This article was first published by Foreign Policy.
The scenes in Sanaa on Friday were near apocalyptic. Dozens were killed instantly as a series of explosions rocked two mosques affiliated with prominent Zaidi Shiite clerics during midday prayers, staining the walls of the houses of worship with blood. By the time the dust settled, more than 150 worshipers were killed in the blasts, including al-Mortada bin Zayd al-Muhatwari, the imam of Badr Mosque and one of Yemen’s most prominent Zaidi clerics.
Much attention has focused on the identity of those responsible for the attack. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) denied that it was behind the massacre, while a claim of responsibility purportedly from a Yemeni branch of the Islamic State (IS) has circulated online. If IS indeed carried out the bombings, it would mark a spectacularly bloody coming-out party for an organization that had previously kept a low profile in Yemen.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) denied that it was behind the massacre, while a claim of responsibility purportedly from a Yemeni branch of the Islamic State (IS) has circulated online.
But in some sense, the question of responsibility is beside the point. The ultimate message of the bombings — intended or not — is that Yemen’s future remains gravely in doubt, due to deepening fractures in the country’s body politic and the government’s continuing institutional collapse.
It’s been more than six months since the Zaidi Shiite Houthi rebels took effective control of the Yemeni capital in September, irreversibly tarnishing the conventional wisdom that cast Yemen as an Arab Spring success story. The Houthis would eventually dissolve the country’s parliament and seize power in a “constitutional declaration” on Feb. 6. President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi would escape from house arrest in Sanaa two weeks later and reappear in the port city of Aden, retracting his earlier resignation and declaring himself Yemen’s legitimate president from the southern port of Aden.
Yemen now lacks a universally acknowledged president, prime minister, and cabinet, and nearly every state institution — including the Yemeni armed forces — is divided into different factions. U.N.-brokered negotiations aimed at reaching an end to the political crisis have continued to sputter, as local political factions remain divided over Hadi’s legitimacy, and the shape of any potential post-Hadi government. Even as the country has fallen apart around them, they’ve dithered away at Sanaa’s luxurious Movenpick Hotel, bogged down in the minutia of a political deal.
In the absence of a strong state authority, an informal policy of “might makes right” has taken hold. It’s something the Houthis have used to great effect — even many Yemenis deeply opposed to their ideology initially backed their efforts to oust a number of corrupt officials in September. And even Hadi — who has courted the backing of tribal militias in the south to oppose the Houthis — has recently begun adapting to it as well, most notably in his efforts to consolidate his hold on Aden.
On most conceivable fault lines, whether political or regional, Yemenis are even more divided than they were only a few years ago. Just look back at the protests that unseated Saleh in 2011: Back then, the Houthis partnered with the Islah Party, Yemen’s leading Sunni Islamist party; today, they describe the party as akin to the Islamic State. In the months before the Houthis’ takeover of Sanaa, meanwhile, they were regularly castigated in pro-government street demonstrations, with chants casting the group as “the enemies of God.” In a speech on Saturday, Hadi himself gestured to these tensions: He referred to the Houthis as Iranian proxies, vowing to “raise Yemen’s flag in [the Houthi stronghold of] Mount Marran instead of the Iranian one.”
It’s not only the political polarization that’s disturbing — it’s the increasing sectarian tone of Yemen’s public debate. Regardless of who was behind the attacks on the two mosques Friday, they represented the culmination of increasing sectarian rhetoric that has threatened to make Yemen’s traditionally amicable relations between Sunnis and Shiites a thing of the past. Friends and contacts from mainstream Sunni backgrounds regularly vilify the Houthis and their backers as little more than Iranian puppets, sometimes going as far as using charged sectarian terms like rafida, or “rejectionists,” to describe them.
It’s not only the political polarization that’s disturbing — it’s the increasing sectarian tone of Yemen’s public debate.
The country also risks being torn apart by growing cultural and regional cleavages. These divides threaten to pit the tribal, largely Zaidi north against the traditionally agricultural Sunni midlands and the formerly independent south. Increasingly, Yemenis seem willing to write off whole sections of the country as adversaries: The Houthis’ rhetoric has at times come close to casting whole tribal groupings as Islamist extremists, while Hadi’s foreign minister has gone as far as to request that the Arab states of the Gulf militarily intervene in Houthi-controlled areas.
As the country has edged toward all-out civil war, the Yemeni parties’ continued bickering has given the appearance of fiddling as the country burns. Once again, the Houthis have capitalized on this: In a speech delivered on Sunday, Houthi leader Abdel-Malek al-Houthi noted the destabilizing nature of the apparent unending dialogue, using it to justify the group’s call for “popular mobilization” of the military and other armed forces, something that all but constituted a declaration of war.
But while there’s much to be anxious about in Yemen’s future, there’s nothing inevitable about the country’s descent into civil war. After all, it has managed to avoid slipping into complete chaos until now. This is in large part due to the self-interest of Yemen’s key political factions: Unable to guarantee a win, most groups are skittish about launching full-scale battles against each other. Even in cases of large-scale mobilization — most notably, the continuing war of attrition between Houthi fighters and their opponents, largely Sunni tribesmen intermixed with al Qaeda fighters, in al-Bayda province — conclusive victories have often remained elusive.
However, the societal structures that prevented Yemen from breaking down into abject chaos so far have been worn down by the transitional period. Even many Yemenis who were previously confident in their country’s ability to weather this storm are no longer so sure what the future holds. Amid all of the deepening divisions in the country, it appears that two things currently unite Yemenis: anguish at the country’s current condition, and a deep sense of foreboding regarding its future.
To read Adam Baron’s publication ‘Civil war in Yemen: imminent and avoidable’, click here.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.