For years now, Dr. Mohammed Abdulmalek al-Mutawakil, the secretary-general of Yemen’s opposition Union of Popular Forces party, has epitomised for many Yemenis the values of the modern civil state of which they dream. It was not simply that he crafted in his image a generation of Yemenis – both his students and his children – and thereby fathered a new generation of Yemeni scholars. Rather, it was his consistent position as a champion of reason and moderation, a rare voice of sense in a storm of chaos and corruption.
On Saturday, Dr. Mutawakil was assassinated by unknown gunmen as he walked, unarmed, through central Sanaa. His death is the latest in a series of destabilising events in a country whose internationally backed political transition plan was just months ago hailed as a model for the region. In the intervening period, the central government’s already fragile control over much of the country has fallen apart.
It was [Mutawakil's] consistent position as a champion of reason and moderation, a rare voice of sense in a storm of chaos and corruption.
The main challenge to the government’s control comes from the Houthis, a ZaidiShia-led rebel group led by Abdulmalek al-Houthi, which was the target of six brutal wars under Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. In September, the Houthis seized much of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, forcing the flight of their rivals from the Islamist Islah party. Since then, the Houthis have continued to expand their territorial reach, despite signing a peace agreement with other political factions on 21 September under the supervision of United Nations Special Adviser on Yemen Jamal Benomar.
The Houthis’ dramatic rout of rival forces in Sanaa saw the already weak Yemeni armed forces effectively disintegrate. They largely stood by as the rebels took control of the capital, allowing Houthi-allied “People’s Committees” to take up the task of maintaining order. But the Houthis’ rapid expansion has fuelled a backlash on a number of fronts, leading to armed clashes in the central part of the country. In some cases, they have been pitted against al-Qaeda fighters, who themselves have been able to gain new territory amid the unrest. However, their opponents have just as frequently been disgruntled tribesmen eager to halt the Houthis’ expansion. And tensions have been deepened by claims that former President Saleh’s supporters have been active alongside the Houthis in efforts to further destabilise the country.
Meanwhile, the international community – and, for that matter, the internationally backed central government – has appeared increasingly impotent. The UK-led Friends of Yemen group of states and international organisations has often appeared to struggle to catch up with rapidly moving events. It now runs the risk of becoming symbolic of the inefficacy of international efforts in the country’s troubled transition, as well as of the struggles the European Union and other international actors have had in driving policy in Yemen.
Meanwhile, the international community – and, for that matter, the internationally backed central government – has appeared increasingly impotent.
The scarcity of President AbdoRabbu Mansour Hadi’s public appearances has increased the perception that control of the country is slipping out of his hands. Many both within and outside the country have staked their hopes on the incoming prime minister, Khaled Mahfouz Bahah, a widely respected technocrat who has previously served as Minister of Oil and as Yemen’s ambassador to the United Nations. But a month-long effort to form a new cabinet remains stalled, leaving the country in political deadlock.
This Friday, the UN is expected to place sanctions on former President Saleh and on two Houthi military commanders, all three of whom are accused of obstructing the country’s political transition. Western actors and their local allies hope that this will help to calm the situation. But rather than resolving the deadlock, the sanctions could very well fuel further unrest.
Even many who back the punitive measures see them as too little, too late.
Saleh’s party – of which President Hadi is also a member – has already sworn to boycott the new government if sanctions are imposed. In a speech onTuesday, Abdulmalek al-Houthi issued his sternest warning to the president yet, appearing to threaten the president with a showdown in the case of sanctions. Considering the increasing unpopularity of the UN and of Western actors’ interventions in the country, it seems very possible that the issuing of sanctions could backfire. Even many who back the punitive measures see them as too little, too late.
Whether or not they prove effective in the short term, punitive measures by themselves will not bring Yemen closer to stability. More than anything, what Yemen needs is a government that is capable of demonstrating its legitimacy and showing that it is able to solve at least some of the many problems the impoverished country faces.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.