the war.

Islah has changed significantly under the pressures of the war – changes that challenge assumptions based on prewar realities about potential political solutions to the conflict. Analyzing the party’s internal history, and how its policies and even identity have been shaped by its dependence on aid, offers some useful lessons about the dangers of over-relying on known actors at the expense of a more inclusive — if more ambitious — peace process.

What is Islah?

Islah is typically referred to as Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood party, but the reality has always been more complex. Founded in 1990, the Yemeni Congregation for Reform (Islah) was a diverse coalition from the outset, bringing together members of the Muslim Brotherhood and tribal leaders, Salafists and conservative business executives.

In the mid-2000s, Islah helped forge a cross-ideological opposition alliance known as the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), forcing it to refocus energy and resources to politics in the capital of Sanaa and away from its broader outreach. This shift jeopardized the party’s relationship with core constituents, especially given existing internal divisions. In urban centers and universities, party leadership was tied to Muslim Brotherhood faction, while Salafists and tribal figures influenced more peripheral populations. The 2011 uprising that led to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s ouster shook these dynamics further. In many rural areas, loosely Islah-aligned militias formed while the party leadership struggled to articulate a meaningful relationship with an anti-partisan protest movement in the cities.

How Islah benefited from the GCC-led transition but lost standing among Yemenis

As the strongest member of the opposition coalition, Islah became the largest single beneficiary of the 2011 Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered power-sharing agreement, despite the regionwide campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It gained key ministries in the transitional government and had a powerful voice in shaping the National Dialogue Conference.

This political success carried costs, however. When protests against the opposition’s participation in the new unity government accelerated, Islah’s anxious party leadership suspended its internal electoral processes, locking in figures who came to power under the old regime. Islah was hardly alone in its scramble for the spoils of transition, staffing ministries with loyalists. However, unlike others in the transitional government, much of its prior legitimacy stemmed from critiquing such corruption.

When Islah’s main ideological adversary, the Zaydi Shiite Houthi movement, was blocked from participation in transitional governance, it attempted to turn the tables by adopting anti-corruption language to mobilize against Islah. This, in turn, drove Islah toward an even more dependent relationship on its Gulf patrons and exacerbated growing sectarian tension.

When Houthi militias marched on Sanaa in September 2014, their first actions were not widespread sectarian violence, but rather the targeted suppression of Islah members and demand for a share of the transitional pie. Senior Islah members — including its most capable centrist, Muhammed Qahtan and dozens of others — were disappeared by the Houthis. Other Islahis joined President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi in Riyadh, or issued their support for the war from elsewhere in the region, including Nobel Peace laureate Tawakkol Karman, financial mogul Hamid al-Ahmar and Islah-aligned Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar.

By the onset of the war in 2015, Islah’s party functions had been gradually disabled and eclipsed by the growing role of loosely aligned militias, competing with an ever-growing array of other Islamist actors.

What role can Islah still play?

The war’s unprecedented sectarian polarization has tarnished Islah’s reputation, and its position in any future government will be highly contested. It will have to compete with Houthis and perhaps with a more coherent Salafist faction. In theory, competition could be good for the party, compelling it to rediscover its ideological core and advance programmatic arguments. But in practice, the absence of any reinvigorated leadership or internal party functions will likely to lead to jockeying among established — and unpopular — elites.

However, negotiators may overestimate Islah’s ability to help deliver peace. This includes the direct role of Islah leaders in negotiations and the focus — already expressed by several senior negotiators — on private reconstruction that benefits Islah business executives.

While many negotiators recognize the merits of building a capable public sector, those directly involved consider such options unrealistic given U.S. and GCC reluctance to lose control of aid in a pooled fund. As happened in Iraq and Lebanon — and indeed in Yemen itself after past rounds of conflict — reconstruction will probably be led by the private sector. This could benefit investors with ties to polarized regional powers, enriching business executives from Islah with close ties to the GCC states and hampering the development of a neutral public sector.

Looking to the future, organizations that have worked in Yemen during the war stress that the humanitarian crisis — as dire as it is — cannot be effectively addressed unless there is a sustainable peace that focuses on issues of inclusion and pushes beyond those “known actors” with whom negotiators are most comfortable. Yet conversations among policymakers continue to focus narrowly on groups like Islah at the expense of new entrants into the peacebuilding process. Scholars know that moments of political transformation frequently witness the emergence of new organizations, new ideas and new claims on power. Less clear is why negotiators continue to rely on allies or groups with whom they have worked in the past, even when doing so can undermine a lasting peace.

Stacey Philbrick Yadav is an associate professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and serves on the executive board of the American Institute of Yemen Studies and the Yemen Peace Project. She is the author of “Islamists and the State: Legitimacy and Institutions in Yemen and Lebanon,” (I.B. Tauris, 2013)